Is a 'smart house' a dumb idea? Some impressions...
I thought folks might gain some insights from my experience with a "smart house" that I built five year ago. This was our dream house, a 7,100 square foot house on an acre in a very exclusive gated community outside Sacramento. It was paid for using the proceeds of some very lucky bets placed on my Silicon Valley employers stock and I was determined for it to have all the conveniences that high tech could offer.
Well, after five years, I have to say that all our high tech ideas have been a mixed blessing at best. Despite the many conveniences, weÂve encountered significant and on-going problems with reliability, user-friendliness and basic functionality.
First, an overview of my home. ItÂs on three levels: a garage on the first floor, a guest room and game room on the third floor and everything else on the middle floor (which is at ground level in the back yard). The house is U-shaped and is virtually one-room wide around the U, a distance of about 300Â. A covered patio, pool, spa and koi pond are in the center of the U. It has a living room, formal dining room, bar, kitchen with nook, four bedroom suites, two powder rooms, pool bath, exercise room, game room with bar, project room, laundry room and large, fully covered outdoor lanai and kitchen.
During construction, I had a Crestron home automation control system installed. CrestronÂs system can control virtually everything youÂd care to throw at it: audio, video, HVAC, security, pool, lighting, curtains, etc. But for everything that you add, it makes the control interface that much more complex, more time-consuming to use and more user-unfriendly, especially for guests (which were a major focus of our home). Consequently, we control only audio, video and the pool/spa/koi pond with the system. The audio/video includes TiVo and DirecTV boxes (a total of six, serving 12 TVs throughout the house), an AudioRequest box (basically, an iPod-like system that allows remote control of a 60 Gb hard-drive that stores thousands of songs), a DVD player and a VCR. ItÂs programmed to also accommodate an AM/FM radio and three security cameras, all yet to be installed.
The systemÂs controls can be accessed through RF remotes, touch panels built into the wall and our PCs via internet protocol. This system can do some really cool things. From my PC or any of the seven rooms having a touch panel, I can designate which rooms IÂd like to play music and then make selections (songs, albums, playlists) from the AudioRequestÂs music library. I can watch a TiVo recording in the family room and then adjourn to our bedroom to watch the end of it. The "public rooms" (family room, lanai, exercise room, etc.) and master bed/bathroom all have access to both the single TiVo unit and another DirecTV box (shared, except for a dedicated one in the family room), providing flexibility in accessing programming. The RF remotes permit control of the TiVo, the other DirecTV box and the centralized DVD player and VCR from all public rooms. And they also eliminate the need to point the remote at a device and the need to have a slew of remotes.
But despite my best efforts to ensure an intuitive interface, my tech-challenged wife only feels comfortable with about five percent of the systemÂs functionality. For the first two years, the systemÂs installer was at our house several times a month, doing reprogramming, system upgrades, etc. The TiVo hard drive has failed, as has the entire (pricey) Denon DVD carousel player. Initially, the system installer gave us a cordless touch panel remote for the family room ($2,400!). It was awfulÂslow, confusing interface, cumbersome to use and required frequent recharging. We returned it in favor of a more modestly expensive ($400) RF remote like those in the other public rooms. The entire system cost well over $100K (not counting TVs) and although we shuddered to see our $8,000 50" Panasonic plasma now selling for $1,800, well thatÂs to be expected when youÂre an early adopter. Just ask the first iPhone buyersÂ
Our lighting system employs home-run wiring, meaning that all lighting wires come to a centralized point in the house and are connected to relays that can then be controlled by low voltage programmable light switches. This means that any light switch can be programmed to operate any light or group of lights in the house. And all of the switches can be labeled with a PC-generated paper label and can be re-labeled if you decide you want a given button to operate something else (something that happens quit a bit when you first move in and begin to assess what works for you). The system also controls my ceiling fans (eleven), several wall outlets and two gas heaters in the lanai.
My system is made by NexLight which I selected over Lutron, the primary manufacturer for home lighting systems of this type (at the time). The Lutron system offered incredible functionality (e.g., push a switch once and the hall lights come on, a second time and the lights dim to 30%, a third time and the porch lights come onÂwhatever you want) but obviously created the potential for substantially more confusion among the uninitiated (like house guests). NexLightÂs system still permitted us to program a switch next to our bed that we labeled "All Off", turning off every light in the house. This was a godsend, given how spread out our house is; no trooping through the house each night to see if you might have left a light on. And it worked great until the first time we had house guests complain about the curfew we imposed when they came down for breakfast the morning following the "blackout" they experienced while brushing their teeth the night before. Fortunately I could reprogram the switch to turn off all lights except the guest bed/bathroom lights.
But this system, with all its many benefits, also has its drawbacks. First, while you have the OPPORTUNITY to decide the function of each light switch in the house (in my case, all 310 of them), you also have the OBLIGATION to determine what each switch will do. Yes, you can just let the electrical sub-contractor decide (much as you would delegate that decision to the architect or builder with a conventional lighting system). But since itÂs YOUR house, you want it to work for YOU. And you find that youÂre spending quite a bit of time sorting through all the various possibilities to optimize the system for your use. Also, installing things such as an astronomic switch for outdoor lights, while possible, are far less straightforward than picking one up at Home Depot and popping it into the outlet box. And despite all the switch labels and 310 switches, my wife regularly uses no more than ten switches in the entire house, claiming the system is "just too confusing" for her.
