(i)Phone Home

Andy Schmitt was at a conference in San Francisco when the family cat slipped out of his Incochee Woods house. While talking to his wife, Beth, in Traverse City from his California hotel room, he then activated their home’s outdoor cameras and watched his iPad as the motion sensors did their work. The pet was found a few minutes later and returned indoors, none the worse for wear.

The Schmitts are among a growing number of local homeowners who are outfitting their living spaces with “smart home technology.” With smartphone ease and endless options for entertainment, energy, lighting and security, the fantasy world of George Jetson may not be as abstract as once thought.


Smart homes integrate sophisticated automatic systems for security, temperature control, lighting, window and doors, media centers and outdoor facilities via computer technology to monitor and manage daily living. Coded signals from multiple subsystems travel through home wiring to switches and outlets programmed to control appliances and electronic devices throughout the house, while integrating into a master controller which issues all commands from a single hub. Homeowners can perform elaborate functions across the house or around the world using the Internet and a mobile device.

Each smart home is as unique as its owners, with systems of all sizes reflecting lifestyle, budget and priorities. In the Schmitt home, with two very young children, security was very important as was energy efficiency. Garage doors automatically close after five minutes, lights flash if windows or doors open unexpectedly while motion sensors and cameras monitor the porch and outdoor areas. Smart thermostats regulate temps, window sensors note when there are air leaks, and lights are programmed to turn on, off, dim and change color on schedule. Text messages are sent when problems occur. All are controlled by a touch screen via iPad or iPhone.

A key advantage, Schmitt noted, is the ability to control elements individually but program them to function automatically.

“Our porch lights are programmed to turn on at sunset,” he said, explaining the system senses the actual time sunset occurs, as just one example. He has also programmed lights to dim in hallways at nighttime and to change color in his children’s rooms to show time.


According to a recent study by HGTV and ERA Real Estate, 46 percent of consumers believe it is important their home be equipped with smart home technology. Motivations vary and are somewhat impacted by generational factors. Baby boomers are more likely to have a security system in their home than any other age group. Half of the millennials surveyed have energy management technology in their homes compared to only a third of Gen X and baby boomers. 51 percent of all owners would consider installing smart technology to make their homes more appealing to future buyers, yet millennials are ten times more likely to make the investment than Generation X. Millennials also prioritize integration with their smart phones, with 70 percent noting its importance.

Investment can range from a few hundred dollars for a do-it-yourself starter lighting set to as high as $100,000 to $250,000 for large, integrated home systems. Local vendors’ estimates fall within the $10,000 to $40,000 range, with home size, priorities, complexity, equipment, wiring and many related variables impacting the price tag.

Traverse City realtor Pam Stowe of Real Estate One sees smart technologies impacting the new construction market locally more than the real estate market right now, but anticipates that will change with time.

“I can see smart technology being implemented in new construction and newer constructed existing homes,” she said, “It won’t add as much monetary value to the home, but it will become mainstream as more consumers incorporate it into their homes and businesses … I’m excited to see where it takes us.”

Many northern Michigan businesses now offer home automation products, services and expertise, including retailers catering to DIYers –  Home Depot, Lowe’s and Menards – as well as easily available online apps. Firms such as  Traverse City’s Waara Technologies as well as local contractors such as Windemuller Electric work closely with builders, businesses and consumers on larger residential and commercial projects.


Professionals stress it’s important to understand how, or if, elements can be integrated, as well as clear goals and expectations. A common misconception among smart home technology newbies is that downloading a single app or buying a product, such as a heating system, works for everything in a home when they are only specific to a particular product. As a result, homeowners end up with multiple apps, each controlling different equipment, with little or no integration.

The ideal smart home situation is a fully integrated system where all automation is controlled by a single app on smartphones, computers and/or mobile devices.

