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Green solution for your home

The ability to control consumption of electric power, though, may have the biggest impact. One approach is to let utility companies (with the homeowner’s consent, of course) cut back heating or air conditioning, or turn off other equipment, during power emergencies, either over the public Internet or through a direct connection to the utility company’s data network. In compensation, homeowners might receive discounts on their monthly electricity bills.

Or, in a more imaginative scenario, the appliances could regulate themselves as the utility company varies the cost of electricity from day to day or even hour to hour. Either way, the potential for energy saving is substantial.

It’s already starting to happen overseas. Italy’s Enel, the largest publicly traded utility company in the world, expects this year to begin wiring the 27 million homes it serves to allow such remote demand management and other services, using equipment supplied by Echelon, a Sunnyvale, Calif., supplier of building automation equipment and software.

Other compelling applications are also emerging. For example, some services might allow healthcare providers to monitor elderly patients by reading data from sensors or equipment in the home that detect the patient’s activities or vital signs. Or appliance makers might detect when products they’ve sold are about to fail in a particular home, then notify the owner and dispatch a repair technician with the right parts.

But perhaps most enticing of all is the possibility of offering a general-purpose gateway for value-added services in the home. An energy company already connected to home networks might allow suppliers of water softeners or detergents to monitor home appliances. They could then send targeted advertising, perhaps as coupons included with electric bills, to customers whose usage data show they need such products, says Jeff Lund, Echelon’s vice president of business development.

Home networking’s prospects have convinced Los Angeles-based Kaufman and Broad, one of the largest homebuilders in America, to offer customers home automation products that can be controlled over the Internet. Buyers can have Internet gateways and “smart” electrical outlets supplied by Sage Systems of Alameda, Calif., built into their new homes, just as they can order high-speed Internet cables or built-in audio or video wiring.

The electronic attic

Underlying such applications are three basic elements. First are the in-home devices themselves, such as electrical switches, thermostats, or heating and air conditioning controllers with semiconductor chips – and thus “intelligence”-built in, allowing them to send, receive, and respond to data signals.

Second, the signals typically travel over electric power lines, at data rates that are often extremely slow – sometimes 6, 12, or 18 bits per second – to provide information about the devices or to control them. There may also be connections to higher-speed wiring that links equipment such as security cameras or home computers.

The third element is an Internet protocol (IP) gateway, which connects the in-house network to the Internet or other IP network over telephone lines or high-speed cables. The gateway interprets the data traveling over the power lines and then encapsulates it in IP packets. This allows an individual or system connected to the IP network to receive information about the home devices and send instructions back by using a Web browser.

Long runup to takeoff

While efforts to automate, monitor, and control the home electronically are nothing new, the added potential of Internet connectivity has given new impetus to suppliers. As early as the 1980s, manufacturers worked out a protocol meant to allow devices to communicate over home power lines. Called CEBus, it never gained wide usage, and more recently a plethora of new protocols, standards, and technologies created with the Internet in mind have emerged as possible solutions.

Creators of the technology are also taking a variety of approaches to reaching potential customers. Some, like Sage Systems, are trying to sell their technology to utility companies, while others like BeAtHome.com of Fargo, N.D., target users directly. Similarly, some build and sell equipment, while others sell their software and proprietary protocols to equipment manufacturers.

With such a complex set of competing approaches, it may be some time before any de facto standard emerges to clear up users’ confusion. And as usual with competing technologies, dominance will be determined more by marketing power and cleverness than by actual technical superiority.¬†For that reason, analysts say that equipment using the simple control protocol, or SCP, introduced in June by Microsoft, may have an edge.

When a standard does emerge, the next key step will be the arrival of “plug-and-play” home control products-devices and systems that can be purchased at a retailer, brought home and installed with little hassle, says Parks Associates’ Scherf. When you see them on the shelf (which you can expect in two to three years), the technology will be ready to take off.

In the end, though, the reasons for the success-or failure-of the technology will come down to human factors. “Providing consumers with greater control over energy management, lighting, and home security systems will provide a boost to this market,” says Scherf. “Our research tells me people feel out of control. They want to have more control over lots of things, including their homes.”

By now it’s a standing gag, and not a very original one: Toasters need their own Internet addresses, so homeowners can stay in bed while browning their bagels.

The real potential of home appliances connected to outside networks like the Internet is a lot more serious. Rather than toasting bagels, they might help prevent the kind of energy crisis that wrecked California this winter. They could also help provide a variety of distinctly nontrivial services and applications to enhance security and health-or simply to save time and money.

Such uses are about to proliferate. While various home automation products, especially security systems, have been around for some time, the growing ability to connect them to outside networks elevates such devices from expensive curiosities to potentially mainstream applications. “Information transported to or collected from home control networks is made useful largely due to what can be done with it using the Internet,” says Ethan Cohen, a senior analyst with the Aberdeen Group.

Equipment and services providing such connectivity at a reasonable cost have begun to emerge from a variety of sources.