People have talked for decades about using high-tech gear to create smart homes. But until recently, installing the equipment could cost tens of thousands of dollars and often involved unsightly wires. Now, however, you can use wireless technology to duplicate many useful smart-home features for a few hundred bucks. Most wireless systems will let you use a smart phone or tablet to perform tasks remotely, such as adjusting your thermostat, turning lights on and off, and controlling a basic security system. Pricier systems add such features as moisture detectors and remote door locks.
One of the lowest-cost systems is called Iris and is available at home-improvement chain Lowe's. There are two basic kits: Safe & Secure (which comes with contact and motion sensors as well as a keypad to disarm the system) and Comfort & Control (a plug and thermostat that let you adjust the temperature and monitor energy usage). Each kit costs $179, or you can get both packages and a range extender for your wireless Internet by buying the $299 Smart kit.
Lowe's doesn't charge a monthly fee for its basic service, which gives you remote access to all your appliances and sends you an alert if, say, a motion detector is tripped. Premium service -- with such features as the ability to set on/off schedules for all your devices -- costs $10 a month (free for the first two months). You'll need broadband Internet that's always on and a router or modem with at least one open Ethernet port. For do-it-yourselfers, Lowe's has an online installation video.
Comcast and Verizon Wireless offer similar systems, and AT&T, Time Warner Cable, ADT Security and Vivint sell more-advanced packages. Keep an eye out for promotions; AT&T recently offered new buyers $100 off its higher-level kit.
Ask about discounts on homeowners insurance; most insurers will give you 20% off if you purchase a security system that's monitored by the police and fire department. Lowe's Iris doesn't do this, but most other systems do.
Front of House
Locks with keypads allow you to create access codes specific to certain people. Your kids might have one, and your dog walker might have another; the codes can be permanent or expire after a certain amount of time. You can also stream video of your home to see whether a cat or a cat burglar set off your door sensor. (Verizon Wireless Entry Accessory Offer; $390 plus $10 a month)
You can create settings that trigger changes all over your house. For example, your "night" setting might tell the thermostat to drop a few degrees, turn off the lights and activate the alarm. (Lowe's Iris Smart kit; $299 plus $10 a month)
If sensors detect too much moisture or carbon monoxide in your home, you receive an alert via text message or e-mail. Door sensors will notify you if an intruder enters your house. (AT&T Digital Life Water Detection package; $200 plus $45 per month)