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Lowe’s pushing home automation at Consumer Electronics Show

Mooresville-based Lowe’s Inc. wants to help you talk with your house – literally.

The company hopes the latest wave of its Iris home automation products will lure consumers, as Lowe’s angles for a share of the growing market for systems that hook everyday appliances to the Internet.

Lowe’s executives are in Las Vegas this week for the annual Consumer Electronics Show, demonstrating the newest Iris products. A voice control unit called iVee lets you control functions such as your thermostat with a spoken command: “Turn the heat up to 70.”

Other Lowe’s products on display at the show: a water valve that can shut off automatically if it detects a leak, and smart energy meters to view and manage your power usage.

As wireless Internet connections for everything from refrigerators to light switches become cheaper and more widespread, analysts estimate the market for home automation systems will grow at a brisk 47 percent consolidated annual rate through 2018.

Lowe’s faces a crowded field with a seemingly ever-growing list of competitors. Companies such as CPI Security and Time Warner Cable already have millions of subscribers to whom they’re trying to sell home automation services. Other retailers offer home automation devices. And a variety of free apps and high-end home automation professionals want their share of the market.

The presence of a decades-old home improvement retailer at the cutting-edge show for new consumer devices shows the degree to which technology pushes into more areas of everyday life. Although home automation has been around for decades, most previous systems either cost tens of thousands of dollars or required users savvy enough to install and operate high-tech equipment.

“Up until the last two years, it was split between very expensive high-end systems or DIY – the technically-able people playing around with devices,” said Jonathan Collins, an analyst for New York-based ABI Research. “That didn’t really play to the broad market.”

Lowe’s executives are confident the technology will catch on.

“I’ve often heard the argument this will never take off,” Kevin Meagher, vice president of Lowe’s Smart Home, said by phone from Las Vegas. “I believe, absolutely, it will become ubiquitous.”

“In the future, every electrical device we sell” will be Internet-ready and controllable by an app, Meagher said. “We are running down that road fast.”

Iris first rolled out in July 2012. The company offers about 40 Iris-connected products, Meagher said, in partnership with companies such as Honeywell, Schlage and Whirlpool.

Lowe’s has invested in its in-store technology platforms and spent millions of dollars upgrading wireless capability and giving associates iPhones.

Despite the Jetsons-like sound of many of the Iris functions – Lock your door with your voice! – experts say there are solid reasons to connect your home. Chief among them, aside from security, is saving energy.

“It may seem outlandish to want to connect your water heater to your Internet, but the reality is between your water heater and your HVAC, that’s 70 percent of your energy bill,” Meagher said.

By using algorithms to reduce energy when consumers don’t need their appliances, such systems can save money.

And now they’re cheaper and easier to use.

“The price point just took a free fall,” said George Borghi, the founder of Los Angeles-based Home Automation Hound. He installs high-end home automation systems and offers consultations. The technology underpinning such functions has spread quickly. “WiFi, Bluetooth, those things are in nearly every home now.”

Lowe’s Iris services start at $179, with free basic monthly service. Upgraded service and security monitoring is $10 a month. Customers can use the Iris app on their phones to control and program not only their door locks and thermostats, but also their security cameras, pet doors and lights.

Atlanta-based Home Depot, Lowe’s largest competitor and the nation’s largest home improvement retailer, sells a suite of energy management and home automation products, including its $69.88 wireless lighting control system.

Time Warner Cable offers its IntelligentHome system, with similar services, starting at $33.99 a month. CPI Security’s inTouch system starts at $29.95 a month.

For Lowe’s, Iris offers a way to ensure its customers don’t choose those other companies after Lowe’s sells them the initial hardware, Collins said.

“If someone buys a connectible door lock at Lowe’s and connects it with another company, that company now has visibility into that home,” he said.

That could give a Lowe’s competitor an edge in selling future items to that customer.

Now, buying a door lock might go from a single purchase to a lifetime relationship.

“What these connected devices do is change the relationship from selling something one time to providing service over the life of the product,” Collins said.

Portillo: 704-358-5041; Twitter: @ESPortillo
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