From personal home theaters complete with surround-sound speakers, high-definition, large-screen projection and DVD recordings to total-system lighting packages, electrical contractors are profiting from rapid technological advances. Clearly, each element in a home-theater system must be adeptly connected to perform the achieved result. If not, the room may appear aesthetically breathtaking but not deliver the desired cinematic experience.

So, where exactly is all this headed? Is “wave-of-the-future” home automation going to become a household commodity in five years?

Most theaters today have surround-sound capabilities, which were later enhanced by digital systems. From five full-sound channels for atmospherics and sound effects with a sixth directed to a low-frequency subwoofer, total system automation entertainment systems can range from $1,000 to $100,000 for cinema-quality viewing that provides what you want, when you want it.

“I have been seeing a large amount of home-automation work turning into a necessity, especially for larger, newer homes,” said Bob Metz of Metz Electric, in Cumberland, Md. “I worked on the home of a clothing manufacturer. We did some lighting controls, interconnected the kids’ rooms and installed a home-movie theater. Lighting controls are becoming more of a necessity with larger jobs, but the problem is that people put so much into lighting that they often have problems controlling it. Today, people can just walk into a building with eight or 10 switches on the wall and with a system like Lutron’s, can simply hit a keypad to control virtually everything in the home or office.”

From a wall-mounted keypad, cell phone or computer, users can control natural light through the use of motorized shades and draperies, infrared lighting, room temperatures, and even security systems with indoor/outdoor monitoring. Metz said his company recently installed a system that reproduced sound that was incredibly realistic. When the owner played “Saving Private Ryan,” that the bullets being shot in the movie sounded lifelike. “It brought goose bumps to my arm,” Metz said. “You can just do so much with music. Cost generally isn’t an issue here for most users since entertainment is such a big issue with homes today with large-screen televisions, flat-screen monitors. Life is so busy for all of us. We’re e-commerce people. After 9/11, people are looking to spend more quality time at home, watching movies with their families. It is definitely an area where we will see rapid growth in the next few years.”

Electrical contractors are benefiting from this growth but are looking for simple installation solutions. Most wired and wireless home-automation products today can be easily specified and installed for retrofits and new construction projects. From motorized shade and drapery systems to table-lamp dimmers and garage doors, these systems are designed to enhance home security and aesthetics while providing reliable power and versatility for home electronics.

“We can control everything from a simple control at the front door, bedroom or kitchen that allows whole-home control,” said Roger Stamm, marketing manager for Lutron. “People are connecting lighting systems with security systems so when someone breaks in, the lights will flash both inside and outside. Many of these systems are being installed in upscale homes because they are replacing the need to have six or eight switches on the wall. Now, they have a keypad programmed to the personalized tastes and needs of the homeowner.”

Electrical contractors have been looking for ways to simply change or expand these systems into additional areas of the home without having to rewire an entire system.

“Before, many contractors could not retrofit an existing structure to accommodate the latest advances in technology, but now they can,” Stamm said. “Wired lighting controls have been taken and made wireless to overcome these obstacles. Wireless technology lets us go to any home now and provides us with a variety of extra features that we didn’t have available to us before.”

Home automation trends incorporate the distribution of data, voice and audio/video systems in most new homes. “The benefits to home automation are clear—they provide low-voltage installation, which is more flexible and most popular in new homes. People can place multiple cameras around a house so they can see everything happening at the front and back doors. The ability to network home computers, share files, distribute video and share it with virtually every television in the house provides more flexibility and gives the overall house an appearance of being less cluttered,” said Tonya Sherrill, a product marketing specialist for Square D. “People can also move their home office from one room to another and still remain connected.”

Today, with simultaneous remote controls and dimmer switches, a system can be easily integrated with lighting controls, multiroom audio, audiovisual equipment, security systems and even HVAC controls.

“Residential builders are regarding home automation as the next frontier in building,” said Tom Lyga, a marketing manager with Pass & Seymour/Legrand. “Builders are incorporating whole-house Internet, lighting and HVAC control systems in their packages. Homeowners are now able to have access throughout the home while electrical contractors are reaping the benefits of installation. Because most builders typically prefer one electrical contractor to do a job because it is more cost-effective, the downside is the shortage of skilled labor needed to do the installation. The timing must be right to get new people involved. In 10 years, home automation will be as common as plumbing and electricity. With the advances in the Internet over the past five years to broadband and being able to purchase everything over the Internet, both new and existing homes are now having to accommodate these advances.”

Some industry experts predict that over the next couple of years, most homes will have some sort of structured wiring for phone, fax, cable television, modem, high speed Internet access and audio.

“Today, there are product lines that offer the opportunity for new construction as well as retrofit applications,” said Jay Sherman, director of residential products division for Leviton. “Homes can continue running their existing loads and don’t have to run new wires, which is definitely a benefit for remodeling opportunities. Using the lighting-scene control, you can turn on the lights in the house from the driveway. Unlike some wireless products in the marketplace, this offers greater reliability. For example, in the past, you could program a clock to schedule lights to turn on and off. With a transponder, now you can adjust the temperature in the house from your cell phone and even turn some lights on. In the future, I see being able to control the use from a PC via the Internet or from a wireless PDA. This is coming soon, but we’re not there yet.”

Home automation isn’t specifically geared for large-scale homes. “The benefit is to bring technology to the average person,” said Damon Bruccoleri, senior engineer for Leviton. “It’s not just for museum-sized mansions. Home automation is convenient and also offers the greatest level of control for a homeowner.”

Home automation providing high-speed access to various locations in the home is ideal for families with multiple Internet users. In addition, a family-entertainment area can be enhanced with lighting and security systems, satellite, cable television and whole-home audio access.

SPEED is a freelance writer based in Weymouth, Mass. She can be reached at 617.529.2676 or