Take steps now to protect unoccupied cottages, homes

By: Kristyne E. Demske | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published September 5, 2017

 The HouseSetter device is shaped like a dog and continuously monitors the temperature, humidity and power status at a house, sending the information wirelessly to homeowners via the HouseSetter data center.

The HouseSetter device is shaped like a dog and continuously monitors the temperature, humidity and power status at a house, sending the information wirelessly to homeowners via the HouseSetter data center.

Photo provided by HouseSetter

METRO DETROIT — Now that the Labor Day holiday weekend is through, many Michiganders’ thoughts are turning to one of two things: closing up the cottage or getting ready to close up the home before heading south for the winter.

Local safety officials say that in both cases, there are a number of things that should be done to protect an unoccupied house.

The first thing St. Clair Shores Police Community Resource Officer Chad Hammer recommends is making sure that the house appears to be occupied. 

“They want to get their mail forwarded and newspaper delivery stopped so it doesn’t look like the mail’s piling up,” he said. “Arrange for someone to do the snow removal.”

Lighting is also important. Hammer said that residents should be sure to leave on motion-sensor lighting outside and put interior lights on timers “so it looks like someone’s home.”

Now is also the time to make sure the alarm system on a house is in working order, if there is one installed.

Ask a friend or neighbor to check on the house every few weeks to make sure nothing is amiss and that the mail has been properly stopped, Hammer said, and don’t post news of the impending move on social media.

“Maybe message people instead of posting it on your main page,” he said. 

Sometimes, though, residents may want more detailed, up-to-date information than a friend or neighbor can provide from an occasional visit to a seasonal house. A new Michigan-based company, HouseSetter, is looking to fill that niche.

Chet Huber, of Grosse Pointe Farms; Walt Dorfstatter, of Northville; and Debbie Frakes, of St. Clair Shores, all worked together for OnStar at General Motors for years. 

When he retired, Huber purchased a seasonal home in Florida. He said he didn’t think it would be too difficult to monitor the seasonal home while he was away, but he learned that Florida experiences frequent, short power outages that would reset all of his wireless routers and cameras that he was relying on to monitor his house.

“Walt and I started to talk about the things we were familiar with at OnStar: taking sensors and connecting them wirelessly with a cellular connection,” Huber said. 

They and a few other former OnStar employees put it all together in a 6-inch-tall, dog-shaped device that they named “Sherlock,” creating the HouseSetter company to help seasonal homeowners monitor temperature, humidity and the status of power at the house when they’re away.

Inside the Sherlock device is a cellular modem that connects to the Verizon network. Sherlock also has a camera in his collar and a battery backup that lasts three days in the event of a power failure.

The device monitors what is happening in the home, sends information wirelessly via a secure network to HouseSetter, which then emails and texts the homeowner to let them know the status of their unoccupied house.

“All you do is plug him into an outlet in your house. Within about 45 seconds, he’ll send you an email that says he’s on duty,” said Huber, the chairman of HouseSetter. “He’s bigger than a cellphone, and he’s actually built in such a way that we can embed in him an antenna system that’s way more capable than any cellphone.”

Verizon reportedly tested the device and found that it was able to connect even in places where it was difficult to get cellular service on a mobile device.

The HouseSetter system senses when the temperature gets too high or low, monitors the humidity level in the house and the status of power outages, in case there is a sump pump or other device in the house that needs power to properly function. Customers receive an email and text each time an alert is triggered, or a weekly email if there are no problems.

Customers purchase Sherlock for $120 and then pay a monthly monitoring fee starting at $5 for as short as three months at a time, or as long as a year. No contract is required with Verizon, Frakes said. HouseSetter is designed in the U.S., manufactured in Chesterfield Township, and the data center is in Miami. 

“The main objective ... was to make the simplest, lowest-cost (device) where you could possibly keep an eye on their home,” Huber said. “Many people just hope for the best.”

But before hoping for the best, there are other steps homeowners can take to protect their houses.

St. Clair Shores Fire Marshal M. Bodnar said it is best to unplug any electronics or appliances in case of power surges. It’s also prudent to make sure that the furnace and hot water heater are working properly, and that nothing is stored within 3 feet of those appliances. A fire could start if a downdraft blows the pilot light, she said.

If no one is going to be in the home using water and there is no home sprinkler system to control a fire, Bodnar said it’s a good idea to turn off water to the house completely to prevent any chance of freezing pipes. At the very least, she said, “If you’re going to be gone for a long time, I would recommend turning off the water to your clothes washer.”

“If it breaks, it’s going to flood,” she said.

It’s always best to make sure smoke detectors are functioning properly and have new batteries too, Bodnar said, as neighbors may be able to hear the alarm if it begins to sound while homeowners are away.

For more information about HouseSetter, visit www.housesetter.com.