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New York Times

How Smart Could I Make My Dumb Manhattan Apartment?

By Joyce Wadler  Published: March 17, 2010 New York Times/Home Section
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Jack Borenstein, President of Ultimate Sound and Installations, Inc. in the showroom of Crestron Electronics.

SOMEBODY in my apartment is not very smart, and since I live alone, it is obviously the machines.

Here is how clueless they are: If I hit the remote for the Bose CD player in the living room, the Bose iPod dock 10 feet away turns itself on. The DVD player, VCR and cable all have their own remotes, which refuse to communicate with one another. The radiator and air-conditioning units must be adjusted with a lever, and they have only three settings: Comfortable, until you get into bed; Too Hot or Too Cold, as you are falling asleep; and Shoveling Coal on the Titanic, at 3 in the morning. And while I have never left the house with the gas on — a fear that apparently is passed down genetically — I worry, as I grow older, that this might happen.

There have been lots of articles about smart homes, but few that apply to someone who lives in a 970-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment in New York City.

Computer-activated radiant heating to melt snow on the driveway? I don’t have a driveway.

A system that checks the weather report and, learning that rain is predicted, turns off the sprinkler system? I don’t have a lawn.

A foolproof late-night security system? That would be the doorman, and his name is Freddy.

But there are certainly things in my apartment that could be smarter. And so, after a talk with a representative of the Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association, I consult the group’s Web site (cedia.net) to find a local expert. I am curious about what is available at three price points: $2,500 or less, $7,500 and You Just Won the Lottery. I identify myself to all the experts as a reporter and tell them that my mission is strictly theoretical.

IT’S time to investigate the smart apartment on a budget. I consult another member of the custom electronic design association, Jack Borenstein, the 58-year-old president of Ultimate Sound and Installations, which is based in Long Island City and does installations across the country. Ultimate Sound has been in business for 25 years; it lists Nicolas Cage as one of its clients, as well as a fellow Mr. Borenstein coyly refers to as “the mayor of a large metropolitan city.”

But the firm has no minimum fee, does not charge for consultations and often does small apartments. Mr. Borenstein is confident that I can smarten up my place for $7,500. Crestron, a well-known home automation company, has introduced a pared-down wireless integration system, he says, and he is offering 10 percent off its products.

Still, $7,500 is very different from the sky’s the limit, and when Mr. Borenstein and Anthony Benjamin, one of his system installers, visit my apartment, it soon becomes clear that some features are out of my reach. Motorized blackout shades — which Mr. Borenstein estimates would cost a minimum of $1,000 for each window, plus installation fees — are scrapped. Retrofitting the radiators so they can be controlled by remote, which Mr. Borenstein has never done, is not an option, either.
“I tell clients I make a living on what couldn’t be done,” he says, but adds that he also asks them, “Is it sensible cost-wise?”

He does do a lot of home security, which includes monitoring gas and other leaks. “When you fill a tub, ever forget about it and have it flow over?” he asks. “We just had a job in West Palm Beach. A lot of refrigerators have water dispensers and, as luck would have it, these people were seldom there. The water was just gushing for weeks and months. They found out when the mailman came to the door and water was seeping out of the house.”

I had a similar problem years ago: an overflowing radiator pan, which the couple to whom I had sublet the apartment didn’t notice until the ceiling below was raining and the neighbors pounded on their door. Mr. Borenstein would prevent such a deluge by installing a small flood detector as part of a security system that would also include smoke detection.

Mr. Borenstein and Mr. Benjamin suggested replacing my light switches with a smart dimmer that could be controlled by remote, and investing in a Blu-ray player. Their system would play audio from a variety of sources — FM, satellite radio and whatever music was stored on my computer — and could be controlled from outside the apartment, with an iPhone, using the Crestron Mobile Pro App.

Because I am now on a budget, we lose a lot of the audio-video elements, including the speakers and control panels in the bathroom and kitchen and the TV in the bedroom. With the computer brains in place, those features could easily be added later, Mr. Borenstein says, at a small additional cost. Installing a wireless keypad and two Yamaha speakers in the bathroom, for instance, would be about $850.

The whole system, including the Crestron Mobile Pro App, which is $99 and has to be bought directly from Apple, comes to $8,485. And that doesn’t include the monthly fee ($49) paid to a security monitoring service.

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