Cool gadgets for a home from builders' conference

Posted: May 27, 2007

When folks talk about solar power in their home, the conversation frequently turns to the electric meter, which will spin backward as a photovoltaic system produces more juice than is needed.

Unexciting as it might be to watch a metal wheel spin, what other way is there to measure how much electricity is actually being produced and used?

If you have solar panels on your house, usually you wait for your utility bill, since federal law requires power companies to buy your surplus. For instant gratification, however, you can pick up the Brilliance Solar Electric System Meter from GE Energy (, which allows consumers to see how much of what they produce they're using.

Because the meter is wireless, company spokeswoman Kristin Schwartz said, it can be located anywhere in the house, which lets you, at the push of a button, monitor the data anytime you wish.

The meter will be just one of this year's designated "cool products" at the Pacific Coast Builders Conference (now officially called PCBC), which will take place Tuesday through Friday in San Francisco.

Though the show features hundreds of new products, PCBC's Deana Vladic said, some of them have that "certain cool factor that makes builders and buyers take notice."

Six years ago, conference organizers decided to choose the coolest products by having 7,000 randomly selected builders, architects, real estate professionals, and marketing experts vote for 20 - 10 consumer-based products and 10 products for the building industry, she said.

Here are a few more of this year's consumer-oriented goodies. For the complete list, go to 07PCBC&mainsectionid=3&pageid=70.

Innovative Building Products' GlassWalk stair treads. These consist of support brackets and three-ply structural-glass treads. The two-sided, engineered bracket system is designed to support treads as wide as 48 inches. Worried about slipping? There is traction-control grit on the walking surface that exceeds requirements established by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Think a stair is just a stair? Philip Kristianson of Sierra Glass Block of Sacramento, Calif., who entered this product in the PCBC competition, says the glass stairs allow light to penetrate farther into a building, and make it more energy-efficient. Information:

TMIO's Intelligent Oven. Though it has been on the market for quite a while, this is one product that remains cool - and hot. The 30-inch, stainless-steel electric wall oven lets the cook control meal times from just about anywhere. Built-in refrigeration keeps food fresh before and after cooking, and cooking and refrigeration cycles can be changed by remote control via the Internet and phones (both touch-tone and mobile), according to spokeswoman Trish Gibbons.

TMIO is touting the oven as the only "green" one on the market today, although several manufacturers at the recent Kitchen & Bath Industry Show in Las Vegas debuted ovens that self-clean in two hours instead of four. The 3M ClearTek touch-screen control panel is simplified, for those of us who still can't program our VCRs. Information:

Jeld-Wen's Custom Wood Windows. In 2003, Andersen came up with an invisible window screen, part of its "what-if" look at the future. A year later, Pella's Vivid View invisible screen showed up in a window at a showhouse. Jeld-Wen chose to go a different route - retractable, not invisible - by incorporating Phantom Screens technology into the frames of its custom wood windows.

The screens retract when not in use. When an insect screen is needed, they slide into place on a built-in track. Jeld-Wen offers a matching wood cover for the screen and a wood handle that blends into the window frame. Information:

Grand Hall Co.'s Eternal Hybrid water heater. The Eternal Hybrid is being offered as a compromise of both tank- and tankless-heater technologies, according to marketing director Tim Merritt: A "turbo heat exchanger" incorporates a storage reservoir to supply endless hot water.

The system maintains higher water pressure and temperature to satisfy growing demand for baths, spa showers, and high-performance appliances, Merritt said. One GU32 model is equal to three 50-gallon water heaters, yet takes up less space and uses less energy than one regular tank water heater, he added. Information:

GE's Profile double-oven free-standing range. With a capacity of 6.5 cubic feet, this model lets you cook two dishes at two different temperatures at the same time, said GE's Allison Eckelkamp.

The upper oven includes a pizza mode for cooking fresh or frozen pies. There's also a four-setting slow-cook feature, and interchangeable self-cleaning racks in both ovens. Information:

Computer Presentation Systems' SalesTouch. This may not be for every home, but SalesTouch is designed to help buyers choose what they want in a new home.

The real-time, interactive display uses touch-screen technology to let buyers "virtually" tour a community, browse available plans/home sites/options, make selections, visit area "hot spots," and print customized brochures. Information:

WaterSaver Technologies' Aqus system. This takes water that goes down the bathroom sink, then filters and disinfects it, and uses it to flush the toilet. It does not cross-connect to the fresh-water system, nor does it inhibit backflow prevention.

Spokesman Tom Reynolds said the system "simply tries to use reused water as the primary source for flushing the toilet, then supplements it with fresh water as needed." Information:

(Caroma, the Australian producer of dual-flush toilets, has developed a similar system that is not yet available in the United States.)

Ironhaus' Hideaway Pocket Door. These doors are for fireplaces. A steel frame encloses the track and the doors, which recess into the sides of the fireplace instead of swinging out, allowing full access to the hearth when they're open. Information:

H-P Products' Hide-A-Hose system. Up to 50 feet of hose is concealed in the wall of this system, made for central vacuums. You pull out the length of hose you need, connect the remote-controlled handle, and begin vacuuming. When the job is done, the power from the central vacuum will automatically retract the hose into the wall.

There's no need to lug or store a central-vacuum hose, according to H-P spokeswoman Audra Boone. Simply carry the handle to the next inlet and connect it again. Information:

Contact real estate writer Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472 or

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