The smart home technology front is something out of a sci-fi movie, but it’s getting closer and closer to reality.
Imagine a morning that starts by awakening to a television cued to turn on at 5:15 a.m. As you swing out of bed, the lights begin to gradually brighten so your eyes don’t squint while walking to the kitchen, where coffee is already percolating. In a few minutes, the shower will come on and warm up to a pre-set temperature.
Back in the kitchen, the barcode reader near the trashcan detects an empty milk carton in the fridge. Milk is put on the grocery list. On the way out of the house, you activate a button and the drapes automatically draw, the heat lowers and lights shut off. Plugs that control energy-consuming appliances power down.
Later at work, you get an alert on your smartphone that the heating system has malfunctioned. You call your landlord so that a maintenance technician can be sent out as soon as possible to check out the problem. A few hours later when you get home, the house is warm and cozy. That smile on your face says it all.
With the click of a smartphone, a virtual butler can pamper a resident by handling the little details like turning lights and appliances on and off, and helping conserve energy. Just about everything short of putting on a pair of slippers.
Smart home technology has advanced in recent years
Utilities, lighting, doors, and windows are among components that can be monitored and accessed through smartphones, tablets, and other devices. Automated amenities once considered to be exclusive to the rich and famous, are no longer for someone willing to pay maybe $100 or so a month more in rent.
Housing professionals are taking a close look at the benefits for both themselves and residents. Forest City Residential Group and AMLI Residential are testing smart devices at some communities in California, Texas and Washington, D.C., and are realizing how smart home technology can work for them and their residents.
Their findings are food for thought for single-family housing leasing industry.
In recent years, smart homes and home automation have grown exponentially into an industry that was expected to generate $10 billion last year. The arrival of smart thermostats a few years ago essentially signaled the ascent of the next generation of home automation, enabling the homeowner or resident to remotely control heat and air conditioning settings from halfway around the world with a good internet connection.
Thermostat technology has advanced far enough that one Ohio company is marketing a device that controls more than just the HVAC system. Lighting, energy, and other components are capable of being monitored and maintained with or without connection to the internet via The Root.
Home automation doesn’t come without risks
AMLI Residential and Forest City Residential Group are testing smart home technology cautiously. Neither are offering a space-aged experience, but placing an emphasis on energy data monitoring and performance without the intrusion of the Internet, which has been an occasional black eye for home automation.
A technology publication reported in August that a student from the University of Central Floria gave a demo at the techno-security Black Hat Conference in Las Vegas on how to hack into a popular smart thermostat. It took him 15 seconds to gain control.
Also, in 2013, a Texas couple heard noises coming from the baby’s room after someone hacked a baby monitor hooked to the internet and a webcam. The invader learned the baby’s name by taking control of the webcam and was heard over the intercom.
Executives at AMLI Residential and Forest City say they are careful not to push the limits of the technology so that they maintain as safe an environment as possible for residents. Both control the installation of smart systems (residents aren’t allowed to hook up their own smart thermostats), and neither include video monitoring.
Threat of hacking in the backs of minds of housing providers
While AMLI Residential is employing the same kind of thermostat that was hacked in Las Vegas at some of its test properties, the company does not hook the devices to the internet when they are installed. Residents can potentially connect the device to the internet, but the company makes it clear it isn’t responsible for a security breach.
“There is the risk that the resident will connect it to the internet, even though it’s our device,” AMLI Residential CIO Rick Fox said. “We want to make sure they are aware that they could possibly get hacked or breached. They take that risk.”
Forest City has installed The Root at apartments in Dallas and D.C. and is offering a much more high-tech device without enabling the device’s WiFi and blue tooth capabilities. Instead, the company is letting the device’s multi-faceted features do the talking.
However, Mike Smith, Vice President Building Technology Services, said the company is careful not to intrude on residents, even though it has access to the data.
“We’re not trying to monitor a resident,” he said. “It just gives us more insight into what’s going on in that apartment (with energy usage).”
Smart home technology offers significant energy savings for residents
The Root has enabled residents to save 20-40 percent in energy costs, Smith said. The thermostat can be hard-wired or installed wirelessly, and works in tandem with several sensors that identify occupancy and if energy systems are working most efficiently. An Intelligent Power Strip can power down all but two of its outlets, reducing plug loads for such energy hogs as video games and appliances.
The system also supports wireless motion sensors, light switches and door and window sensors, and can be activated when residents leave the home. Devices are user-friendly and provide resident conveniences like delivery alerts, tenant notifications, energy usage reports, security, video memos and even transportation schedules and weather alerts.
Residents appear to be taking advantage of conveniences and reaping the benefits, Smith said.
“In Dallas, we’re seeing residents are using the coming home/leaving home switch and shutting things down. When residents leave, they are shutting plug loads down. That’s where we’re seeing that savings.”
Data generation ultimately opens door to good customer service
The data generated from smart home technology is a powerful tool. Usage reports can tell both resident and landlord the depth of energy consumption, enabling for budgeting or identifying potential faults in the system.
Smith said that possible defects can be identified in advance by monitoring the home. “We can see things that may need to be replaced,” he said.
Problems that are resolved before they become an inconvenience to the resident bodes well for customer service, essentially eliminating that call to the landlord in the middle of the night that the heat has failed. And the performance data gathered can also be used to help the resident make smarter choices.
“We are giving the resident real-time energy usage so they can go in there and see where they’re trending,” he said. “The goal is to say at this rate your electric bill is going to be “X” a month and here are 10 things you can do to adjust that. If you’re paying for own utilities and want to leave everything on, that’s your choice.”