Testing the Benefits of Smart Home Technology
Margette Hepfner imagined what her morning would be like in the smart apartment of the future:
She would awaken to the television, cued to turn on at 5:15 a.m. The lights begin to gradually brighten so she doesn’t have to squint while walking to the kitchen, where coffee is already percolating. The barcode reader near the trashcan detects an empty milk carton in the fridge and updates her shopping list. When Hepfner leaves the apartment for work, she punches her smartphone on the way out. The drapes automatically draw, the heat lowers and lights shut off. Plugs that control energy-hogging appliances power down.
“This is smart home technology,” said Hepfner, Vice President of Client Services at Lincoln Properties. “All of this would be fabulous to install in apartment homes, except it costs about $50,000 a unit.”
Simple deployment of smart technology a start
Hepfner, who hosted a session about smart home technology at November’s National Multi-Housing Council OpTech conference, is among apartment executives who see the apartment of the future with its own digital butler.
Utilities, lighting, plug loads, doors, and windows are among components that can be monitored and accessed through smartphones, tablets, and other devices. At least two apartment developers are finding out how smart home technology can work for them. Forest City Residential Group and AMLI Residential are testing smart devices at some communities.
“Its simple deployment,” said AMLI Residential CIO Rick Fox. “We’re waiting to see what our residents’ reaction is to the technology.
For now, the solutions are pretty basic and without huge capital risks.
“We’re not going to spend a lot of money on infrastructure for something that could be obsolete in one or two years, or that we are not positive will have a long-term return for us,” says Fox.
Smart home technology is growing but has drawbacks
In recent years, smart homes and home automation have grown exponentially into an industry that was expected to generate $10 billion last year. Automated amenities that were once considered to be exclusive to the rich and famous, are no longer pie in the sky for someone willing to pay maybe $100 or so a month more in rent.
But smart home technology is not without its problems. Tech gurus say no system with internet access enabled is totally secure. The user’s smartphone or tablet can be the gateway for a hacker. So, too, can be the device or a system with video monitoring.
A technology publication reported in August that a student from the University of Central Florida gave a demonstration at the techno-security Black Hat Conference in Las Vegas on how to hack into a smart thermostat. It took him 15 seconds to gain control.
Executives at AMLI Residential and Forest City say they are cautious that they don’t push the limits of the technology so that they maintain as safe an environment as possible. Neither properties include video monitoring in their smart systems.
AMLI, Forest City careful not to intrude on privacy
While AMLI Residential is employing a smart thermostat at some of its test properties, the company does not hook the devices to the internet when they are installed. Residents can potentially connect the device to the internet, but the company makes it clear it isn’t responsible for a security breach.
“There is the risk that the resident will connect it to the internet, even though it’s our device,” Fox said. “We want to make sure that they are aware that they could possibly get hacked or breached. They take that risk.”
Forest City had a lot of inquiries from new and existing residents to use smart thermostats that allow control of the apartment environment through smart phones, said Mike Smith, Vice President Building Technology Services. The company agreed to help apartments get smarter, as long as the property had control of the installation.
Forest City teamed with an Ohio-based thermostat manufacturer and is now offering a much more high-tech device without internet access, in units it’s testing in D.C. and Texas.
However, Smith said the company is careful not to intrude on residents, even though it has access to the data. “It just gives us more insight into what’s going on in that apartment (with energy usage),” he said.
Residents like the convenience of a smart home
So far, neither company has had many problems with devices being hacked. Resident feedback has otherwise been positive at the Southern California and Dallas properties. A key part of their success has been working with a third-party technology company to handle customer service and repairs.
“Anytime there is a problem, we call them up and they deal with the issues,” he said. “Most residents work with them. We don’t have a lot of problems.”
Forest City realizes significant energy savings for residents
Forest City’s two-year trial run with The Root is gaining momentum and results are starting to take shape. The thermostats are saving residents 20-40 percent in energy costs.
Smith said the devices are also user-friendly and provide resident conveniences like delivery alerts, energy usage reports, security, and even transportation schedules and weather alerts.
Based on the numbers, Smith said residents are using the system and reaping the benefits.
“In Dallas, we’re seeing residents are using the coming home/leaving home switch, “Smith said. “When residents leave, they are shutting plug loads down. That’s where we’re seeing savings.”
Smart home technology can be good for all concerned
Ideally, Smith said, Forest City’s goal is not to invade privacy, but to provide the resident and property with useful information. Smart home technology has its advantages from a marketing standpoint and also enables the property to assess the unit and improve functionality.
One example, Smith said, is that potential system failures can be identified in advance by monitoring the apartment.
“We can see things that may need to be replaced,” he said.
That, he says, can boost resident satisfaction. When problems are resolved before they are an inconvenience to the occupant, everybody wins, Smith said. And the performance data gathered can also be used to help the resident make smarter choices.
“We are giving the resident real-time energy usage. The goal is to say at this rate your electric bill is going to be “X” a month and here are 10 things you can do to adjust that. If you’re paying for utilities and want to leave everything on, that’s your choice.”
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