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5 ways your phone can make your home 'smart'

If you have a cellphone, chances are it's a smart one. According to data firm Nielsen, more than half of U.S. mobile subscribers own smartphones. Now, in addition to having more functionality when away from home, you can use your phone to make your home "smart," too.

More appliances and systems in the home are capable of providing the consumer with useful information directly on their smartphones, says Daniel Flagler, product development manager for Verizon Home Monitoring and Control.

"The 'smarter' home is able to use that information to save energy, money, time, or perhaps to prevent damage," he says.

To take advantage, here are five ways you can use smartphone apps to modernize your home:

No. 1: Watch security video while traveling

The $4.99 iCam app allows you to see video through your computer's webcam, even when you're not home, says Jay Mairs, co-founder of SKJM, the Mission Viejo, Calif., company that makes the iCam app.

The iCam app also has a motion detection sensor that will start recording when movement is sensed, he says. "A lot of people use it to watch pets when they're away on vacation," he says.

Homeowners can use the app to view video for up to 16 different cameras, although most use just one, Mairs says.

No. 2: Send alarm notifications

If you're on vacation and your security alarm goes off, an app can notify you immediately via SMS text message or email, says Robert Farb, president of Westco Security and Technology Systems in Chesterfield, Mo.

Homeowners can also configure their apps to send short video alerts whenever a door opens normally, such as when a child arrives home from school, he says.

"It's a lot of convenience to not have to be home to know what's going on there," says Farb.

While there is no charge for many of the apps that connect to security systems, you will need a security monitoring service subscription to access the service's important features, says Rob Puric, director of Product Management Residential Systems at Honeywell Security Group in Melville, N.Y.

Alarm reporting costs start at about $30 a month and increase incrementally depending on the size and complexity of the installation, he says.

Example apps:

  • Honeywell Total Connect
  • ADT Pulse

No. 3: Control your thermostat remotely

Many apps enable more than one smart home feature. For example, in addition to its alarm features, the Total Connect app allows you to remotely control your thermostat, Puric says.

That's important because the average household spends more than $2,200 a year on their energy bills, and nearly half of that goes toward heating and cooling costs, he says.

A programmable thermostat helps rein in heating and cooling costs, and a thermostat that's tied to a smartphone app can help you save even more money by conserving energy when you're not at home, he says.

"Let's say you leave for the course of the day and you don't want your house to be at 75 degrees while you're gone. You want it pushed back to 70 degrees. You can do that with your smartphone and regulate the temperature on the fly," Puric says.

Example app:

  • INSTEON Central Controller

No. 4: Lock doors remotely

Eliminate the uncomfortable feeling of not remembering whether or not you locked your doors by using an app that controls locks and garage doors remotely, Farb says.

You can even take advantage of the app when you are at home. "A lot of times at night people might forget to close their garage doors," Farb says. With this type of app, people can check and verify that everything is locked before they go to sleep at night, he says.

Example app:

  • Verizon MyFiOS

No. 5: Control light switches

You can use an app to help devices, such as light switches, communicate with each other, and turn them on and off, says Flagler.

This ability is helpful if you're caring for elderly or disabled family members who may not be able to reach light switches easily, says Puric.

The apps are also important in the event of an emergency, such as a house fire. If a smoke detector goes off in the middle of the night and you need to evacuate, your phone can be configured to automatically turn on the lights when the alarm sounds, potentially making your exit safer, Puric says.

Example app:

  • InControl ZWave

Smartphones are convenient when you're on the go. At home, the devices can also connect to your appliances and systems, helping to make your entire residence safer, more secure and more energy efficient.

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