While most electronics companies are still trying to establish green credentials, 2008 could mark a turning point for previously obscure "home automation" technologies that now are being advertised as a way to save electricity — not just personal energy.
With systems that dim lights from a TV remote control or "smart" meters that help cut power usage during costly peak times, the environmental benefits of home automation will be touted at next week's International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
Systems that let people configure lights, security and entertainment devices from single control points are not new. But like most technologies, early buyers mainly have been hobbyists or wealthy consumers willing to spend thousands outfitting their homes with smart controls.
Now the industry hopes that high energy costs and environmental awareness — combined with people's desire to manage entertainment content from single control points — will push home automation into the mainstream.
"Green is becoming a big part of why a connected home makes sense," said Mike Seamons, a vice president at Exceptional Innovation LLC, which sells the Lifeware line of home-automation products.
At CES, Lifeware will be showcasing its version of the "brain" at the center of a smart home. It's a $2,500-and-up home server, configurable from a computer or an entertainment system remote, that can relay media content around the house and talk to wirelessly linked light switches, thermostats and alarms.
Smart versions of those household items can cost several times more than standard ones. But when networked, they can be set to make intelligent decisions tending toward energy conservation. For example, when you arm your security system, you can automatically have your lights turned off.
Or you can ease your home's heating or cooling demands without getting off the couch.
"The same remote control you use for changing the channel on your TV set, you can use to change your room temperature," said Bob Heile, chairman of the ZigBee Alliance, which represents 250 companies whose devices use the ZigBee wireless standard for data communication. "More and more things are starting to be tied together. ... The energy issue will accelerate the deployment."
Even if consumers aren't motivated enough by energy savings to check out home automation, their electric utilities likely are, given the costs or regulatory issues hindering the construction of new power plants.
That's why home-automation maker Control4 Corp. is testing ways for electricity providers to subsidize "smart" meters that help people recognize expensive peak power times in which electricity reductions are most beneficial.
One idea being tested is to give people a "utility channel" on their TVs that shows their homes' real-time energy consumption and how the monthly electric bill would be trimmed by certain tweaks — like turning up the fridge a few degrees.
"If the consumer can have an interactive experience with their home, then they can actually start to reduce their energy usage in a way that has a huge impact for the utility company," said Will West, Control4's CEO. His company will be part of a panel discussion of the subject at CES.
For now, smart homes are a small enough market that consumers with green motives might be able to give it a meaningful nudge. Parks Associates analyst Bill Ablondi estimates the market for home controls at roughly $3.5 billion in the U.S in 2007, headed to $6 billion by 2012.
However, Ablondi believes many U.S. consumers find entertainment a bigger selling point, as home automation systems let people shuttle music and movies from the Internet all over the house.
And Forrester Research analyst Christopher Mines argues that mass adoption of home automation will depend less on green ideals and more on whether the systems get easier to install and use.
"That, to me, is the bugaboo of so many of these whiz-bang home technologies for consumers," Mines said. "My guess is that you will still see some pretty complex stuff that is not intuitive."