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Smart homes should be eco-savvy, too

/ Source: Special to

Last week’s column on “Smart Homes Go Mass Market” — how the construction industry is planning to build more houses with smart-home automation and integrated home theaters — brought a variety of responses.

Most readers were enthusiastic and a few asked where they could find smart homes in their own regions. (There’s no simple answer, by the way: Since there’s no universal definition of what a “smart home” is, there’s not a national directory of such developments. For now you just need to watch your local market carefully.)

A number of other readers pointed out that these days, a really smart home would do something about energy conservation:

Frank Fitch Elko, NV: What the public needs are not these gadgets and toys, but rather the utilization of passive and active solar construction. The mass inclusion of alternative energy sources, such as solar generated electricity, geothermal and radiant home heating, combined with "state of the art: forms of insulation, such as foam and the NASA designed radiant barrier — all incorporated with better building methods, such as insulated concrete exterior walls — would be an enormous step forward. On the other hand, every one of the toys needs electrical power. I know: It seems like such a small amount! Yet TOTAL consumption is beyond belief. This includes instant-on TVs, computers on standby, microwaves, cooking ranges and wall ovens with computer chips and digital readouts, programmable coffeepots, any other programmable device ... even the lowly lighted door bell. Power companies have already announced the need for new production facilities to meet anticipated future needs. Add in the new toys and those requirements can only go up. These feel-good, keep-up-with-Mrs. Jones toys are the last things we need.Ron Bengtson, Boise, Idaho: Great article, but lacks one very important connection to the future; that is, real-time "smart" gas & electric meters. These meters are available today. They can receive a "price-signal" from the utility company, allowing "smart-appliances" in the home to know when to get the best price of electricity or gas. (In the future, utilities will charge time-of-day rates, so you pay more for peak usage hours, for example when everyone would have their air conditioning on.) Smart meters will enable smart appliances to know when to turn on at low peak rates, and when to turn off at high peak rates. This will be very important when plug-in hybrid gas-electric cars come on the market. These cars will "fill-up" on electricity during the night, at low-rates, and allow the driver to travel 30+ miles on electric battery power. Most people only drive 30 miles per day to work and back. That would reduce gasoline usage dramatically.

All good points. I should add that builders do find that energy conservation measures are selling advantages — but only to the degree that they make short-term economic sense. It’s still the reality that while environmentally-minded consumers may be willing to pay extra for the sake of the planet, average homebuyers want features that pay off in more concrete terms. “Smart meters” and “smart appliances” are still out on the horizon, and solar, while increasingly competitive, could still benefit from additional tax incentives to close the cost/benefit gap with conventional energy sources. Of course, if our government continues to stall on this topic, OPEC may do it for us.  

Nelson Webber Lynchburg, VA: Interesting way to compete in a dwindling market. Seems to me, if someone could figure a way to "smarten up" existing homes inexpensively, but with high quality components, that person could make a killing. Gary Brock Dayton, OH:. The real future markets for home evolution are going to happen in new, Bluetooth-enabled interactive tools, plumbing, doors, windows, appliances, furniture, maintenance, entertainment, and transportation gear — all without labor intensive hard wiring, without the addition of rapidly obsolete fixtures built into the structure, and all equally able to be used in every home, garden, and garage regardless of age or the intentions of the structure's builders. The simplest way you'll know these radical changes are really happening will be when piles of these new interactive goods, at competitive prices, appear alongside traditional products in the big box stores.

It’s a topic for another column, but the “retrofit” market, which has long been pretty much restricted to hobbyists and do-it-yourselfers, could become more mass market over the next few years.  What it will take is a combination of good wireless networks plus appliances and consumer electronics that come with home automation capabilities built-in. 

But then, of course, there are some folks who probably won’t ever take kindly to home automation no matter how it’s packaged:

Doug Graham, Seattle: This country is sick, I mean REALLY sick. Get a life. Turn on your stereo and thermostats by yourself. Don't people have anything better to do?  How about helping humanity? What about immigrant rights? Let's hope these haughty WASPs die from a Range Rover that rolls over because the driver is using her cell phone and hits a realtor in a BMW. Thank you for progress.

Oh, don’t thank me; it comes with the territory. And actually, if that Range Rover had a very smart anti-roll system, those haughty WASPs would be just fine.