The Fine Print: Under Control

In the new “smart house,” video screens drop magically from the ceiling, drapes open and close with the touch of a keypad—and there’s no jumble of remote controls cluttering the cocktail table. The secret is an electronic control system, which puts the power to turn up the heat, detect intruders or fill the house with music all in the palm of your hand.

Part of the beauty of a wired home is the absence of a tangle of components. The system’s brain, a series of black boxes, is tucked away in a closet or basement. “We did a cool installation in a 150-year-old town house off Rittenhouse Square,” says Jason Zucker, systems designer for HiFi House in Jenkintown. “We put all the DVDs and cable boxes in one closet, but they can watch [movies] on any one of their six TVs.”

Not long ago, such technology was reserved for the high-end homes, especially new construction in which wiring could be planned and installed during the blueprint stage. Retrofitting existing homes was expensive and invasive, producing lots of noisy drilling and clouds of plaster dust. But wireless technology is beginning to change that.

Although hard wiring still is necessary for a control system’s speed and stability, it is increasingly used in combination with wireless elements. MusicCast, manufactured by Yamaha, is a wireless system that provides digital sound throughout the house via a network of stations. Costs range from $500-$2,000 per room. “It works very well for older homes that have stone and plaster walls,” says Marc Franken, owner of Frankentek in Medford.

Wireless technology is expanding the boundaries of the home office as well. Bells and whistles for the ultimate workspace include video screens that drop down for multimedia presentations and computer monitors on motorized lifts that disappear to instantly create a slick, clean desk. A camera positioned at the front door lets the homeowner know when visitors arrive. “If you decide you want to speak with the person, hit the button for the electric lock and he can let himself in,” says Franken.

As audiovisual systems trickle into the mainstream, more economical products are emerging. Still, prices for a custom home theater with concealed speakers and a substantial subwoofer range from $10,000 to more than $1 million.

Increasingly, homeowners are opting to make the theater part of an existing space, instead of a designated room. Franken designed a theater in a family room, where the drapes close automatically as the video screen descends from a panel in the ceiling. Media centers in home gyms are popular with athletes and fitness fanatics looking for incentive to exercise longer. “A home theater used to be fixed platform seating with a big screen and a red curtain,” Franken says. “Now it might be a luxurious master retreat, where a flat-screen TV pops up at the foot of the bed.”

As complex as the systems are to design and install, operating them is easy. That’s because all functions are programmed into a single, handheld touch pad. “Even in a one-room home theater, you’d wind up with six remote controls,” says Rob Dzedzy of Media Rooms in West Chester. “We put them together in a single, unifying remote control.” The entry price for a good-quality, black-and-white remote with screen made by Universal Remote Control starts around $300. “Then you go to its bigger brother, a color touch screen that is easier to read and much more user friendly, for about $1,500,” says Dzedzy. A high-end remote manufactured by Crestron is priced in the $4,500 range. But with the right electronic control system, it may be the only one you’ll ever need.

Lutron lighting systems can be programmed to illuminate designated areas, or brighten or dim to suit the mood. Instead of rows of wall switches, there’s a central touch pad. “The homeowner never has to worry if he turned off the basement light, because he can turn every light in the house on or off with a single stroke,” says Zucker. In an upper-echelon Crestron system, lighting, temperature and security all can be controlled from a laptop computer—and from anywhere in the world.