Race is on for home automation controls

John Dougherty demonstrates the use of Comcast's home control and security system on his laptop.
John Dougherty demonstrates the use of Comcast's home control and security system on his laptop. (JEFF GELLES / Staff)
Posted: November 29, 2013

You'd never mistake John Dougherty for a latter-day George Jetson. But the Comcast executive's Wynnewood home has some touches that would have seemed every bit as futuristic as that 1960s cartoon once did.

Lights and thermostats that he can control from across the room or across the world? Check.

Cameras and computers that can tell whether a child has arrived home as scheduled between 3:30 and 4:30 in the afternoon, and notify him if not? Check.

Electronic door locks that can be controlled from a keypad or from afar - say, to let in a repair person? Check.

Technological advances are rarely as dramatic as novelists or screenwriters might imagine them. But the gee-whiz factor is big in home automation. And the race to implement it is most definitely on.

Last year, I wrote about ADT Pulse, a home-automation system marketed by the company that claims the largest share of the U.S. home-security market. At the time, Comcast was midway through a national rollout of Xfinity Home. Competitors such as Verizon and AT&T are not far behind.

With an eye toward do-it-yourselfers, a Malvern start-up, Zonoff Inc., just took a large step into the home-automation mainstream. On Wednesday, Staples stores began selling a system of plug-and-play home controllers called Staples Connect powered by Zonoff's software, a system that promises to solve the Tower of Babel problem.

With a $99 Staples Connect hub and a free app, the retailer says, you can control lights, thermostats, cameras, automatic blinds, and other devices, no matter whether they are designed to run on WiFi or on specialized systems such as Z-Wave and ZigBee. Don't have the controllers yet? Staples offers a full line.

To get a sense of how automation can transform a family's lifestyle, I took a tour recently of Dougherty's 1950s Montgomery County home.

Dougherty, vice president of product management for Xfinity Home, acknowledges that the house has all the bells and whistles. A half-dozen lights are on the system, as is an electronic thermostat, even a basement water sensor. Six cameras monitor the front and back doors and four interior views.

Dougherty says he has benefited repeatedly from the devices, particularly from the ways they can work together thanks to a rules-based control system.

That's how, for example, he can get a text message if a child fails to arrive home on time, or could count on being notified if a dog walker does not show up as planned.

Some of the benefits have been serendipitous but no less significant.

When his wife texted him to say his then-9-month-old daughter had crawled for the first time, Dougherty didn't have to miss the event - not with a family-room camera available.

"I logged in and saw her shimmying across the floor," he says. "It helps you feel connected."

He got that same feeling on a recent business trip, when he watched the same daughter, now 3, eat breakfast - from his seat on a plane with Internet access.

Other benefits are more practical. When his wife left a door ajar and a FedEx delivery inadvertently triggered the alarm, she was able to see what happened and avert a needless call to police. His wife also likes the ability to reset the thermostat from the comfort of a warm bed, he says.

How much does all this cost? Comcast's Jennifer Bilotta says Dougherty's Home Secure 350 package typically costs about $50 a month, including central-station alarm monitoring. Without that, Xfinity home automation can cost as little as $10 or $20 a month.

Extra bells and whistles can add start-up costs, though Comcast often offers discounts.

Right now, a $300 installation package includes two control units, three door or window sensors, one motion sensor, two indoor/outdoor cameras, two lighting controllers, and a thermostat.

The electronic door lock isn't yet available, but Dougherty says it's coming soon.


jgelles@phillynews.com

215-854-2776 @jeffgelles

www.inquirer.com/consumer

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