I got a very rude shock when I opened my power and water bill last month. The combination of a hot summer and the ongoing drought in California meant that my bill had doubled from all the air conditioning and watering the lawn. Being the skinflint that I am, I immediately went into panic mode, turning off my "vampire" appliances whenever possible, shutting off the sprinklers if the forecast even hinted at a slight chance of rain, researching solar panels and drought-proof lawns and generally driving my family crazy with my obsessional energy-saving mania.
As luck would have it, I also got an invitation to tour the design facilities at Belkin, a Los Angeles-based manufacturer of all kinds of networking and mobile products with 1,200 employees in 21 countries. Belkin itself is something of a Cinderella story, founded in 1983 by Southern Californian Chet Pipkin in his garage. The warm and self-effacing Pipkin, whose father worked as a machinist in Los Angeles, built the company from $100,000 in sales in its first year to $1 billion a year today. Belkin headquarters are in Playa Vista, where Howard Hughes used to hang his hat, and their neighbors are a number of high-tech firms, soon to include Google.
What is really intriguing about Belkin is that they actually make things. If you have an internet router in your house, it was likely made by Belkin or Linksys, which is owned by Belkin. Not to mention lots of products for PCs and mobile devices. Their products are designed in-house, with an old-fashioned attention to functionality and ease of use. In fact, like most smart technology outfits, Belkin focuses almost exclusively on the user experience, with in-house testing labs and field sites, as well as extensive research into the customer needs.
That puts Belkin at the center of a tech movement called the Internet of Things. Put simply - and simple is the watchword here - the Internet of Things envisions connecting lots and lots of devices to the universal internet network - from coffee pots to power stations. On the consumer level, that means connecting all the appliances in your house - from heating and air conditioning to lawn sprinkler and coffee pots - to a simple control system, namely your mobile phone. In a product line they call WeMo, Belkin produces everything from plug-in switches to more complex controllers that can manage everything in your house, all from a downloadable app on your smartphone.
Say you are away from home for a couple of weeks and you want to check on energy usage, or to see if everything is secure at the homestead. You can do it with your smartphone literally anywhere in the world. Want to turn off your air conditioner when you are away, or turn it back on a half-hour before you get home? Just a couple of taps on your smartphone. And the beauty of these products is that they are inexpensive and don't require any kind of subscription fees. I certainly could have used something like this when I was away on trip and a toilet tank cracked in my upstairs bathroom, spewing 2,500 gallons of water into the first floor for a couple of days and leaving me out of my home for a year while it was repaired. A simple check on the water usage on my smartphone would have prevented a lot of heartache.
Data privacy and security are a big concern in any of these home monitoring products, but like the rest of the tech industry, Belkin seems pretty focused on providing lots of layers of security for their customers. They make a point of asking for as little information as possible from customers - you can literally plug in one of their smart switches and download the WeMo app without ever contacting the company, or even providing your location. So as tech intrusion goes, this one seems pretty minimal.
In any case, I've gotten ahold of a Belkin switch to plug into one of my appliances and downloaded the app to give it a try. I'm hoping this means I won't have to be running out to the power meter every couple of hours - although that may be a hard habit to break. I will probably save some money, which will make me happy. And one thing I'm sure of - this will make my wife a lot happier. She won't have to listen to me droning on about turning off the sprinklers or shutting off the air conditioning. She can just toss me my smartphone with a loving smile.