You may be surprised to learn that home automation technology—a staple of domestic life in science fiction ranging from Star Trek to The Jetsons—has already been around for decades. However, the recent proliferation of smartphones and tablet devices has made programming and remotely controlling a home’s climate, security, and lighting finally seem feasible for the average homeowner. One market study conducted by ABI Research states that from 2011 to 2012, installation of home automation systems doubled to 1.5 million, and the trend is expected to continue to grow.

The variety of home automation products available includes relatively simple upgrades like outlet adapters that allow homeowners to control a single fixture or appliance remotely; the most sophisticated products are whole-house systems that can adjust the temperature, lighting, and window blinds according to a programmed routine—some systems can even respond to changing conditions like the number of people in a room or the outdoor climate. Although achieving this level of automation in your home will require a bit of hard work (and likely some professional help), the payoff will be a level of accessibility and comfort that you probably didn’t know was possible.

Air Conditioning and Heating

Automating your heating and cooling systems has several benefits. First, the right temperature is essential to the comfort of a home’s occupants; the furnace or air conditioner can keep the home feeling pleasant throughout the day without needing manual adjustments. Second, with up to half of a homeowner’s energy costs going toward heating and cooling, it’s crucial to use energy efficiently—for example, in winter, by turning the furnace down while the house is unoccupied and then ramping the temperature back up in anticipation of people arriving home after work. A “learning” thermostat has this capability.

Programmable thermostats have been around for years, but the difficulty of programming them on the wall-mounted console means that many homeowners simply leave the thermostat at the same temperature all day, perhaps adjusting it only right before bedtime. Many modern programmable thermostats can be controlled through a smartphone or tablet device, making it much easier to set a schedule that keeps you comfortable while you’re at home and minimizes energy usage while you’re away. According to the US Department of Energy, a properly programmed thermostat can easily save homeowners as much as ten percent off their heating and cooling bills.

Security and Safety

There are many ways to partially or fully automate your home’s security. One simple way to deter intruders is with automated lighting, which can be programmed to turn on while you’re away. Unlike old-fashioned timer outlet adapters, modern products let homeowners turn their lights on and off remotely whenever they’d like. Homeowners can have the same power over their door locks using a smartphone or tablet device to remotely lock the door or allow guests inside. All of these features can be installed discretely or as part of a whole-house security system. The benefit of a whole-house system is that everything can be controlled through a single interface, allowing the user to lock the doors and control the lighting, perhaps while viewing the property through a fully integrated security camera system.

For other safety concerns, manufacturers have developed smoke and carbon monoxide alarms with which homeowners can easily interface using their smartphones. These devices also end some of the perennial annoyances of smoke alarms. For example, when the batteries are low, modern smoke alarms can alert homeowners through their smartphones rather than with a persistent beep. Also, if smoke from overdone cooking (and not a legitimate fire) sets off the alarm, homeowners can silence the beeping with a wave of a hand, rather than having to find a stepladder to reach the reset button.

Appliances and Entertainment Systems

There’s a long list of additional devices, appliances, and fixtures that you can automate or control remotely. If you’re plagued by the worry that you left the oven on, there are now ovens that can be turned off remotely—or set to preheat right before you get home. There are also clothes washers and dryers that can be monitored remotely and that provide an alert when a cycle is complete. For homeowners who truly want to fine-tune their energy usage, many of these sophisticated appliances can also provide readouts of how much power they consume.

Nevertheless, home automation systems aren’t just used to maintain temperature levels and maximize energy efficiency—they’re also used for entertainment. A fully integrated media and lighting system, for example, can automatically dim the lights, lower the blinds, and play a movie with the touch of a single button.

When it comes to home automation systems, your options include small DIY projects that will enable you to control a few fixtures and appliances remotely as well as whole-house systems that will require the help of an electrician and some renovations. With all these possibilities, there’s likely a home automation solution to fit your needs and budget, so consider making the upgrade. Far from frivolous futuristic gadgetry, a home automation system is actually a modern and practical way to get the most out of your home in terms of convenience, security, and energy efficiency.

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Sources: ABI Research; American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy; CNET; US Department of Energy.

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