Get Smart

New wiring and control systems let you run everything from lighting to music to window blinds with the touch of a button-whether you’re in the garage or flying home from the West Coast.

Greta Colgan of Beyond the Studs in
Wilmington helps homeowners design
system controls that can make life
much less complicated.

Photograph by Tom Nutter


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Get Smart
New wiring and control systems let you run everything from lighting to music to window blinds with the touch of a button�whether you�re in the garage or flying home from the West Coast.

In a smart home, the air conditioning switches on with the stroke of a key on a laptop�from hundreds of miles away. Blinds glide open and close as if by magic. A music library can be searched by artist or genre�then fill the house with song.

Keeping up with the Jetsons is a whole lot easier these days.

Technology is enabling families to come home to secure, cheerfully illuminated houses. Parents can remotely turn on the fountain in the garden�and turn off the television in their daughter�s room. Even the lighting in the fish tank can be programmed to keep the guppies happy.

It might sound complicated. But automation actually makes life simpler.

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�There�s no more jumping out of bed because you forgot to turn off the kitchen light,� says Terry Menacker, owner of Overture in Wilmington, a designer and installer of high-end electronics. �There are no more piles of DVDs and CDs. Everything is stored on a hard drive.�

He refers to the technologies that organize us, entertain us and keep us safe as �electronic servants.� Truth to tell, they�ve been around for years in the form of automatic garage door openers, remote controls that change the channels on the TV and lawn irrigation systems.

The latest generation in electronics can detect and turn off unnecessary energy consumers when you dash off to work in the morning, lowering the heat, switching off the radio and shutting down the iron you left on in the laundry room in your haste to get on the road. Cameras can show you who is at the front door�or that a water pipe has burst at the beach house.

Manny Alvarez, owner of Electronic Home Solutions in Hockessin, says the greatest demand currently is for whole-house audio systems.

�People understand the concept of having music in every room,� he says. �They are only starting to realize that structured wiring can easily move all kinds of data throughout your house�audio, video, information.�

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Alvarez designed and installed a system for an older woman who suffers from arthritis. She now can adjust the shades in the house automatically with the touch of a central keypad. Lighting is activated by motion detectors that instantly turn on lamps when she enters a room.

�It�s been a wonderful lifestyle change for her,� Alvarez says. �It�s given her a new sense of freedom, comfort and safety.�

E.J. Feulner, chief custom designer at HiFi House in Wilmington, says lighting can be programmed to set various moods�for entertaining, tasks and relaxation�as well as for security. Outside, lights might illuminate a path from the garage to the back door. Inside, systems can replicate the patterns of the homeowners when they�re away, perhaps turning on lights in the bedroom in the morning, in the dining room at supper time, then switching on in the family room.

�It also lets us get rid of all the light switches in the house,� Feulner says. �Instead of rows of unattractive switches all over the place, there�s one tidy keypad.�

Feulner factors in sunshine when designing a lighting plan. That might include motorized blinds, drapes and skylight covers, which are especially popular for darkening rooms that house a home theater system.

Blinds programmed via an astrological clock automatically calculate and adjust according to the path of the sun.

�That helps to protect the investment the homeowner has made in the furnishings inside the house,� Menacker says. �Sun can damage fabrics, wood flooring, carpets. It can wreck a piano or artwork.�

Despite the challenges of plaster walls and stone exteriors, it�s possible to retrofit an older house with digital bells and whistles. But it�s much less expensive and less invasive to trick out a new home, adding wiring while the walls are open. Homeowners also have the option of folding such goodies as a cinema-size home theater system into their mortgages, paying over time at attractive interest rates.

The concept already has clicked with some builders. Nearly half the new homes sold in America in 2005 contained structured wiring, typically several Cat-5 wires for data and two coaxial cables for video distribution.

�Anyone building a home or an addition should insist that wiring be installed before the drywall goes up, even if they don�t plan to do anything with it right away,� Menacker says. �Wiring goes in quickly and easily when the walls are open�and it�s significantly less expensive.�

Wireless solutions are improving, but are much more expensive than wired systems. Plus, wires deliver better quality because there is no radio interference to contend with as the airspace in the house fills up with other wireless signals.

�Any time I can get a wire somewhere I do that,� Feulner says. �It�s the proven, reliable technology.�

Consumer groups recommend contracting only with professionals who have established track records in automated home systems. Touch base with the Better Business Bureau to make certain there are no outstanding complaints against the company. Ask for references not only from clients but from the trade, such as architects, builders, designers or cabinetmakers who have worked with the contractor.

�An electronic systems contractor�s ability to work closely with a design professional is a good barometer of his or her professionalism,� says Jamie Antcliff, spokeswoman for the Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association.

Prices vary widely because systems are customized and the level of difficulty in wiring is different in each house. At Overture, which has showrooms in Wilmington and Lewes, the entry point for a home automation system is $5,000. Feulner of HiFi House says a television and sound system for four to five rooms might cost $10,000 to $15,000. Such conveniences as automatic blinds run about $2,000 per window.

As yet, no one has come up with a toaster bed like the one that roused George Jetson, head of the futuristic cartoon household.

But creative homeowners have come up with unique ways to make the most of their systems.

�There�s what I call the romance button for the bedroom,� Feulner says. �Barry White starts singing, the lights go down and a bubble bath starts running in the tub.�

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