If Alex Lelchuk wants to watch an episode of Breaking Bad in his home in the Armatage neighborhood, he only needs to say so.
Lelchuk’s home automation system, which uses Josh.ai voice control, won’t stop at just finding the episode Lelchuck verbally requests. If Lelchuk calls for the episode during a dark winter evening, his system will also automatically turn on his living room lights to a setting reserved for watching TV at night. If he makes the request during the middle of the day, his system will keep the lights off.
This is an example of how home automation systems tie different components of a living space together into one central application. Locking the front door, dimming the lights, turning on the fireplace and switching on the TV set — all of these small tasks can be done with the push of a button or mention of a few words.
Is home automation a necessity? No, Lelchuk said, but neither are dishwashers or washing machines. “It’s just something that you use every single day, so once you improve that experience, it’s like, ‘This is awesome!’” he said.
Lelchuk owns St. Louis Park-based Lelch Audio Video, one of several companies in the Twin Cities metro that sells and installs smart home automation technology to homeowners and renters. On top of systems that can lock the doors, turn on the TV and dim the lights by voice, the technology his company sells can also close the curtains, play music in speakers concealed in the walls and turn on the security cameras installed throughout the house.
Convincing people who’ve never been exposed to this type of technology of its benefits can be challenging.
“They’re like, ‘It’s a light switch, I know how to use a light switch, I’ve used it my whole life, I don’t need to make it better,’” Lelchuk said. “But that’s actually a big reason why it’s so impactful. Because you use it so much, so if you make it better, it’s like, ‘Wow, this impacts my life a lot.’”
Once a person gets used to home automation, in other words, it’s hard to go back.
Lelch typically works with clients building new homes or in big remodeling stages of old homes. This makes it easier to blend the technology into the home’s design so that it’s nearly invisible to the naked eye. A 4K high-definition TV built into the wall, for example, may blend into the home’s artwork when it’s turned off. Sound from speakers built behind the drywall will come out of small apertures punctured into the wall.
This high level of technology, of course, comes with a price tag. Lelchuk estimated that installing a full, robust automation system in a new home in a wealthy neighborhood like Linden Hills would cost between $18,000 and $80,000.
Building your own system
At The Miles Apartments in Uptown, basic automation is already built into units for rent. Residents have access to a video intercom system and can control lights, locks and power outlets with their smartphones.
But for tenant Valdis Gravis, the standard system wasn’t good enough.
“It’s a great thing that they’re offering this capability,” Gravis said of the Miles, but he compared the user-friendliness of the system in his apartment to a “poorly made website.”
So Gravis, who has a degree in electronic engineering and experience installing similar systems, decided to build his own system. “I have a techie side of me that likes to put it all together,” he said.
He installed his own smart light bulbs, changed the thermostat and set up his own security system and entertainment system. He uses Amazon’s Alexa to voice-control the vast majority of his apartment.
Gravis also installed four security cameras around his apartment, which he said comes from paranoia leftover from living and working in security and public safety in his hometown of Caracas, Venezuela, one of the most violent cities in the Americas.
The result, he acknowledged, is a system that’s not quite as robust as what a professional company would install. Consumer-grade cameras, he said, are susceptible to hacking, so people with lots of valuable things in their homes may not want to use them. And without his experience setting up home automation systems, it would have been a lot harder to do.
But he estimates he spent just a few thousand dollars on his setup. And it still affords plenty of convenience to his routines. When he wakes up in the morning, the bathroom light is set to automatically turn on. His speaker system plays a song and then jumps into public radio news. His Roomba vacuum is programmed to clean his apartment at certain times.
What’s the benefit to having all this? “Laziness,” Gravis said. “There is a kind of cool factor when you sit on the couch and say one word.”
One factor in home automation systems that could keep potential buyers away from adopting the technology: privacy. Consumers interested in installing home automation systems to boost the security of their homes may be wary of giving up their personal data to Amazon by using an app like Alexa, for example.
Lelchuk emphasized that the voice app that his company uses does not sell people’s personal data to other companies.
“The product that we use, it is not a tool of marketing,” Lelchuk said. “Google and Alexa are 100% pure marketing devices.”
Gravis, for his part, is OK with that. He currently works in technology and stressed that so many companies are already keeping tabs on consumers through their cell phone and internet use.
“There is a way for even simple retailers to track who you are,” he said. “If you pay for something, they know who you are.”