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From smart thermostats to complete home automation systems, technology is enhancing Edmonton homes.

Illustration by Jeff Kulak

Even after a glass of wine on date night, you’re still worrying about the kids, so you pull out your smartphone to check in. With a swipe of a finger, your anxiety is alleviated: Security footage shows the kids quietly watching a movie with the babysitter.

From the restaurant, that same smartphone app allows you turn the sprinkler system on, close the garage door, arm the security system, pull down the motorized blinds and turn off the basement lights. Usually, you needn’t bother, since the house is programmed to do these tasks automatically at 8 p.m., when it shifts to “night mode.”

It may sound futuristic – perhaps reminiscent of the starship Enterprise – but home-automation technology is already here. Edmonton homeowners can pick up entry-level versions at the hardware store, like a smart thermostat to control and monitor the heating of your home via your smartphone; or keypad deadbolts that allow you to lock or unlock your doors remotely. In the smartest dwellings, though, all systems are synchronized by one of a growing number of home technology companies springing up in the Edmonton area, like Sherwood Park’s One Smart Home.

“We can control all of the different systems of the house – everything from blinds and lights to the pool and spa, to the home security system,” says Taylor Quast, the company’s business and marketing development manager. “We specialize in home automation, which takes all of those separate controls and puts all of them into one place.” For many of the company’s clients – mainly builders of high-end homes and the wealthy people who buy them – entertainment is near the top of the priority list. Nearly everyone wants to be able to play the music on their phones or computers via built-in speakers and access their favourite programs throughout the house.

This is why Travis Minaker and his wife went high-tech with their new home in Sherwood Park. Early in the building process, they hired Edmonton’s Paramount AV to create a multi-zone audio system in the house, complete with in-ceiling speakers and a control room housing modems, PVRs and other equipment. Instead of juggling remote controls, the couple uses either a smartphone or universal remote to play music anywhere in the house. “I find I listen to music a lot more,” says Minaker. The system makes it easy to either access his own music collection or use apps like Songza or Spotify to find new tunes. 

The tech has its aesthetic benefits, too. With wires and hardware tucked away, the home has clean lines and minimal clutter, which both Minaker and his wife enjoy. In fact, many of Paramount AV’s clients are motivated to go high-tech – at least with regard to entertainment – in order to declutter.

“It frees up so much space,” says the company’s owner, Chris Haugen. “You don’t have a TV stand in each room, with all kinds of wires. It’s just a very clean, modern look.”

In the near future, the Minakers want to tie in a surveillance system to monitor their home remotely via smartphone. They don’t plan to add lighting or climate control, but could easily change their minds later. Before the walls were up, they opted to “future proof” the house by installing wiring that could support full home automation down the road.

Homeowners can be very different in the creature comforts they seek. While one client may want a remote-controlled cooler to drive around and circulate beer at a party, another client with a disability wants to adjust the height of a bed or TV with a button worn on a necklace. Another person might travel a lot for work and want to briefly open the front door to let a delivery person leave a package in the foyer. “When you’re looking at technology, you want to shift your focus from the technology itself to lifestyle. It really comes down to how you live,” Quast says.

The demand for home automation is growing, say industry insiders. Real estate agent Kerri-lyn Holland says a growing number of her clients are seeking automated homes after seeing them on television or hearing about them from friends. “It just makes the whole house more user-friendly,” says Holland, who speaks from experience. She lives in a new, custom-built home in Crestwood with her husband and two young children, and enjoys a smart entertainment system controlled with an iPad app. In any almost any room, the family can listen to or watch anything they want, whenever they want – even in the children’s rooms during spontaneous games of Ring Around the Rosie.

Of course, none of this is cheap. A complete home automation system typically runs about five to 10 per cent of the overall build cost, according to several companies. Older homes are more difficult – and costly – to automate, largely because of wiring challenges. That’s why most of Holland’s clients choose to build new rather than renovate and retrofit an older home. 

But according to Jason Weir, owner of Wavefront Automation in Edmonton, it’s doable. He creates systems in both new and existing homes, and for plenty of middle-class homeowners. A basic system in an average home can cost as little as $2,500 or more than $50,000 if a homeowner has a big imagination and a budget to match. While multi-zone audio systems are the most popular service he provides, he also installs systems that allow electrical outlets to be turned off remotely if you’re worried you left the curling iron on.

Safety is a big focus for Edmonton’s SmartHome F/X as well. In addition to entertainment, irrigation, energy monitoring and other automation services, owner Don Abraham has installed sophisticated security systems complete with motorized gates, intercom systems, interior and exterior cameras, metal-sensitive driveways, doorbells that send alerts to homeowners’ cellphones, and even panic rooms.

But it’s not necessary to go with all of the bells and whistles, even when it comes to safety. Abraham recommends starting with a basic system you can build on later and, if possible, roughing in the low-voltage electrical work so you can expand the system without ripping apart walls to re-wire. “Keep it simple and spend the money where you think you’ll need it most,” he says.

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