Todd Waara, owner of Waara Technologies, has been planning and implementing integrated smart home technologies since 2005, entering the field years before the iPhone was introduced. His clients’ top priorities have been integration with audio and video followed by temperature control, security and video cameras, lighting control and perimeter lighting.

“Since the iPhone, things have been getting better and better … there is tremendous interest,” Waara said. “It is attractive at any age. Even those who are (initially) skeptical will say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know it was that easy.’ “

Waara likens himself to a general contractor of the electronic and integration world because he works directly with clients, suppliers, electricians, builders and architects to assure an integrated design, optimal wiring, coordinated planning and installation, and follow-up service, as well as fitting the best products to match client goals. The Waara lines include Elan, Crestron and Control4.

Noting that a key part of his work is educational, Waara urged consumers to involve professionals early in the planning, whether they are looking smart home tech on a large scale, in phases or reworking an existing system.

“Getting good advice on doing things right is important,” he aid. “Everything is connected by the Internet. If you want this to work well, you need a good network, good wiring and a good design.”

Dave Whiteford, architect and owner of Whiteford Associates, a design/build firm in Traverse City, agreed that early planning benefits all involved.

“It’s important that the architect has an understanding of what’s available in home automation and an idea of the cost associated with it so a client can be informed early on in the planning process what the options are,” Whiteford said.

Cost is a big reason to talk through options early on.

“If there’s a high level of interest, it can add significant dollars to the budget,” Whiteford added. “For some that’s not an issue, but for others it rules out going very far down that road early on.”

Whiteford also stressed the importance of working with a home automation expert.

“If someone like Todd [Waara] is involved, what he does has an impact on what the electrician and the security does,” he added. “Or in many cases, can get eliminated from their scope of work because it’s part of Todd’s package.”

As local demand for home automation increases, businesses specializing in the field will continue to grow. Okemos-based Smart Homes and Smart Businesses just opened a Traverse City satellitelocation in late 2014, with plans to open a retail location this spring. According to president John Gilluly, the firm is also looking at expanding further into west Michigan with another satellite near Grand Rapids. He credits improving technologies, lower equipment costs and increased consumer awareness of home automation for the steady rise in popularity.



You don’t need the expertise or the bank account of a Bill Gates to enter into smart home technology. But, you do need to plan. Here are a few questions and tips from local home automation and building professionals to help get started.

  • WHAT IS YOUR GOAL? What do you want to accomplish? How broad or narrow is your scope? It’s good to know your end goal before you start putting the pieces and plans in place. Are you building a new home and want to incorporate smart tech throughout your project? Are you renovating and hope to update a former sound system with newer technologies? Do you want to “try out” smart home tech on a smaller scale before committing time, building and resources too far? What is your comfort level and how will you use the technology when you have it in place?
  • WHAT ARE YOUR PRIORITIES? Entertainment, security, energy efficiency and convenience are common reasons buyers seek smart home technology. Know what motivators are driving your purchase. Prioritize the technology you want to incorporate into your home. What are the “must haves” vs. the “wants” and the “wishes.” Is it “all or nothing,” or are you willing to go with a phased approach?
  • WHAT IS YOUR BUDGET? Know your budget and your options. Talk to vendors and your design team early to understand all implementation costs – building, equipment, supplies, modifications – and prioritize or modify as needed. Consider long-term savings (i.e. energy savings) from this early investment.
  • WHO IS ON YOUR TEAM? Who will help you bring your project from idea to reality? What expertise and other resources do you need? Are you a do-it-yourselfer or will you work with a builder, architect and technology team for integration and design? Access the expertise you need for proper integration, good use of resources, and the skills, experience and guidance that will assure you achieve the best smart tech solutions for your unique home.
  • WHEN DO YOU START? Start planning early. Don’t wait until your new home is built or the remodeling is done to start thinking about your smart technology choices. Involving your team early on eliminates surprises, creates efficiencies, and allows all involved to work in sync to make sure floor plans, wiring, equipment and all related details are coordinated and effective.