Father and son play a board game on the computer—only in this case, one of them is more than 6,000 miles away, stationed in the armed forces in Iraq. In the movie, “Firewall,” a kidnapped sibling is located through a global positioning system in the family car. At the grocery store, a finger-swipe machine logs in a customer.

Automation links homes and offices, whether in New York or the battlefields of Iraq. We are on the cusp of the adoption curve of technology, and it is time for the electrical contractor to embrace it.

Since the 1980s, the industry has been alluding to an automated environment, especially in the home. It came in dribs and drabs, with a little security, a little automation and a little sound and lighting. Cooperation and coexistence are the new buzzwords for manufacturers as they bring universal communications protocols and other connections that work together side-by-side without incident, especially in retrofit or renovation applications.

The modular approach is big. Some manufacturers are basing their systems on lighting management, automation or security, leaving enough flexibility to add any missing functions as the customer dictates.

Get connected

Forget all association with rehydrated foods and space walkways that perplexed George Jetson. Home automation is a sensible and highly deployable package, and there is more than ample connectivity to carry it through. Structured wiring has advanced and come down in price to become extremely cost-effective and Category 5e is gaining in popularity over Category 3 cabling.

Unshielded twisted pair, another word for structured cabling, supports video, whole-house audio and everything in-between. And it is all controlled from a sleek, touch--sensitive plastic surface or touchpad that’s basically plug and play, with a modular backbone system.

The way most systems are configured, all the customer has to do is ask, and the integrator can add future features and functions. Here is what is hot in automation across home and office venues:

  • Automated lighting, in conjunction with energy management and occupancy sensors, especially for commercial premises
  • Touch screens and plasma monitors that control various functions, from audio and entertainment to ancillary products
  • Voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), for telephone, surveillance, security and other networking applications
  • Portable music and videos used at the office, or at home, with “docking stations” and other hardware that allows the media—for example, recorded music—to be piped throughout the house
  • Cellular, PDAs, Blackberry devices and more, with their remote capabilities, monitor the business with instant remote surveillance, check voice mail or even look in on home or office with on-site cameras
  • Gaming galore, with the ability to play video software on the network and even with users across the globe, thanks to Microsoft Corporation’s X-Box and X-Box 360 consoles

Consumers are looking for simple and convenient ways to automate their homes to enhance aesthetics, communication, entertainment and safety, said Jason Sherrill, product manager, Cooper Wiring Devices, Peachtree City, Ga.

“Current technologies allow for new and advanced features to emerge, which fuel the market. The recent boom in teleworking and home offices creates the need for convenience functions, which seamlessly extend the office to the home and improve the quality of life,” he said.

Because flexibility and expandability are keys to consumer adoption, Cooper Wiring Devices released a new structured wiring system that makes it even easier to integrate voice, data, audio and video in the home.

“MediaSync future-proofs a home for rapidly emerging home technologies by allowing the customer to create any type of connected home solution, from a simple starter system to a higher end-installation with maximum flexibility,” Sherrill said.

Younger buyers especially expect the latest conveniences for the office and for entertaining at home. They want broadband networking, high-definition video, distributed audio and the ability to set up custom scenes for aesthetics and convenience, he added.

The virtual office, with proper firewalls, may replace traditional work offices in the near future, especially as leased space costs continue to rise. Teleconferencing makes it possible for Monday morning meetings to be accomplished via the computer terminal, PDA, cellular phone or other video-enabled device—from home, office or other location.

Adoption time is now

When he founded Home Automation Inc. (HAI), New Orleans, in 1985, Jay McLellan, president, envisioned a single button to access and control home system functions. That day has come, but it has evolved into a touch screen modular system capable of handling the varied tasks of each person and their lifestyle. McLellan chairs the 2006 Consumer Electronics Association TechHome Division Board.

“Home automation goes beyond lighting control,” said McLellan. “It ties in with energy management, whole-house audio, security and even the Internet. Touch-screen video controls it all, whether it’s a motion detector by the pool and the video that can be pulled up at its display or the intercom. Consumers understand the technology, use it at work, and want it at home.”

Whole house audio and lighting/energy management continue to grow in automated controls, he added. McLellan said it is all about making a better living environment, one in which the house is comfortable, safe and secure.

“As baby boomers buy their move-up homes, they want the connectivity in place to handle the array of automated systems and services. In addition, as their children buy homes, they too will want all the conveniences they have grown up with and have become so accustomed to. Consumers are used to being connected, and they want their house to call them if something goes wrong. They want to be connected, even it it’s remotely,” he said.

Residential systems may also be appropriate for some small commercial applications. Scaled down and easy to use, they may present an application-solution for small-box companies. In addition, systems from HAI now include the Omni IIe, which simplifies wiring to in-home computers because no serial cable in needed.

Also included with the Omni IIe controller is a powerline interface module (PIM) for HAI’s new UPB-based lighting control system, HAI lighting control (HLC). The PIM plugs directly into the third built-in serial port without requiring any port expanders.

Product ‘managers’

In today’s mobile society, the ability to control devices in the home from a remote location is an exciting option, said Jeff Wilson, vertical marketing manager, Builders, GE Security, Tualatin, Ore.

Behind that goal, overall, is a manufacturing community focusing on effective ways to manage the connectivity and the terminating devices or hardware.

For example, as a result of research GE conducted, it recently released a structured wiring and connectivity solution that manages and distributes broadband, Internet, telephone, cable television, satellite and the Ethernet. The Smart ConnectionCenter provides cable management, upgrade flexibility, reliability and modularity, as well as price, function and performance.

“Any device that can be controlled in the home should be accessible remotely. An intelligent home can notify the owner of changes in status via e-mail, voice mail or text message: below freezing temperatures that might cause broken pipe in a rental property, water in the basement or broken windows detected by a security system. The owner can then take the appropriate action, whether that means using a cellular phone or the Internet to adjust the thermostat, view a security camera, or simply call a neighbor to investigate,” said Wilson.

GE, he said, envisions safety and security products that can be simply and economically installed in existing homes to protect families from fire and theft; energy management solutions that save consumers money, while at the same time protecting our environment; and healthcare monitoring solutions that allow an aging population to live comfortably and securely in the homes longer because of technology.

“All these solutions function perfectly well individually, yet collectively, they create the infrastructure for the intelligent home. It behooves contractors to plant these solutions into the minds of their customers. Over time, these solutions will expand into even bigger systems and provide contractors with increased revenue streams,” he said.

From the homeowner’s perspective, it is the solution, not the technology in particular, which is important. The goal as a manufacturer should be to provide the infrastructure and solutions that span multiple technologies.

“To best serve their customers now and in the future, it’s important for contractors to think of connectivity,” Wilson said. “Create a communications infrastructure that accommodates a variety of devices communications media. For GE Security and the contractor, the battle isn’t between wired and wireless, CCTV and Internet-protocol cameras, POTS [plain old telephone service] and VoIP [voice over Internet protocol], or cable television and IP television. It is about cooperation and coexistence.”

At home or office, the virtual scene has been set, and automated and integrated systems and services complete the picture.     EC

O’MARA is the president of DLO Communications in Park Ridge, Ill., specializing in low-voltage. She can be reached at 847.384.1916 or domara@earthlink.net.