A high-tech revolution means you can now monitor your home remotely from a smartphone.
It also enables you to control a host of tasks, from door security to cutting energy bills and even feeding your pets.
The Mail on Sunday guides you through the technology jungle and shows how you can join in.
Look out for callers
The world of home security has long moved on from traditional burglar alarms which had a habit of going off by mistake. Now you can keep an eye on your home remotely via spy cameras connected to a smartphone.
A video doorbell costs from about £100 to more than £1,000 if you also want it linked up to a comprehensive house security system. A pinhole camera sits above the bell so you can see and talk to anyone who comes knocking at your door through a software app downloaded on to your mobile phone.
It is welcome technology for the security conscious, photographing strangers who come to your front door – or even just walk past – and then sending a picture alert to your phone. You can also talk to the visitor, particularly useful if you do not wish to miss a special delivery from the postman.
Andy Mack is founder of home technology provider Cyberhomes, based in Thame, Oxfordshire. His company installs a wide range of home functions that can be controlled from a single phone app. He says: ‘Security should be at the heart of any system – and the latest technology can help make sure that you and your home are better protected.’
Creature comforts: Pet owners concerned about the welfare of their animals can watch over them when out of the house by using a home device linked to a smartphone. Above, Keeba Roy with a hungry Harry
Among the security doorbell systems he favours is the top-of-the-range Savant Door Station which including installation costs around £1,500. Those on a shoestring budget may consider an £89 Ring which also communicates with your mobile.
Standalone security cameras that are linked to your smartphone can also be purchased to monitor both inside and outside your property.
These include the £159 indoor Canary that not only acts as an eyes and ears around the home – but can work in the dark. There is also the £313 outdoor Nest Cam IQ that sends an alert to your phone if an unfamiliar face is spotted – and includes a facility to talk back. Mack says: ‘A property need not be cluttered with electronic boxes and jumbles of wires.
‘A single app can remotely control your entire home.’
I can feed my cat when I’m out – and even tell him off if he’s greedy
Pet owners concerned about the welfare of their animals can watch over them when out of the house by using a home device linked to a smartphone.
Options such as the £249 Furbo and £139 Petcube Play Pet use cameras to keep an eye on your pet.
Keeba Roy has a Petcube to watch over her cats Harry and Max when she goes to work while they remain in her flat in Greenwich, South East London.
The device even has a remote-controlled laser beam that she can direct around a room for the cats to chase. The 30-year-old assistant arts editor says: ‘It is comforting to keep an eye on them during the day and make sure they are not up to any mischief – and I use the laser game if they appear bored.
‘Occasionally I might stay out overnight and leave them meals in an automatic food dispenser. Petcube allows me to check that it has worked.
‘Harry can get greedy and eat all the food if I am not careful, but strong words over the speaker soon sort him out.’
Keeba can talk to her cats through a microphone on her phone that is linked to the speaker in the pet-watching device.
The Furbo even allows you to throw your pet a snack by pressing an option on your smartphone app.
Separately, there are programmable feeders such as the £140 PetSafe Automatic Pet Feeder and £33 Cat Mate Automatic Pet Feeder.
These open a food compartment for pets to eat from at set times.
Treats: The £249 Furbo can throw out a dog snack
Improve the mood with smart lighting
The traditional incandescent light bulb started to be replaced by the compact fluorescent lamp and light emitting diode nine years ago as part of European Union rules to cut energy waste. Although many households still prefer the glow of the older bulbs the replacements use a tenth of the electricity which means each bulb knocks at least £2 a year off energy bills.
The next step in this lighting revolution is the arrival of ‘smart’ lights controlled from a mobile phone. These let you turn off lights remotely and can be controlled to deter burglars when you are away from home. They can also save energy by being dimmed, while some are able to change colour to suit a mood or keep a beat to the sound of music.
Popular options include the Philips Hue range – from £15 for a white bulb to £50 for a dimmable colour light. They both use standard fittings and can also be controlled by a traditional wall switch. You must buy a separate £50 ‘bridge’ that plugs into a home modem. This allows you to control up to a maximum 50 smart bulbs via your smartphone.
George Yianni is head of technology at Signify which provides the Philips Hue bulbs. He says: ‘You can start with basic white energy-saving bulbs controlled by a smartphone app and then build from there. With coloured bulbs you can turn lights to a blue and white hue that can keep you up and alert during long dark winter months. They can also be turned to restful warmer shades in the evening. You do not even need to get off the sofa to control them.’
