Photograph by Wendy Koch, National Geographic
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California-based View demonstrates its electrochromic Dynamic Glass, which changes color to reflect or absorb light, on November 19, 2015 at the Greenbuild International Conference and Expo in Washington, D.C.

Photograph by Wendy Koch, National Geographic

10 Nifty New Things That Could Make Our Homes Smarter and Greener

Looking to spruce up your home? New options, showcased at this year’s Greenbuild trade show, could make it safer, prettier and more efficient.

A slew of new products, including bacteria-eating paint and Apple Watch-controlled lighting, could transform how our homes work in the future.

They don’t just save energy and water. They also could help avoid bird deaths, remove pollutants from the air, keep homes running during power outages, and provide safe drinking water to poor people worldwide.

While some are high-tech and high-end, others are simple and cheap. Here's a look at 10 showcased at this year's Greenbuild International Conference and Expo, an annual meeting of the private U.S. Green Building Council that ended Friday in the nation’s capital.

1. Lighting: Beyond LEDs

The incandescent light bulb is so yesterday, but LEDs (light emitting diodes) are no longer just 10 times more energy efficient. They’re now smarter and more versatile, even inside closets.

Take Lithonia’s LED closet light, which debuted last month in two new sizes. “We added an occupancy sensor to more easily save money,” says the lighting company’s Kenneth Camp. The 18-inch version, which retails for less than $50, automatically turns off after 30 seconds without motion.

This year’s debut of the Apple Watch gave lighting a much bigger tech boost. Now wearable electronics can remotely operate LEDs, compact fluorescent lamps, or CFLs and smart thermostats.

“It spots that you’re leaving the house” and sends an alert, asking whether you’d like to turn off the lights, says Caitlin Helterline of Lutron, which makes Caseta Wireless dimmers and switches that are available in stores and online. The Lutron system works with Apple’s HomeKit, a suite of smart products that talk to each other. So it can tell Siri, for example, to ”turn off the lights” or “open my kitchen shades.”

That’s not all.  Since its wireless system talks to HomeKit-enabled thermostats and smoke detectors, it can—should smoke be detected—automatically turn on your home’s lights to help you find your way out.

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A Greenbuild visitor checks out Lutron's Caseta Wireless system, which allows customers to remotely turn off lights from their smart phone or Apple Watch, on November 19, 2015 in Washington, D.C.

2. Automation: “SenseMe”

This integration is all part of the smart home revolution, in which networked appliances can also be remotely operated by a smart phone or watch. Several companies, including Crestron, have introduced home automation devices that allow users to set security alarms, program a room's temperature, or start a load of laundry.

Now come smart ceiling fans. The Haiku line of Big Ass, a manufacturer of luxury modern fans, has “SenseME” technology. Using a motion sensor, it knows when you enter or leave a room so it can turn on or off automatically. It also monitors a room’s temperature and humidity so it can adjust fan speed when conditions change. How does it do it?

“The fan and thermostat talk to each other,” says the company’s Tess Simon. All this intelligence isn’t cheap. A fan with SenseMe and LED light can cost at least $1,000.

3. Windows: Tintable and bird safe

They’re smart, too. Another product that can be remotely operated, via an iPad app, is electrochromic window glass such as SageGlass Simplicity, a glazing for commercial buildings that can be darkened or lightened to control glare and heat gain.

Pricey windows that can be tuned, like an engine, are starting to enter the residential market as well. “We see this becoming more mainstream in the next five years” for high-end homes, says Robyn Hannah of California-based View, which makes electrochromic Dynamic Glass and introduced  larger (10-feet by 16-feet) panes this week. When a low-voltage current is applied, the glass reflects or absorbs light and changes color.

The darker the tint, the more solar heat the glass can reflect so less air conditioning is needed, the company says, adding it can reduce peak cooling by up to 23 percent compared to standard window glazing.

New glass options can also protect birds, hundreds of millions of which are killed each year from colliding with windows. (Learn how glass can save them.) Arnold Glas makes commercial Ornilux bird protection glass, but this year, another company has introduced a similar product that could be used in homes.

“It would be high-end residential,” says Alexis Orozco of Los Angeles-based GlasPro. Since birds see on a different spectrum than humans, she says GlasPro adds an ultraviolet interlayer to the window that enables birds to see a pattern and avoid a collision.

4. Shades: Integral and reflective

Windows are seeing other innovation. Marvin, a manufacturer, now sells shades that fit seamlessly into its doors and windows and roll up or down. “It looks like an integral part of the window,” says the company’s Jeff Siverhaus, adding they’re available with about 80 percent of Marvin products.

