Smart homes that monitor elderly residents’ every move, networked sprinkler systems that run for seven years on a single battery, radio-equipped windows that call you up if they break — according to boosters of an emerging low-power wireless technology, such applications are about to come to your local home-supply megastore.

Developers of ZigBee, a specification for building large networks of low-power radio transmitters, expect the first set of consumer products incorporating the technology to hit the market as early as the fourth quarter of this year.

“The great thing with this technology is it’s slowly going to surround you — whether you know it or not,” said Bob Heile, chairman of the ZigBee Alliance, which includes more than 175 members, including large multinationals like Motorola, Philips and Samsung.

Upcoming products, including several slated to be unveiled at the alliance’s upcoming conference in Chicago this month, are mostly tailored to home security. But backers of the technology expect it will eventually be deployed much more broadly, for uses like landscaping, automated meter reading and home lighting systems.

Among the first ZigBee products lined up for commercial launch is Home Heartbeat from Eaton Electrical. The system, which includes a base station, removable display device and wireless sensors, is supposed to monitor parts of a home and alert its owners or take action when problems are detected.

To use Home Heartbeat, homeowners stick sensors throughout their house to keep watch on things like water pipes, garage doors and electrical devices. When a sensor detects flooding, for example, the system can respond by interrupting the main water supply line. It can also alert homeowners if a device is inadvertently left on. Thanks to ZigBee’s low power requirements, the sensors have a battery life of three to five years.

It’s unclear when Home Heartbeat will be available on store shelves, however. Eaton said in August that it has postponed its original planned launch date and “is currently working to resolve a few issues with the system in an expedient manner.”

Lusora, a San Francisco startup, is developing a similar system designed for keeping an eye on elderly people living alone. Its system consists of ZigBee sensors mounted on places like refrigerator doors, windows and medicine cabinets, and it can send alerts to family members if it detects a problem or if daily routines aren’t being followed.

“So if your mom didn’t open the fridge before 10 a.m., you could get a text message,” said Dan Bauer, Lusora’s founder and chief operating officer.

ZigBee, which operates over unlicensed public airwaves, is far from the only wireless specification vying for consumers’ attention: Wi-Fi, RFID and Bluetooth also transmit data over short distances in unlicensed spectrum.

Backers of ZigBee, however, say the technology is superior for certain uses, such as in large networks of sensors, because it consumes much less power. Heile estimates that a single radio node on a golf course irrigation system equipped with ZigBee could operate for seven years on the power equivalent of a single standard battery.

By Joanna Glasner

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