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Today's home-automation systems make it easy to integrate and control multiple electronic systems—and even automate repetitive tasks—with the push of a single button on a smartphone, tablet, computer, or, in the case of the Control4 screen pictured above, a hand-held remote control. Photo courtesy of Control4

A Beginner’s Guide to Smart-Home Technology

Baffled by home-automation hubs? Stymied by smart switches? We asked a local pro to guide us through the basics of home technology—from what's trending now to what we should expect to pay.

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“Technology in the home is no longer just an option; it’s almost required,” says Mac Saad, a home-technology integrator with Residential Systems, Inc., a Denver firm that specializes in home-technology systems that encompass everything from climate and lighting control to audio and surveillance.

While the thought of controlling a home’s every electronic system with a push of a button sounds enticing, the process of choosing, installing, and maintaining the technology to pull that off can be daunting. We sat down with Saad to get to the bottom of what homeowners really need—and how to get it.

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Exterior home-technology options range from custom, closed-circuit TV systems that provide access to audio and video footage, to intercoms and keyless entries. Photo by S. Brenner Photography, courtesy of Residential Systems, Inc.

5280 Home: There seems to be two main categories of home technology: devices—like surveillance cameras or thermostats—that perform specific tasks, and systems that can control various components in a home, from lights to televisions, simultaneously and remotely. Tell us more about the difference.
Mac Saad: I like to refer to the difference as automation versus control. A Ring Video Doorbell, for example, will notify you when someone rings your doorbell, but that’s kind of where it stops. An automation system will integrate that doorbell product into your home: It will ring on your control panels, and if you’re entertaining in your backyard, it will lower the volume of your audio system and ring the bell through all the speakers in your house.

With so much technology available now, how can we determine what’s a gimmick and what’s worthwhile?
A home-technology system should reflect the person using it, so what’s worthwhile depends on what the user values. For example, you can install a smart mirror that will display your email calendar while you’re brushing your teeth. To some people that sounds ridiculous; it’s solving a problem that doesn’t exist. But other people who are really busy think, “Why not? I can get a head start on the day while I’m doing these menial tasks.” That’s why, during initial discovery meetings with clients, I don’t talk about the features of specific products or systems. I want to know how they live their lives, what hobbies they enjoy, and what they like to watch and how often. Then I can suggest solutions that are very relevant.

Are there certain technologies that everyone can benefit from?
Lighting is important for everyone. These days, especially in main living areas, we typically have many zones of lighting—and a bank of six to eight light switches to control it all. But every time we come into the room, we turn on the can lights and that’s it—because it’s easier. Imagine having a single keypad with pre-programmed scenes for cooking, dining, and lounging. If you plan it early enough, you can put all the circuits/switches in the basement so all you see is that one keypad.

Shading is also key. If you spend a lot of time indoors, chances are you don’t get enough natural light. But more often than not, we gravitate toward what’s simple, and turning on a light is a lot simpler than manually opening five shades. But if you walk into your living room and your shades automatically open, you feel better; it’s increasing your quality of life, not to mention conserving electricity.

And finally there’s audio, which moves us and makes us feel the way we want to feel. It is an absolute benefit to always have audio available in, say, your kitchen or bathroom—and to not have to bring your Bluetooth speaker everywhere.

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A Control4 smart-home system (control pad pictured above) has the ability to operate multiple systems—from lighting to window shades—including thousands of third-party home-tech products, eliminating the need for wall switches and remote controls. Photo courtesy of Control4

What is the ideal time to incorporate home technology?
The earlier the better. Then you can really integrate technology into the home instead of just placing it on top. For new builds, a home-technology integrator can make recommendations about the placement of walls or windows before you even break ground. For example, maybe you thought you couldn’t have a high window over your bathtub because it would be too difficult to adjust the shading. But a home-technology integrator might suggest that you motorize the shading, making a window possible after all.

Eyesore no more: Screen Innovations’ Zero Edge Pro TV screen can be customized with three different bezel size options, custom powder-coated colors, and an IP-controlled backlighting system that works with Philips HUE. Photo courtesy of Screen Innovations

Tell us more about the services a home-technology integrator can offer.
This depends on the size of the firm. A one-man show will design and install a home-automation system—often at a lower price point on the labor side, because they have lower overhead—but often offers limited post-installation service, because they simply don’t have the resources to send someone out if your system goes down.

A boutique firm has a larger resource pool, and is equipped to design a turnkey solution, hold the client’s hand throughout the entire process, and provide 24/7 service. Residential Systems, for example, has a full engineering department, so we can open a CAD file and follow along with an architect and make adjustments to a design, or provide a general contractor with detailed line diagrams.

And finally, large companies like Frontpoint, ADT, or Vivant offer a low up-front cost, then charge a monthly fee for service—which is obtained by calling a customer-service line.

A home-automation system allows the owner of this wine room to control its temperature and lighting from afar. Photo by S. Brenner Photography, courtesy of Residential Systems, Inc.

Should we expect home technology to require a lot of maintenance or ongoing support?
Like any piece of technology, home technology does need maintenance—just as a smartphone needs software updates. Bigger systems need more oversight and maintenance because they’re more integrated into your life. You shouldn’t need monthly or bi-monthly maintenance, but you should expect to have someone come out once or twice a year to make sure everything is updated and running properly.

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Are a home-technology integrator’s services appropriate for homes—and home-automation systems—of all sizes?
Today they are, because the technology is so much more doable and affordable. Today, you can automate three rooms for $8,000–$10,000, whereas a decade ago, it would have cost you $30,000.

What should we expect to pay for home technology?
Because we’re talking about multiple components, each of which is available in a wide range of price points, it’s difficult to say. If you really enjoy watching movies, you might want to divert a lot of your budget to an audio/video system. That said, we tell our clients to consider the following ranges when budgeting for home technology:

Infrastructure/prewire: $1–$3 per square foot
Lighting control: $3–$6 per square foot
Shades and drapes: $1,000-$3,000 per window
House audio/video: $350–$20,000 per zone
Theater and media rooms: $15,000–$200,000
Security and surveillance: $1–$3 per square foot
Home networking: $1,000–$10,000 per home
Climate control: $350–$500 per zone

In other words, this is a big investment. So how important is it?
Home technology is just starting to grow. The proliferation of smart-home technology started when the big companies—Apple and Amazon and Google—got into it, and they only got into it four or five years ago. We’re going to see exponential growth, and I think that home technology will be right up there with walk-in closets when it comes to features that attract home-buyers. That said, making your home more attractive to buyers should be a secondary consideration when choosing home technology. Just like your first house purchase, you don’t look at it as a mere investment; you look at it as your home.

Trending now in Denver: Golfzon’s Vision Premium golf simulator, which provides a real-play experience, plus sensors that capture data on a golfer’s swing, impact, and spin. Photo courtesy of Golfzon

Tell us about some home technologies that are trending in Denver.
The biggest category is golf simulators. We carry a brand called Golfzon that is flying off the shelves. People love the idea of significantly improving their game with the data and feedback they receive after each swing. We have one in our showroom now and it has improved my game tenfold.

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The other is Josh.ai, a voice-controlled smart-home system that is based in Denver and that we recently picked up and are testing. A lot of systems integrate voice control, like Alexa, but you have to give very specific commands. Josh.ai is more conversational. I can walk in and say, “Hey Josh, let’s play golf,” and it will know to turn on the Golfzon simulator. I can also give it multiple commands at once: “Turn on the TV to Netflix and turn on the lights.” Alexa can’t do that.

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