If These Walls Could Talk
Actually, they can. Systems that keep your family safe, your lights on (or off) and your home running the way it should aren't just for geeks anymore.
By Wilson Rothman

(MONEY Magazine) – Home, sweet home. The phrase doesn't inspire images of broadband connections, radio waves and wireless sensors, does it? Even though all kinds of technology exists to make houses more, well, high-tech, most of us aren't yearning to turn our living spaces into science projects. We'd rather be grilling in the backyard, curling up by the fire or dancing in the kitchen than figuring out why the Wi-Fi isn't working.

Still, some home tech is actually useful, convenient and uncomplicated. We decided to test a few of the best new low-maintenance products on the market to see which offered the best payoff and required the least tech know-how.

Until this year, only a tiny sliver of the population could afford a professionally installed home-automation system. Now the business is changing. Wireless technologies have paved the way for elaborate amenities, and projects that once required tearing apart walls are now possible using double-sided tape and a screwdriver. New homes with all the technology in place are being built at a record pace, but everything on the next page works just fine even in a 100-year-old house with creaky floors.

Although you won't find revolving beds or one-button meal preparation, if you want to check whether the kids are watching TV while you're running late at the office, you can. If you want a nearly invisible home-safety system that can e-mail you when the basement floods, it's already here. A hassle-free way to automate lights using timers, choreographed dimmers and remote controls? Done.

Ken Fairbanks of Smarthome.com, a haven for automation geeks and a good first stop for the curious, says that the confluence of technology and home renovation means the time is right to start automating. "The multimedia revolution is making people feel more comfortable with electronics in the home," he says. "If you've got a laptop, TiVo or a Wi-Fi network, controlling your lights doesn't seem as scary." Turn the page for a table listing a few gems--all of which we installed and tested in a weekend--that can help you raise your home's IQ without calling a contractor.

House Calls

Keeping tabs on what's going on in your home takes vigilance. Wouldn't it be nice if the house could lend a hand?

Installing a home monitoring or lighting system doesn't require spackle, a team of technicians or a subscription to Wired. You can monitor activity in your house from across the country, and some systems allow you to control certain functions--say, to turn off the lights even if you're not home. In our tests, all necessary equipment came in the box, and the equipment worked as billed. All three systems--the monitoring systems in the left and center columns and the lighting system on the right--are new, so check websites for availability.

NOTE: [1] At press time, prices had not yet been determined.