For nearly two years, James and Estefania Cunha-Free used their smartphones to set up their DVR to record sports. James is a die-hard fan of the Tennessee Volunteers and the Atlanta Braves. Estefania, who hails from Portugal, is a soccer fan. And the Frees didn't want to miss games.
Smartphones and homes What apps can control now
1. Burglar alarm: Major providers offer multidevice systems you can monitor from afar.
2. Generator: Let's you know whether the generator is working and emails you if it's not.
3. Thermostat: Senses patterns in human presence and controls equipment.
4. Lighting: Let's you control lights via an app, including setting up vacation schedules.
5. Smoke, carbon monoxide detectors: Can notify you of an alarm.
6. Refrigerator: Alerts you if the power is out and even if the door is ajar.
7. Range: Let's you preheat the oven, set the timer and check cooking status without being in the room.
8. door locks: Let's you remotely lock or unlock doors, and change who is authorized to enter your home or office.
9. Water alarm or shutoff: Sends a text in the event of a water leak; shutoffs can can minimize flooding.
10. Washer and dryer: Let's you start cycles and monitor progress. Provides an alert if the dryer duct is clogged.
Source: Consumer Reports, June 2014
They didn't really think about using their phones to control systems in their house until Feb. 27.
That's when a man with a drug problem, who was later apprehended, used a sledgehammer to break down the front door of their Mount Pleasant home and went through every room stealing electronics.
The Frees, who have two daughters, ages 12 and 6, were shaken by the incident. They decided to get a burglar alarm system, which they like largely because they can control it from their smartphones and know which family member enters the house and when.
"It's so easy," says James. "We're connected by WiFi but you can arm or disarm it anywhere. You can get messages anytime the alarm is deactivated."
Since then, the Frees, who are also avid bird watchers, have set up a Dropcam video camera trained on the birdfeeders in their backyard, which they can watch from anywhere on their cell phones. The app for the Dropcam even stores a history of when the camera caught movement.
James, a program analyst at NOAA, says he looks the footage not only to see bird visitors but to verify if precipitation that radar indicates is actually happening on the ground.
Estefania, a school teacher, has watched while basking in the sun on the Isle of Palms beach this summer. They anticipate checking in on their feeders while visiting Portugal later this year.
Not just the young
In a recent article, Consumer Reports noted that 20 percent of its subscribers use their phone or tablet to control some part of their home and that nearly 70 percent of those who don't expressed an interest in doing so in the future.
Mike Eykyn, a partner at Coastal Burglar Alarm, says the use of smartphones and apps has changed dramatically since his company starting offering the service about seven years ago.
"Back then, it was mostly to the 'geek' customers that wanted cutting-edge technology," says Eykyn. "Today we are finding 95 percent of our new installations are using this technology. Our customer base dates back to 1959 and every day existing customers are upgrading to this technology as well."
Eykyn says use of the technology is not limited to younger, more tech-savvy people.
"There is no generation gap," says Eykyn."We are finding consumers want to control their lighting, A/C units, door locks, cameras, water shut off, garage doors and alarm systems.
"Moms can immediately receive email or text messages when children get home from school each day as well as actually see the child walking in the front door. Sons and daughters who are caretakers can receive emails and text messages of daily activity and actually see live video of their parent who might be living alone," he says.
"Consumers can remotely let service personnel into their homes. Vacation homeowners can raise or lower the temperature in their home prior to arriving. Managing a home is a lot easier; air conditioning units in beach rentals can be turned down remotely after the person has checked out."
Eykyn says one increasingly popular feature is the ability to shut off the water remotely in the event of a leak, such as from a hot water heater or hoses on a washing machine.
Alarm system boom
Needless to say, the alarm industry is among the benefactors of the technology and Eykyn says the industry has embraced it as a "stepping stone for the future."
"The manufacturers of all types of appliances and consumer goods know they must design new products with this technology," says Eykyn, noting that Coastal Burglar Alarm recently wired a house for automated refrigerators and stoves.
"People not only want to control the devices but ... this technology allows the device to report service issues back to the consumer wherever they are through their smartphone."
Fred Fabian and Ed Dopson of eLifespaces agree, noting that "everyone's got their own app."
The cost for most apps range from free to $15.
"They are for the most part product specific. You've got something for your alarm, something for your cameras, something for your Nest (digital thermostat)," says Fabian.
Dopson adds, "If you have an iPhone or an Android, you're controlling something. It might be your remote app for your Apple TV.
It works better than the remote control than Apple gives you.
Anybody who has an iPhone or Android is controlling something somewhere.
Fabian says today everyone should be using a smartphone to control their thermostat.
"That will save you more money, bar none, than anything else you can do," he says.
Privacy, other concerns
But even as professional technophiles who have a James Bond-like office on upper Meeting Street, Fabian and Dopson have some concerns about where the technology is headed, primarily protecting privacy.
They pointed to a common TV ad showing a break-in and the alarm monitor watching it.
"Guess what?" says Fabian. "They can see you when there isn't a burglar there, too. ... It's OK if I have a camera that is private to me and there are plenty of protocols on the network that lock it down so that others can't get in, but what you've done (with some alarm systems) is let someone else in. If you have, you don't have any privacy.
"If I can underline the No. 1 issue, it's privacy. That's the discussion that we as a society need to have."
And, he says, it goes beyond strangers having video access in your home.
The latest warning sign, says Fabian, is Google's purchase of Nest, the maker of digital thermostats controlled by smartphones and tablets, for $3.2 billion this year.
Then last month, Nest Labs' purchase of DropCam for $555 million in cash.
In an interview with The New York Times, Nest co-founder Matt Rogers emphasized that "Dropcam data will not be shared with Google or any third party." Instead, the plan is for Nest and Dropcam to work together to reinvent products that will help shape the future of the home, he said.
Google bought Nest and then turned around and sold to the utility companies the right to turn their thermostats on and off when they are trying to manage power on the grid, without your consent.
Fabian admits, however, to "subscribing a little bit to the great conspiracy theory." Nest has deals with energy companies that are using subscriber information to monitor peak demands. He worries that the utilities will use the access to control in-home thermostats without a homeowner's consent.
"That bothers us a lot," says Fabian. "This is my house, my thermostat. ... I don't give you the right to do that."
He compares the agreements that consumers sign for the technology to the fine print on a credit card application, which allows companies to "change the rules anytime they want without your permission."
"We've been in it too long and seen too many creepy things from others. Google is a fine, very reputable company, but what concerns us is the privacy issue."
Reach David Quick at 937-5516.
Ed Dopson (left) and Fred Fabian of eLifespaces, located on upper Meeting Street, have made a profession out of customizing electronics in the home and office. But they also warn consumers to safeguard their privacy.×
Smartphones have the ability to control an array of home features, from opening and closing draperies and arming burglar alarms to even shutting off water.×
This is the smartphone view of the Free’s bird feeders that they can see anywhere from the office, the beach or even while on vacation in Portugal.×