(Times-Tribune (Scranton, PA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) March 16--Brian Clarke's work day had started to wind down when he received a jarring notification from his iPhone: there was smoke in his Clarks Summit home.
The automated message came from an app that connects his phone to the Nest Protect smoke detector system at his house.
"I ran out of work like a madman," the 28-year-old MetLife software programmer recalled.
He soon learned the gas heater in his basement overheated and burned some of the insulation around the vent. If it had been left unchecked, Mr. Clarke said, sparks could have ignited the nearby carpet or couch.
A growing number of consumers are taking advantage of new technology that automates different appliances and functions in homes and allows consumers to control and monitor the systems remotely with apps.
As technology continues to advance and become cheaper, homes will increasingly be smarter, said Penn State University electrical engineering professor Aldo Morales, Ph.D.
"The home of the future will be very automated and controlled by software," Dr. Morales said.
For now, energy efficiency devices like the Nest thermostat Mr. Clarke also uses are the most common form of automation people use in their homes, Dr. Morales said.
For about a week after he installed the thermostat, Mr. Clarke said he adjusted the temperature based on the time of day and whether the house was occupied. Then the Nest software took over.
"The thermostat has a motion sensor, so it knows when you're up and moving around," Mr. Clarke said. "It has a learning period. Now, it turns the temperature up when I'm home, and it turns it down before I leave for work. It gradually learns your schedule and automatically adjusts the temperature in your house."
With his iPhone, Mr. Clarke can even tell his thermostat he is on his way home so his house heats up from 65 degrees to his 68 degree comfort zone by the time he arrives. At any point, he can check and control his home's temperature.
That is not only good for comfort, but the $249 thermostat also helps cut energy consumption, according to Nest, which tech giant Google bought last month in a $3.2 billion deal.
UGI Utilities has begun a program for its approximately 62,000 electricity customers that provides a $50 rebate for certain programmable thermostats, said Brian Fitzpatrick, manager of the utility's growth and efficiency programs.
Automated lighting systems are another way people can cut energy consumption with smart technology, but for now, he said, that is more common in commercial facilities than homes.
Those kinds of technologies will increasingly become standard in newly-constructed homes -- perhaps even within the next decade or two, Dr. Morales said.
Home Depot already seen a surge in demand for automatic systems.
"Within just a few short years, we've seen home automation become an increasingly more mainstream technology," said Dave Amato, district manager for Home Depot's east Pennsylvania and New Jersey metro area. "This is both a result of lowering price points and the growing number of practical applications for home automation devices."
Other than thermostats such as Nest's and Honeywell's, Mr. Amato said Home Depot is also selling automated door locks like the Kwikset Kevo Deadbolt and garage door openers.
Proliferation of new forms of the technology is only limited by the imagination of developers, Dr. Morales said. He saw some new ideas at the national Consumer Electronics Show held in Las Vegas in January.
One example he cited is a doorbell with a surveillance camera mounted nearby so users can see who is at the door with an app on their phones.
The next gadget Mr. Clarke was considering adding to his home was an app that tells him if his garage door is open.
That stops short of an app that opens his garage door. As new options to customize homes with smart devices become available, Mr. Clarke said people will have to consider the security risks for each appliance if outsiders are about to hack into the systems.
With his current setup with a smart thermostat and smoke detector, Mr. Clarke mostly saw potential for someone to play a prank on him rather than, for example, gain entry to his home.
He still expected to continue to find new ways to automate his home and said it is important to trust the manufacturer the way he trusts Nest, particularly after Google bought the company.
"I think a lot of people will have to think really hard if the convenience is worth the risk," Mr. Clarke said.
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