Once the stuff of science fiction, high-tech gadgetry has moved into the mainstream as more and more people turn their houses into "smart homes."
How would you like to be sitting in bed and press a button on your iPad to lock your doors, turn off the lights and set the alarm before you retire at night? Or, in another scenario, your out-of-town guests arrive early, so while sitting at work you pull out your iPhone and open the garage door for them so they can enter your home.
This is smart home technology at work. It gives the average homeowner the ability to monitor and control many aspects of daily living to make life more comfortable, convenient and safe.
What exactly is a smart home?
"A smart home is one that has the proper infrastructure, wiring or wireless, to allow a home's 'subsystems' (security, heating/cooling, lights, etc.) to be controlled and automated to perform basic daily functions automatically," said Robert Fabbrini, president and CEO of Nugget Enterprises, a company that provides home technology integration.
For example, when a security system is enabled or set up, many things can happen automatically. For that to happen, a smart home allows the security system to "talk" to the lights, security cameras, door locks, etc.
Designed to a homeowner's specifications, a smart home system will be integrated so seamlessly that a household will appear to run itself. The big feature today is the ability to connect to your home remotely using a smartphone.
You don't need to be tech savvy or wealthy to have a smart home. "People are finally realizing that home automation is for everybody," Fabbrini said.
You can start out with an entry-level system and add enhancements as you wish. Or you can jump right in with a sophisticated system with all the bells and whistles.
The cost of having a smart home depends on the features desired and whether people have existing equipment. "Basic entry-level systems start at around $1,500 to $3,000, and high-end systems can cost into the hundreds of thousands to even $1 million," Fabbrini said.
Popular applications are controlling the lighting, garage doors, music and sound in your home. You really don't need a remote anymore because you can use your iPhone.
How smart is a smart home?
"A smart home is smarter than what ran the Apollo when it landed on the moon in 1969," said Mike Nagel, partner at MAW Chicago, a premier remodeling and new custom home specialist. "It can do everything but brush your teeth for you. You could be in Thailand and turn off the lights. If you dream it, it can be done."
Of course there are various levels of intelligence, and the more intelligent, the more it costs, Nagel said. "Your application could be as simple as turning on your lights with your iPhone or as sophisticated as the technology in Bill Gates' home in Washington."
Visitor to Gates' home can be pinned with an electronic tracking chip that identifies you and is programmed to know all about you, including your taste in music, your art preference and even what you consider a comfortable room temperature.
As you move through the rooms in the home, lights come on ahead of you and fade behind you. Your favorite music will play and follow you, as will whatever you're watching on TV. Ready for a swim? You can take a dip in the 60-foot swimming pool with an underwater music system. The chip keeps track of all that you do and makes adjustments as it learns your preferences.
Medius Low Voltage and TV designs, installs and maintains systems for smart homes. "Everything we do is custom, and our work is highly personalized for the customer," said Lou Morelli, owner of the company.
"We integrate the systems so they act as one. No two jobs are the same."
A common job for Morelli would be one in which the customer wants an iPad in every room to control the TV, see who is at the front door and adjust the heating and cooling system. "This is a typical job these days," Morelli said.
"Lighting control is also big where you press a button and all the lights turn off or go to a scene, for example, all the outdoor lights dim to 30 percent. A security system allows homeowners to see what's going on in their home, and a lot of people are asking for this now (security cameras) to see it on TV."
Most people want a smart home for practical reasons such as knowing their older kids are home and safe, Fabbrini said. For example, with a video camera, you can be sitting at work and get a text message that the alarm system been disarmed, and it will send you a video clip of your child's safe arrival at home.
While many people have a smart home for practical reasons, Fabbrini is having a lot of fun with smart technology in his own home.
He built a swimming pool that can automatically heat up at certain times, an outside TV secured in a case with an automatic lift-up cover; and outside lights, music and a waterfall that will automatically turn on and off.
"There's a lot of cool stuff going on here," Fabbrini said. "The lights come on at sunset and go off at midnight. The new systems know when it's sunrise and sunset."
What's new and up-and-coming is the understanding of power and energy uses throughout the home, Morelli said. "Devices have just become available to understand what powers are used by what systems."
Morelli can also help people create a digital vault with their digital photos in a computer or cloud, and make it easy for them to access theses images throughout the home.
Behind the scenes equipment is kept out of view, tucked away in a cabinet typically in the lower level or utility closet.