Remote Access: Control Your Home from Anywhere
Whether you're running to the store or taking a two-week vacation, there's usually a list of things to lock, set, turn off, and check before you leave the house. Now several systems let you use your cell phone or computer to control everything from the lights to the sprinklers, so you'll never again have to wonder, "Did I remember to...?"
1. Manage the Lock
The Schlage Link Wireless Remote Entry System is a dead bolt that connects wirelessly to the Internet, enabling you to unlock it remotely if, for example, you have visitors who have arrived early. The lock operates with a key or a keypad code; because the system stores up to 19 codes, you will have more than enough to assign to different members of your household. You can receive alerts each time a code is used, so you'll know when anyone -- from your teenager to your dog walker -- has entered the house. Schlage also sells separately a lever-handled lock that can be operated remotely. $300, plus $9 monthly access fee, link.schlage.com
2. Flip a Switch
With the SmartLinc Insteon Plug-In Starter Kit, you can designate certain lights to welcome you home or create the illusion that your empty house is occupied after dark. To set up a light, you simply plug it in to one of the included dimmers or on-off modules, which you then plug in to an electrical outlet that communicates with a central control unit. In addition to being able to control individual lamps via your cell phone or computer, you can preprogram lighting scenarios for different times of day. There are also modules (for an additional cost) for outdoor lights, appliances, and hard-wired lights. $220, smarthome.com
3. Keep an Eye Out
Not everyone needs a complex and costly security system. If you have an Internet connection at home, you can set up a camera and see your house from your cell phone or any computer. At the high end are cameras such as D-Link's Wireless Network Camera, which lets you pan and zoom in on objects. If you need only a general, fixed-area view, opt for Avaak's tiny battery-powered cameras, which can be placed almost anywhere, thanks to magnetic mounts. They're perfect for occasional use, because you can leave the mounts in place and put the cameras away when you don't need them. D-Link DCS-6620G Wireless Network Camera, $799, dlink.com; Vue Personal Video Network, $300 for 2 cameras, avaak.com
4. Garden Virtually
Anyone who has returned from a vacation to discover a dead lawn or garden knows the irreparable damage that under- or overwatering can do. Cyber Rain's XCI sprinkler system consults the local weather report for the ambient temperature, humidity, and precipitation in your ZIP code every day and adjusts your watering schedule accordingly. The efficient system not only keeps your yard healthy, but also cuts down on your water bill by conserving water when you don't need it. $399, cyber-rain.com
5. Control Your Climate
Many thermostats let you preprogram the temperature you'd like your house to be during the day. But what if your schedule changes? With Proliphix's IMT350, you can use your computer or cell phone to adjust the climate on the fly, ensuring that you don't come home to an igloo or a sauna. You'll also receive alerts when the temperature gets too high or low (important in the winter to avoid freezing pipes). $399, proliphix.com
6. Stop a Leak
You never know if a pipe is going to burst or if a basement is going to flood with the rain. But a water-sensing system can provide you with peace of mind. The Home Heartbeat Home Automation Water Package automatically shuts off a valve on your pipe when there's a leak. The valve and water sensor communicate with the Home Heartbeat base station, which delivers alerts via text message or email. The package includes sensors that let you know when a room floods, or if a window or door is open or closed. $792 for a kit with a 1/2-inch ball valve, homeheartbeat.com
In addition to stand-alone options, there are many systems that let you control everything -- lighting, audio and video, climate, and security -- through one interface.
Because the systems are custom-built for your home, they're pricey, typically starting at $5,000. AMX, Crestron, Savant, and Control4 are some of the top manufacturers. Each company offers different types of control panels and options, so shop around to determine which one best meets your needs.
Once you have picked a system, obtain a list of reputable installers in your area from CEDIA (Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association). Ask the pro for references from customers and tours of a few installations.
The best time to install a whole-home system, which usually involves running wiring, is when you're already ripping up walls for renovations or building a new home.