On a Friday night not long after my wife and I moved into our new townhouse, we finished the dishes and headed to the basement to watch TV. As Jenn passed the bathroom, she noticed the carpet outside felt sort of…squishy. With that familiar, cold homeowner’s fear rising, she peeked inside and saw that all of the water—and all of the shrimp bisque—we’d washed down the kitchen sink had come back up through the basement drain, soaking the floor and all the carpeting around it.
Turns out the previous owner had dumped bacon grease down the pipes, causing arteriosclerosis of the sewage line. Perhaps nothing could have prevented the eventual call to Roto Rooter. But if we’d had a wireless home-monitoring system in place, we would have known the instant the sink began to overflow instead of after it was too late.
By communicating with remote sensors that you place around the house, these systems can tell you whether your basement is flooding, if the furnace cuts out in the dead of winter while you’re at work, or if you’ve skipped town and forgotten to close the garage door. They can be set up to send alerts via e-mail, a cell-phone text message, or on a portable key fob you can carry in your pocket. If you want to see a more complete picture of your home from far away, some systems let you install video cameras as well as sensors and show you what’s happening via a secure Web page.
Within five years, industry watchers say, remote monitoring systems will be standard add-ons to your cable or phone service. But if you’re not inclined to wait, there are a handful of out-of-the-box versions on the market now that are easy for homeowners, even nontech-geeks, to set up and use.
The simplest type of system works on radio-frequency technology. A base station about the size of a hardback book keeps track of battery-powered sensors you install around the house. You can get sensors that detect whether a door or window is open or closed, if a toilet is leaking, or if the temperature drops below a preset level. If you’re worried about pipes freezing in the basement, for example, stick a sensor to the spot at greatest risk (most come with double-sided tape), and you’ll get an alert when the mercury falls. Flood sensors send a message when they’re covered with water. Place them under the water heater or behind the washing machine; I could have used one under my bathroom vanity.
In addition to these basic sensors, most systems offer a range of add-ons. Put a motion detector in the hallway, and you’ll be alerted if a toddler or an elderly relative gets up in the middle of the night. Stick a tilt sensor on your garage door—or the lid of your jewelry box—to know if it’s been opened. One system, Eaton Home Heartbeat, has a power sensor, which can tell you if you’ve forgotten to turn off the coffeemaker or iron, or if the kids are watching TV when they’re supposed to be asleep. Power sensors can also notify you indirectly of an emergency, say, if your sump pump or well pump unexpectedly turns on. Eaton also offers a water shutoff controller: Install the motor-driven valve on the supply pipe, then position wireless water sensors anywhere you fear a leak. Within seconds of water detection, the sensor sends a signal to the controller, shutting off your main line.
If you want to see what’s happening at home, you’ll need a system that lets you install cameras as well as sensors. But unlike simpler systems that require only a phone line to send you alert messages, video-capable systems require you to have a broadband Internet connection. Two leading camera-equipped options, AT&T Remote Monitor and iControl Networks, create secure Web pages, where you can view and monitor your home. (To access all features, these services require a subscription fee, generally $10 to $15 a month.) You can program the cameras for “if/then” scenarios: If the motion sensor is triggered, then take 15 seconds of video and e-mail it to me.
For most of us, these systems are unlikely to replace the traditional burglar and fire-alarm setups just yet. One problem: Full home coverage costs quite a bit more than the many discount deals you can get on old-fashioned security systems by browsing the Internet. But for early adopters, these new technologies are not to be missed. They provide a remarkably detailed view of your house, making you feel at home even when you’re away.