If you already have a home control system installed in your house, you're probably enjoying many of the benefits of automation. But there are lots of little "add-on" features that might have never occurred to you. Listed below are some of the less obvious projects and features that can enhance your automated lifestyle. With a little ingenuity and a few additional sensors and gizmos, there’s almost no limit to the cool things your house can do for you.
1. Garage Door Control: If you have kids, you know how frustrating it can be when they leave the garage door open. Cats are another culprit—they always seem to run in and out right when the door is closing, sending the door right back up. Setting up your system to automatically close the garage door when it's left open for more than 15 minutes is a relatively easy bit of programming that might not even require any additional equipment. If you really want to get fancy, you can also integrate an IP camera with your remote-access control system so you can accept deliveries safely at home even when you're at work. With the deliveryman on the phone you can open the door, watch him put your package inside, then shut the door to keep everything safe until you return home.
2. Device Control for Kids: Control your home theater and video game consoles with a touch screen password so the kids get only the amount of "screen time" you want them to have. Mom or dad enters the password, which enables the media devices and starts the countdown timer. When time is up, the devices shut off until the password is entered again. An announcement agent can let them know they've got 10 minutes left—that's plenty of time to save a game in progress. You can even specify different allotments of time for different kids, for different devices or even for different games, and lock them out entirely during specific days or times or under other conditions. As an added bonus, using device control also helps ensure that your children's caretakers (nannies and babysitters) don't over-use videos and video games as a babysitting technique.
3. Fridge Door Sensor: An open fridge leaks money and energy. A poorly positioned container of leftovers can cost you a bundle if it prevents the door from closing all the way, and younger kids somehow manage to forget to close the door when they help themselves to goodies. A simple sensor on the refrigerator door can flash the kitchen lights if the door is left open for 15 seconds, or play a house-wide announcement if the timer ticks up to a minute. With this simple upgrade, you'll never cry over spoiled milk again.
4. Other Flashing Light Ideas: The "flashing light" trick isn't just for the kitchen. Simple programming can flash the lights all over the house when the doorbell rings, when a phone call comes in, or when a smoke detector goes off. It's sometimes hard to hear all of your various bells and buzzers when you're watching TV or listening to music in another room. But these events are hard to miss when the overhead lights let you know what’s happening.
5. Garage/Outbuilding Monitoring: In addition to monitoring the door of your garage, you can also keep tabs ON the temperature inside. Many of us store items in our garage that can be harmed by extreme heat or cold, so take advantage of the "thermistor" that may already be in your garage or shop and have the system send you a text or e-mail (or play an onscreen announcement) if things get too hot or too cold.
6. Faux Guard Dog: If you’ve installed exterior speakers for outdoor parties, you may want to know that you can also use them as part of your outdoor security setup. One neat trick is to have your exterior motion detectors trigger the sound of a barking rottweiler to "discourage" backyard trespassers. Back this up with a couple of low-tech "Beware of Dog" signs and you end up with a pretty good deterrent to would-be burglars.
7. Vacation Home Alerts: If you own a vacation home, you've probably got it wired up with security to keep an eye on things when you're not around. Two often overlooked possibilities involve the weather. If your vacation house is near a coastline, your system can alert you to a sudden change in barometric pressure—which could indicate the approach of a severe storm. In addition to sending an e-mail or text message, a barometer alert could also trigger automated storm shutters. For vacation homes away from the coast, a "hard freeze" alert can let you know if special measures need to be taken to prevent burst pipes and flooding.
8. Power-saving "Mockupancy": Speaking of vacations, for less than 40 bucks you can add a "FakeTV" (www.faketv.com) to your automation system. This simple device simulates the flashing glow of a television screen when you're not around. Sure, you could use your actual television instead of a fake one, but the FakeTV creates the same effect while using much less power—about as much as a simple night light. Your home control system can turn the device on and off at random intervals when your house is in "vacation" mode, saving energy while creating the illusion that someone is sitting there channel surfing.
9. Lock Programming: Don't burden your teenagers with the responsibility of home security. If your teens are old enough to be coming home by themselves late at night, you can integrate your passcode door locks with your security system so the alarms automatically stand down when your son or daughter codes in after hours. The system can then re-arm the house after a reasonable interval so they don't have to remember to do it. A text message or e-mail notification can also let you know exactly what time your teenager actually arrived home, so you can grill them about it in the morning.
10. Bed Sensor: If you get up in the night, chances are pretty good that you're heading to the bathroom. Why not use a sofa/bed sensor with time-conditional programming to light your way to the toilet if you have to get up, say, between midnight and 5:00 a.m.? The bathroom light only needs to be ramped up to 20% or so -- just enough for you to take care of business and get back to bed. The same sensor that triggered the light can then turn it back off once you're tucked back under the covers.
If any of these ideas piques your interest, it might be time to meet with your dealer/integrator and discuss the various ways your existing home control system can do more for you. Most of these projects can be implemented with some smart programming and a minimum of additional equipment.