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Raising Your House's IQ

Slide Show >>We've all had it. That sinking feeling, some time after departing from home, when we can't remember whether we've dimmed the lights, shut off the sink, or turned off the iron. Too often, it's followed by a call to a trusted neighbor, or worse, a return trip. What if you could use a cell phone to close the spigot or turn off appliances? Better yet, what if your home was smart enough to handle the tasks on its own?

Welcome to the world of home automation. Technology that gives homeowners remote, and often automatic, control over the range of home appliances and devices has been around for years. But these days, it's becoming more commonplace, with products and devices that are easier to install and integrate elegantly into the fabric of a home. One company in the field, SmartLabs, estimates that there will be about 20 billion home-control capable products in the marketplace by 2015.

SmartLabs President Rajeev Kapur says he's hoping to bring home automation "to the masses." The company develops and sells a growing range of automation products through its online store, The Web site offers about 7,000 products and continues to add about 30 new products a week to the inventory -- everything from remote-control light dimmers to in-wall touch screens. SmartLabs isn't alone. Industry leaders such as Home Depot (HD) also are bulking up on their home-automation lines.

REALLY REMOTE CONTROL. What's the appeal? One benefit is extra security. In the ideal smart home, appliances and electronic devices work in sync to keep the house secure. For example, when a regular alarm system senses that someone is breaking into the house, it usually alerts the alarm company, and then the police. A smart-home system would go further, not only alerting a security company but also turning on all the lights in the home and then sending a text message to the owner's phone. Motorola's (MOT) Homesight even sends images captured by cameras installed throughout a property to phones and PCs.

Then there's added convenience. Lights, electronics, and blinds can all be controlled from the comfort of the couch, another central location, or even from across town -- or the other side of the country. The smart home can also remember your living patterns, so if you like to switch on some classical music when you come home from work, your house can do that for you automatically.

Another plus: energy conservation. Smart homes can be programmed to deal with rising temperatures by opening windows and closing blinds before turning on the air conditioning. Additionally, smart homes will know when they're empty, and make sure all appliances, lights, and climate controls are turned off.

KEEPING AN EYE ON THE PLACE. Make no mistake, advanced automation devices can be costly. And some products, such as in-wall touch screens, require professional installation. Still, the right devices and technologies can increase the value of a home, Kapur says.

Some might also take issue with devices that can undermine privacy, such as hidden cameras that let you keep tabs on a housekeeper, the kids, or a care provider. But similar debates surfaced when caller ID first came out, says Bill Diamond, president of Xanboo, the company that manufactures Motorola's Homesight. "Now people can't image not having caller ID," he says.

If Diamond and others in the field have their way, before long, people won't be able to imagine life without the smart home either.

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