He adds: ‘We even have multi-media options where free software can be downloaded on to your computer that connects to a TV, games console or music system. This allows lighting to fade in and change colour to coincide with the sounds.’
Another smart light option includes the energy saving £20 Hive Active bulb that can be turned on and off – as well as dimmed or put on a timer using a smartphone from wherever you are.
The bulbs plug into standard light fittings but require an £80 ‘Hive Hub’ to plug into a router so it can be controlled or monitored through your smartphone.
For those wanting to embrace the full potential of 21st Century lighting the £200 Nanoleaf system includes nine light panels that sit together, providing a colour scheme to suit your room or mood. Colours or effects can be changed remotely using a smartphone or electronic device, such as Alexa.
Leslie Chen, of Nanoleaf, says: ‘Such lights can really change the mood and ambience of a home – providing mellow yellows and oranges as you are getting ready for bed and perhaps brighter reds and strong blues when you want to get active. It is not just about finding the right lighting effect to suit how you feel but to bring a sense of wellbeing.’
Clear space for more entertainment
These days you can access hundreds of television channels, thousands of movies and millions of music tunes – all piped through the internet. When it comes to watching TV you must still pay £150.50 a year for the privilege of an advert-free BBC but that aerial on the roof is most likely redundant.
Many homes now plug in a set-top box – costing anything from £20 to £200 – for access to more than a hundred channels streamed over the internet or picked up by a satellite dish. Some modern TV sets now come with this technology already built in and do not require a separate box.
In control: Andy Mack is a founding partner of Cyberhomes, a digital solutions company which installs security, audio, visual and internet cabling to allow full control of a property from an app
Once wired up you can enjoy free access to on-demand services such as BBC iPlayer and ITV Hub as well as paid-for video options such as £7.99 a month Amazon Prime and £5.99 a month Netflix. Shows can be accessed not just via a remote control but a computer laptop or smartphone.
Music streaming is the most popular way to enjoy favourite songs – with 45 billion tunes streamed each year over the internet. This outstrips the total from downloads and listening to CDs and vinyl.
Downloading a free app on your smartphone not only enables you to enjoy music on the go but by investing in a wi-fi gadget, such as the £30 Google Chromecast, it can also be connected to an old fashioned hi-fi system. Your mobile is then used as a remote control to play the music through the stereo.
Music streaming providers such as Spotify offer access to more than 20 million tracks.
The look of love: Coloured lighting can change to suit your mood
You can sign up for free but for £9.99 a month a ‘premium’ service cuts out adverts and allows you to download music to enjoy later. Competitors to consider include Tidal, Apple Music, Napster and Deezer. Technology expert Ion Smith of Cyberhomes says: ‘It can cost you more than £1,000 installing Ethernet cables in wall cavities – but it will allow you to benefit from further innovations in entertainment.
‘For example, 4K ultra high-definition TV is becoming increasingly popular – and you can simply plug into this technology if you have Ethernet cables.
‘Otherwise you might have compatibility issues or not be able to take full advantage of it if your TV connection is not up to scratch.’
Take control of energy bills
The average household now spends £1,400 a year on electricity and gas – a bill you can cut by up to a third by using a ‘smart’ thermostat.
Traditional heating systems involve a simple thermostat dial stuck on a wall inside the house that automatically turns radiators on or off when a set temperature in the home is reached.
Energy saver: A Drayton Wiser thermostat
Yet there are now thermostats packed with sensors that decide if a room needs heating or not, turning the heating off when a room is not occupied. The devices are connected to the internet via a router in your home and you can change settings, such as times and temperature, wherever you are by tapping into your phone app.
Among the top rated options is the £179 Hive Active system, which offers an intuitive thermostat to ensure unused rooms are not being heated.
Others include the slick-looking Nest (£250) and competitively priced £140 Drayton Wiser. Alternatives include the £199 Tado Smart and no-frills £140 Netatmo smart thermostat.
You should budget a further £100 if you wish to pay an expert to install your equipment, though those with DIY skills might manage without help. Individual radiator thermostats are also worth considering. Drayton Wiser sells them for £45 each.
Smart thermostats should not be confused with ‘smart’ energy meters. These devices are currently being rolled out as part of an £11 billion Government-backed scheme to encourage everyone to replace traditional gas and electricity meters with those that can talk remotely to their energy supplier. They come with an energy monitor that often sits in the kitchen.
The idea is that households will become more energy price conscious when they see how much they are wasting – for example by leaving electronic gadgets on standby.
Smart meters are not without their faults. They often stop working if you switch energy supplier.