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updated 3/23/2012 3:47:51 AM ET 2012-03-23T07:47:51

Although less sexy than the new TVs unveiled at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, a host of Wi-Fi-enabled "connected appliances," such as refrigerators that track food expiration dates, had people talking.

The machines are the latest advancement in home automation systems. Using software and wireless sensors, these systems enable homeowners to automate their security systems, TVs, appliances, lights, even locks, to deliver both convenience and energy efficiency. Such setups have traditionally been put together as expensive custom solutions by installation pros. But cheaper options are now coming out.

How do they work?

The setups use wired or wireless sensors and switches attached to various gadgets in your house, allowing them to "talk" to each other and to a main console.  Some new appliances have the "smarts" built in. Otherwise, you either hire an installer to add adapters (expensive) or go the DIY route.

What do they do?

Most people opt to automate their lights and thermostat to save energy, monitor their homes remotely, and do a few cool things with their entertainment systems.

On the energy front, a home automation system can be set to turn off any light equipped with a module when you’re not home, based either on the time of day or on whether someone is in the room (detected by a motion sensor). It can also be set to turn off the AC or heater while you’re at work, then turn it back on a half hour before you arrive home.

Home automation systems aren’t just about convenience and cost cutting, though. There’s a certain cool factor to them. Imagine getting ready for movie night by tapping a single button on a smartphone app to dim the lights, start up the Blu-ray player, TV and sound system and turn off the music in the rest of the house.  

What does it cost?

Traditionally sold by custom installers, home automation systems used to cost anywhere from $5,000 to  $15,000. Those expensive systems are still available, but these days you can get a basic system for a lot less.  Verizon offers setups  from $70 to $200 to do things like automate your lights and thermostat, with upgrades available if you want to add more appliances. After the initial installation, you'll pay $10 a month for the ability to monitor your home from anywhere via your phone or computer.

For that investment, you can reasonably expect a 10 percent reduction in your monthly electricity bill.

What’s Next?

The coming generation of connected appliances — from Whirlpool, LG  and  Samsung  — will move beyond energy efficiency to offer additional conveniences. Your refrigerator could opt to make ice at 3 a.m., when electricity is cheaper, for example. Or it might automatically re-order water filters. 

Expect to see more of these smart appliances on sale at big-box stores in the year ahead.

© 2012 TechNewsDaily

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