Netherlands-based Verosol, which makes shades and blinds, is stepping up its game. In the next two months, it will offer a product that reflects 74 percent of solar heat so little energy is absorbed.

“You can sit next to the window on a sunny day and not feel the heat,” says Verosol’s Jan Henk Dekker. “You have the view without the glare.”

5. Dryers: Ventless 

Appliances are also saving energy. An example is Whirlpool’s HybridCare ventless heat-pump dryer. While most U.S. dryers use tumble-dry technology that vents excess heat and moisture outside, this ventless option condenses moisture from the drum and returns the excess heat energy. As a result, Whirlpool says it uses 40 percent less energy than a standard dryer.

“HybridCare is gentle on clothes and does not require a vent—saving HVAC energy, eliminating the risk of fire, simplifying installation, and expanding placement options,” writes Brent Ehrlich of BuildingGreen in his roundup of the top 10 products for 2016.

6. Countertops: Recycled material

They’re beautiful and eco-friendly. There’s almost a bewildering array of choices, and that trend continues. Several companies including IceStone and Cosentino offer quartz-like products that contain recycled material.

This year, at the request of consumers, Virginia-based Geos expanded its countertop line to include a white option that’s 65 percent recycled glass. Geos’s Liz Miller says it’s made in China to keep prices, about that of higher-end quartz, competitive.

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People visit the 1,620-square-foot, solar-powered demonstration home, built by New Hampshire-based Unity Homes, at the Greenbuild expo on November 19, 2015 in Washington, D.C.

7. Paint: Eats pollution and bacteria

White paint is well known to reflect heat and keep buildings cool, but paint of various colors can do other things beyond coating walls. (Read how scientists are developing glass-based paint.)

Early next year, two new products will enter the market that might help clean the environment. New York-based Pureti will begin U.S. distribution of Boysen’s KNOxOUT, which claims to be the world’s “first air cleaning paint.” It uses light energy to break down smog-causing nitrogen oxides, rendering them harmless.

Sherwin Williams is rolling out Paint Shield, available initially only in its U.S. stores. The company says it is the “first microbicidal paint” to be registered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and can kill more than 99.9 percent of staph, E. coli and other bacteria within two hours of exposure on painted surfaces. While it’s expected to appeal especially to hospitals, the company also expects residential use. The paint will cost about $85 a gallon.

8. Toilets: Water stingy and deodorizing

How low will they go? Not long ago, toilets that used five gallons of water per flush were the industry norm. Newer ones use 80 percent less, and some are going lower.

Toto debuted a toilet using one gallon per flush in 2013, after years of development. Niagara, which has a “stealth” toilet that uses four-fifths of a gallon, soon followed with a dual-flush version that uses half a gallon to wash away liquid waste.

To keep the bathroom smelling OK with such smaller flushes, Kohler has a new Purefresh toilet seat that uses a carbon filter to deodorize the air. The $122 seat, which can be used with any elongated toilet, has a built-in fan that’s activated when the user sits on the seat. It comes with an eight-hour LED night light.

9. Batteries: Keeping power on

Tesla’s Elon Musk made headlines this year with his plans for a “Gigafactory” to build batteries for energy storage. Yet Pittsburgh-based Aquion Energy, a spinoff from Carnegie Mellon University, has beaten him to the market with saltwater battery stacks. The product could be used in off-grid, solar-powered homes, especially in places like Hawaii where grid-tied electricity is expensive.

“We’ve seen a lot more interest in energy storage” since Musk’s announcement, says Aquion’s Chris Rigetti, noting his company’s website traffic doubled afterwards. He says he’s not worried about Tesla dominance, adding: “It’s a large market.”

10. Water purifier: Developing world cure?

Many items showcased at Greenbuild are pricey, but there are exceptions. Kohler, best known for faucets, toilets and showerheads, unveiled an “aspirational” product this week. Its Clarity water filter system aims to help the 1.8 billion people worldwide without safe drinking water.

“You can put in dirty water of any sort and out comes safe drinking water,” says Kohler’s Tim White. The company says it eliminates more than 99 percent of contaminants and meets World Health Organization standards.

White says Clarity will cost $17 to $20 and will last a family of four two years, after which they’ll need a $5 replacement cartridge that will last another two years. He estimates the system will cost less than one cent per person per day to operate.

The story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

On Twitter: Follow Wendy Koch and get more environment and energy coverage at NatGeoEnergy.