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Smart home technology is convenient, state-of-the-art and undeniably cool. But does it help where it really matters—in consumers' pocket?
The growing market ranges from Wi-Fi thermometers to automated kitchen appliances and air conditioners. Yet a central question remains: Do these bells and whistles—and the technology that helps them run—actually help consumers save money at a time when heating and electricity bills are soaring?
Energy efficient homes are garnering more attention in the face of a wave of higher utility costs. Residential electricity prices are expected to rise nearly 4 percent this year, according to data from the Energy Information Administration, a function of a brutal winter that lit a fire under oil and natural gas costs.
Smart tech helps give consumers the ability to monitor their energy use, and downshift accordingly, thus helping save money in the long run. Still, the overall trappings of energy efficient homes and their initial investment costs don't come cheap, and certainly suggests energy efficient technology is out of reach of a broad swath of consumers.
Meanwhile, most smart tech providers have a built-in bias toward homeowners, who have the means to make upgrades that can easily cost buyers thousands of dollars. Although smart thermostats are relatively inexpensive, a user has to own a home—or at least be responsible for the electric meter—in order to get the benefits.
"Some people are motivated primarily by daily peace of mind and the convenience of a really great premium security system," said Jeremy Warren, vice president of innovation at Vivint, a company that provides energy saving applications, solar panels and home surveillance equipment.
Market participants say smart home users are motivated by a host of concerns, including cost savings and the environment. A study last month by the University of Michigan's Energy Institute found that concern over the toll energy use is taking on the environment cut across income levels.
Still, Warren acknowledged a nebulous "cool factor" that lets users take control of your home with a computer or mobile device most used by upper income homeowners. That helps with products like Vivint's new Sky platform, a cloud-computing solution that gleans information from appliance and energy use, then makes suggestions on how to save energy.
"A lot of people coming to purchase [smart home] products are doing it for the status symbol and the 'it' factor," Warren said in an interview, but added that energy conservation and "raw savings" were also considerations among consumers. "It's a combination of all those things."
EcoFactor, a smart technology company that provides software to utilities and companies such as Comcast—the parent company of CNBC—touts savings of 10 percent on energy bills, which average roughly $100 per year.
"Those are meaningful savings for some people," said Roy Johnson, EcoFactor's CEO, in an interview. However, savings "depends on whatever region you live in," which can vary according to city and state, he said. Utilities can provide added benefits and incentives to make smart home costs worthwhile.
Smart homes encompass a large cross-section of software and hardware, making the sector ripe for companies to cater to the needs of key demographics willing to pay for the combination of energy efficiency, luxury and convenience.
The market for light controls alone is an estimated $1.7 billion, and Navigant Research expects automated thermostats to generate $1.4 billion by 2020. The increasing interest in home technology, and the sharp rise in energy expenses, creates a potentially vast untapped market, according to experts.
At least for the moment, however, the costs associated with retrofitting houses with new technology make it nearly impossible for everyone to ride the wave of its popularity. Lower income families—which data suggests could benefit the most from energy efficiency—are the ones missing out.
A June report by Opower highlighted how in some instances, low-income families consume even more electricity than those at upper levels, even as they lack the means to upgrade and retrofit home appliances to make them more efficient. Yet Opower, a cloud-based software provider that promotes energy saving solutions, says that energy efficiency isn't necessarily all about high priced technology.
"Small changes in behavior based on personalized information and advice can go a long way in nudging [consumers] toward actions helping them save money on their bills," said Barry Fischer, Opower's head writer, said in an interview.
Using appliances at certain times of the day can help save a lot of electricity, he said. Modest household adjustments "are fairly lightweight, and are seeing adoption among segments of energy users—transcending categories including income level, region, and household size."
—By CNBC's Javier E. David