'Wow factor' sells buyers on smarthome features

| Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012, 8:57 p.m.

Ralph Anderson sells the equipment that will let you control the heat, light and security in your home from anywhere in the house — or the world.

But it is not a sense of security, safety, responsibility or frugality that most often draws interest, he says.

“It's the ‘wow factor,' ” says the vice president of sales of Bethel Park's Greyfox Services, a company that installs cable TV equipment and gear to handle smarthome automation.

He says the “wow factor” often grabs a homeowner or buyer who suddenly is taken with the idea of being able to adjust the heat in the house when he has to be away longer than expected. Or to check the security cameras via a smartphone when that odd noise is heard outside. Or to shut off those forgotten second-floor lights from work.

But smarthome equipment does more than turn things on or off. Peter Karlovich has the equipment in his Mt. Washington home programmed to provide the lighting he likes for parties. Or to provide a dim glow so a guest could find the way through an unfamiliar house. Or to lower the west-facing blinds on a sunny afternoon.

Jan Venner is the owner of Smart Home Products Inc., a Tampa Bay firm that produces smarthome automation equipment. He has a program in his Tampa Bay home that reads the light in the living room and, if people are detected through a motion sensor, turns the lights on. No people, no lights.

Such setups make matters even simpler.

“You don't even have to punch buttons,” Venner says.

Progams can control household features in any number of ways. Certain lights can be switched on for a program linked to the arrival of company. Music can be directed to certain rooms for certain events. Thermostats even could be set to a “party” temperature to account for increased activity.

Mark Mawhinney from Northern Audio & Home Theater in Ross talks about equipment that picks up a presence from a GPS reading and starts the stereo, turns the lights on and kicks up the air conditioning to make the house pleasant for arrival.

Architect and builder Justin Cipriani even controls the garage doors of a five-level, three-unit condo building he is finishing on Mt. Washington. The owner of Cipriani Studios, from Bridgeville, says it is “handy for deliveries or even to let friends in.”

The price of gaining control

Of course, the more you do, the more you pay.

Mawhinney says installing smart-home equipment is a job that can go from “$1,000 to well over $30,000.”

Kimberly Lancaster, a spokeswoman from Control4, a Salt Lake City equipment firm, agrees with that estimate. A basic system that would link lights and remote controls might cost $1,200 to $1,500, including installation.

From there, though, the ceiling is almost non-existent, she says.

Karlovich says he and Steven Herforth spent about $200,000 on their home system, which controls all functions in all rooms. It also includes wiring systems that send TV, Internet, phone and sound systems to each room.

But such systems don't have to be that expensive, either. Tampa Bay's Venner says his 115-connection home system probably cost a total of $25,000.

Anderson says his firm is offering a package in new Maronda Homes for about $5,000.

But the price paid at the onset probably will not be the finishing cost. Venner says he has “many customers who come back every few months and want to add more.”

Lancaster says that strategy dates to the historical root of home automation. She says early in the 2000s, when home theater systems became popular, many owners became frustrated at having to deal with a handful of remote controls and also having to change lighting in their entertainment rooms.

Tech firms started generating ways to link those controls, she says, and when customers “saw what could be done they started moving to other rooms.”

At this point, she adds, “it is possible to do as much or as little as you want to do.”

On the other hand, planning can pay off. Karlovich says they would have paid far more to wire their home little by little than “doing the whole thing at once.” He has a computer background and knew the possibilities for such a system in 2000, when they were planning the home. It was ready to go in 2002 when they moved in.

Finding the reason to invest

Home automation is not the most popular home option in this area. Yet.

A check with real estate firms turns up only a few users. Anderson says he finds a “few tech people” who are interested in it when they are looking at a house, but it is not one of those devices gaining fans, like tankless water heaters.

“It's a real tough sell for the 55- or 60-year-old who is downsizing,” he says.

But he adds the system could be a good addition for a new home, where it could be added to a mortgage. A $5,000 system spread over a 15- or 30-year mortgage would be painless, he says.

Selling the bigger advantages sometimes play the most important role, he says. Control of lights might be enticing, he says, but “saving money by controlling AC or heating really seems nice.”

But it continues to grow. Venner says he just “blew out” — his term for an installation — his parents' house with 20 connections for about $5,000.

Cipriani thinks interest is growing, even if it is not a prime concept for clients.

He has made the three units in Mt. Washington smart simply because it seems to fit in with their green design. Cipriani is in the process of working on a site with 15 single-family homes nearby and says he probably will include it in those, too.

He says interest in smart technology on the part of home buyers generally comes from three distinct routes: those interested in environmental savings, those interested in the lifestyle changes it creates, and those attracted by the entertainment functions in it.

Lancaster says the technology that began in entertainment rooms now is finding ways of going other directions.

“Everything's getting smarter and smarter,” Lancaster says.

Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at bkarlovits@tribweb.com or 412-320-7852.

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