These home controls make you smarter, safer

Michael Johnson
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Everyone wants more time — more time with the kids, more time with friends and spouses, more time to take that wind surfing class in the Bahamas. One way to get more time for yourself is to eliminate or automate the small tasks around the house that eat up precious moments every day.

We've rounded up a handful of easy ways to automate the little things in your home so that you can get on with the big things.

Remotely control your door locks
No one likes having to be home to let service people into the house in the middle of the day. You either have to use a sick or vacation day, or race home to meet them. Both scenarios cost you time and productivity — and there are easier ways to deal with the issue from a distance.

Kwikset's Smartcode lever handle door locks and dead bolts offer you a way to allow or deny access to your home without actually being present. The Smartcode locks can be opened or locked by key or by a code that you punch into an integrated 10-digit number pad on the lock. The locks hold up to 30 different codes, and you can add or delete a code any time you like. The day of your service call, you can program in a code and give it to the service company. When you get home that evening, you can delete that code so it can't be used again.

Another feature of some of the Smartcode locks is the ability to link in with your home control system or security system. This lets you remotely unlock or lock the doors using a PC, smartphone, or cell phone.

Remember that Smartcode locks are only as secure as the security of the codes you program in. If you program in a code for a service person but don't delete it, you are defeating the purpose of having the locks in the first place. You also need to remember to keep the physical keys handy and secure in the event that you miss or ignore the audible reminder that the keypad batteries are running low.

Smartcode locks and deadbolts are available in different finishes at big box home improvement stores starting around $100. Online retailers like Amazon also have the same locks for about the same price.

Control your home's security
For less than $200, you can get a security system called Lasershield that protects your abode using wireless technology and infrared detectors. Tripping the infrared sensors sets off the alarm.

The basic system's master alarm unit plugs into both a regular wall outlet and a telephone outlet. Then place the battery-powered, infrared detector unit where you want it. Each detector unit can cover up to 1,200 square feet. The system includes keychain remotes to arm and disarm the system, as well as multiple panic buttons to place around the house that let you activate the alarm in the event of an emergency. The system is expandable and adaptable, capable of learning or unlearning more detector modules and remotes as needed.

You can opt for alarm monitoring by Lasershield as well, but you don't need that service in order to use the system itself. Plugging the master unit into the phone jack lets you remotely check whether the system has been set off, remotely activate or deactivate the system, or turn on the hidden microphone built into master alarm unit in order to check up on your kids, babysitter, or service people.

Lasershield is available directly from the manufacturer as well as from online retailers like Amazon. Pricing starts at just under $200 for the standard bundle, climbing to more than $300 for the biggest bundled system. Additional detectors and remote controls are available for individual purchase.

Lights and fans that control themselves
Honeywell's programmable light switches allow you to control off and on times for lights and fans via simple programming. You can have up to seven different programs (one per day) in place to control on and off times. Try programming an early off time for school nights while allowing more time for the kids to stay up on the weekends. With your lights and fans on automated switches, you'll save energy by ensuring nothing is running when no one is home.

Regularly programmed lights eliminate the need for vacation light timers when you go away. If you need to override the programmed on and off times, the switches act as conventional on/off switches even when a program is running. Keep in mind that although the programmed switches will help stop lights and fans from being left on, they are not infallible. If kids insist on using the master on/off switch instead of using the program setting, potential energy and convenience gains can be lost.

Honeywell programmable controls can be found online direct from Honeywell and at places like Amazon. The controls start at about $30 and go up to $50, and come in a range of different colors to match your home decor.

Maintain the perfect temperature
Another way to automate your life is to turn over control of your home's heating and cooling systems to a programmable thermostat. As it so happens, two of the people responsible for the design of the iPod have come up with what is arguably the best-functioning and best-looking programable thermostat ever.

Known as NEST, this learning thermostat turns your systems on and off automatically to maintain the indoor temperature that you desire. The thermostat remembers the time, day, and temperature every time you adjust its temperature dial. Based on this continuous input of information, it programs itself based on your preferences and actions to best optimize your comfort and energy savings.

For example, if the system has learned that you are usually not moving about at 4 a.m., it turns down the heater — but if its motion detector picks up that you are moving around at that time, it turns on and brings the house up to your preferred temperature. Conversely, if you go away on vacation, the NEST basically stops running the heating and cooling routine when it detects an extended period of inactivity.

NEST is fantastic in that it learns from your input. In the beginning, it behooves you to pay extra attention to adjusting and readjusting the thermostat, in order to give the NEST the largest amount of training input possible.

Nest is available from the company's online store for about $250, with an option to add professional installation for an additional $119. Nest can also be found on Amazon for just over $300 dollars, but that doesn't include a professional installation.

Water your landscape effortlessly
Waking up early to water the lawn or remembering to do it after work is a dicey proposition for most busy people. Even if you get an automated sprinkler timer, you still need to keep a weather eye out to ensure you aren't watering during a rainstorm or underwatering during a heat wave. Toro eliminates the need to worry about this chore by making the Xtra Smart EC-Xtra Timer and Wireless Weather Sensor. Although the name is a mouthful, the timer itself is compact and easy to use. Using the built-in advisor programming system ensures that you water when you need it.

The sensor controls up to 10 valves, and the wireless weather sensor shuts the system down during rain or freezing temperatures. When the seasons turn, there is a single switch to change it from a cool weather setting to the hot weather setting, ensuring your watering needs are continuously met without needing to reprogram the controller every time the seasons change.

Toro's system is cool, but it can be foiled. A broken valve or dead battery will defeat its intended purpose of keeping your landscaping lush and green without wasting water. You'll occasionally want to take your morning cup of joe on the deck to make sure that everything is still running smoothly.

The Xtra Smart EC-Xtra Timer and Wireless Weather Sensor is available online from Toro and Amazon for around $170. The Home Depot has the unit available online as well as in store.

Mission accomplished!
Remotely controlling your home's security and allowing your property's life support systems to control themselves are simple, inexpensive ways to start automating some of the more menial tasks in your life. With these simple systems and devices, you can get back precious minutes and hours that would have been otherwise wasted on things that don't really require your daily hands-on involvement.

[Image credits: mrbill, karindalziel]

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