AppliancesÂweÂve got a bunch! Four dishwashers (two in the kitchen, one in the lanai and a dishwasher drawer in the upstairs bar), eleven refrigerators (including three bar refers, two wine refers, two freezers, SZ refer drawers and a Scotsman ice maker), three microwaves, Wolf cooktop, Jenn-Air BBQ, warming drawer, two trash compactors and two ovens. And in addition to a scary electric bill, weÂve had lots of problems: a Freon leak on the 36" SZ refer, an ice-maker leak on the 36" SZ freezer, exploding soda cans in one of the bar refers (three times...even after the repairs!), door replacement on one Miele DW and a software problem on another, replacement of the control panels on both Dacor ovens, replacement of a trash compactor and two new compactor drawers and LED display problems on the Dacor microwave. Some of these were covered under warranty and only entailed the inconvenience of waiting for a repairman. But many involved inconvenience due to loss of use and a significant expense. And in addition to repairs, we discovered features we really didnÂt like, despite the care we exercised in making our selections. For example, my gourmet chef wife found the Wolf range to be excellent to cook on but a royal pain to keep clean. The lessons: 1) The more toys, the more repair headaches. 2) High-end appliances donÂt guarantee high-reliability. 3) Carefully compare expected benefits of your appliances with the cost of running, maintaining, stocking, cleaning and ultimately replacing them.
The house has an elevator connecting the garage to the main floor. This has been indispensable, primarily for conveying groceries and other purchases, luggage and handicapped guests into the house. But weÂve had several problems with reliability, one involving several guests who were stuck between floors. It was quickly resolved but they were more than a little unnerved. Service and maintenance are a significant expense.
We wanted hydronic radiant heating because we have about 4,000 square feet of limestone tile which, even in our relatively mild California climate, can be cold to walk on in winter. In addition, we have high ceilings (for which radiant is more efficient) and weÂre getting old (hate when that happens) and radiant keeps your extremities warmer. Plus, you can put a thermostat in every room, heating only those rooms that you use. We need air conditioning in our area and so we went ahead and installed furnaces, too. Radiant takes a long time to bring a cold house up to temperature. WeÂre retired and travel a lot in the off-season, turning down the thermostats while weÂre gone to save energy. When we come home, it might take the radiant system eight hours to bring the house up to a comfortable temperature so we can just turn on the forced air system instead.
But while having all that flexibility is nice, there are, of course, downsides. Among the first: wall acne. We have TWENTY thermostats (14 for the radiant system). It seems like thereÂs a thermostat on every wall in the house. And in addition to the aesthetic impact, you have to continually adjust them for the various circumstances: vacations, house guests, season changes, daylight savings, etc. Each has two batteries which must be serviced. When I consider the cost of those, plus batteries for the 12 smoke detectors and myriad other handheld devices, IÂm ready to buy stock in Duracell. The radiant system was heated with water from a 100 gallon water heater that also supplied hot water for half of the house. It failed after five years (out of warranty) because it turns out that hot water heaters are a bad choice for radiant systems. They fail early because of the load that radiant systems put on them. I replaced it several months ago with a boiler-water heaterÂfor $12,900! And the installer put in the wrong flue piping which now has to be completely re-done.
The forced air system has been equally problematic. There are four A/C-furnace units, two divided into two zones, for a total of six thermostats. The installer didnÂt compute a reasonable register balance between the zones of the two-zone units, creating all kinds of problems. While working on one of the units, a repairman broke a condensate pipe in the attic. When the A/C was turned on five months later, condensate dripped onto the sheetrock ceiling, causing it to collapse. Now wasnÂt THAT fun?
The security system has been relatively problem-free, except for a number of false alarms attributed to insects, faulty window switches and the inevitable operator error. And the automatic sprinklers have worked well, except for the lawn sprinkler that failed to shut off while we were traveling in the south of France, causing a flood in my neighborÂs yard and an additional $400 charge on my water bill. And the solar pool heater has worked great, except for the leaks that inevitably show up in the panels at the beginning of each season (despite careful winterizing the prior fall). And the Jandy pool controller has been terrific after spending countless hours talking to tech support reps trying to program it to control our four pumps and numerous electric valves.
For those of you with the patience to have read through this long saga of triumph and tragedy, I can only leave you with one conclusion with regard to house technology: Technology provides no free lunch, even after purchase. Yes, it adds a ton of money to your construction cost but it entails significant monitoring, maintaining, repair and replacement costs. For every benefit you'll enjoy, there are on-going costs that must be paid. You just have to decide whether itÂs worth it to you. I might add that I rather like working on home repairs and IÂve become pretty handy over the years. IÂm an engineer by training and IÂve likely found it easier than most to address the various challenges of my so-called smart house. IÂm financially secure and IÂm retired, so I have both the time and the money to keep things running. So I still consider this my dream house and IÂd likely to incorporate these same features if I were stupid enough to build again. But I certainly wouldnÂt give anyone an unqualified endorsement of the various features that IÂve included. And despite the technological advancements since we built our house (hey, we donÂt even have hi defÂimagine!), I have to believe that the downsides with the latest cool stuff are every bit as troublesome.
Hope this has helped provide some perspective for you.