There’s something for everyone in this technology-driven sector

The home is a serious contender for electrical and automated functions, and there are many different services the customer can use; it’s up to you, the electrical contractor, to find your residential niche.

Electricity is everywhere. It’s automating the home in ways never before possible. It controls just about every technology, and more new technologies are on the way. Gaming and entertainment audio is a perfect example. Did you know that the popular Nintendo Wii gaming system can display weather and check e-mail? How about being able to plug in Apple’s iPod to the home stereo to make it a streaming audio device?

Keeping all these developments in mind, electrical contractors must maintain an open mind to plug into new markets. What about taking your services to another part of the electrical spectrum with something like electric radiant heating? It’s a great way to add another service and may be a cost-effective and easy-to-learn adjunct to the business. In fact, electric radiant heating has now entered mainstream popularity and is experiencing a significant boom in North America, according to Lyle Moroz, P. Eng., M.B.A., vice president of the Electric Heating Division at Danfoss Inc., Mississauga, Ontario, Canada.

“North Americans are traveling more frequently to Europe where floor heating is very common, and many are recognizing the value of radiant heating,” Moroz said. “With more and more people investing and benefiting from electric radiant heating in their homes and businesses, a word-of-mouth momentum has helped fuel the boom. Remember when automatic garage-door openers were considered optional?”

For the customer, operating costs are lower than they think and this type of heating actually consumes no more electricity than several light bulbs. There also are advantages for the installer. Prices have come down, and low-profile heating cables make it cost effective to add radiant heating to even small renovations, such as bathrooms.

“Smart builders and electrical contractors are recommending these products more often. They understand the clear opportunity to ‘up sell’ their clients with something that will provide them a high return on investment,” Moroz said.

Add value to contracting

Video in the home has also become increasingly sought after, as customers look for ways to increase their security and communicate within the home. A number of manufacturers have introduced video entry products in the last year, and it definitely is a product category that is catching on, according to Lynn Morrison, marketing manager, BTicino USA, Santa Clara, Calif.

“It’s a great way to add value to the installation,” she said.

Video door entry systems consist of three main components: exterior stations, interior stations and the system backbone. Visitors use the exterior station to call the insider. The interior station shows who is at the door and allows the inhabitant to determine whether or not to respond. The system backbone connects the exterior and interior components and powers the system.

“For the single-family home, the installation is very straightforward and easy to accomplish over Category 5 or other structured cabling or twisted pair. Rather than run the audio over the telephone communications and the video over the free television channel, which was popular in the condominium and duplex markets, these units have become stand-alone dedicated viewing stations that are smaller, smarter and more aesthetic.

“They can be used for room-to-room communications, and some units have answering and recording capabilities. For example, a messenger, visitor or delivery person can leave a video message for the occupant for later retrieval if they are away,” Morrison said.

Another niche market installers and integrators may consider expanding into is new construction. It may not be the boom time of the past for the market, but it can still offer a good stream of revenue, help the contractor market his business and even fuel referrals.

“It’s a market unto itself,” said David Sharp, Southwest regional sales manager for Digital Monitoring Products (DMP), headquartered in Springfield, Mo. “Installers would do well to do business with development companies and realtors. They can help support the marketing side of the installer’s business, promoting their services through sales offices, which may even have equipment and systems displays. In essence, those sales reps become a sales rep for your company.”

According to Sharp, residential customers are looking for the latest technologies, such as access to systems through the telephone; Web-based virtual viewing (video); integrated solutions, such as an alarm triggering a camera and monitor; portable panic buttons and medical alerts; and wireless for remote control capabilities.

There is also the new residential “after market” where the contractor goes to the neighborhood and meets the new homeowners. It’s an opportunity to tell them about installing systems in the development.

“This gives them instant credibility with the new homeowner who may not have yet made the decision about what systems they want in their home. It’s all about credentialing,” Sharp said.

Another residential niche, Sharp said, is the custom home. Custom and luxury home builders nearly always have a plan room where clients review other previously built residences, and these records may include a listing of the participating contractors, services and equipment.

Upper end pays off

Robert Piccirilli taught himself about automation—by setting up a dollhouse and automating myriad functions—and now runs a successful automation business. His marketing focus is safety and time savings. He stays small, studies hard to stay ahead of the learning curve and focuses on a tightly wound spool of automated specialties.

Piccirilli said he tests and programs his customer’s systems from his home, acting as a beta site of sorts before he deploys equipment in the field. That approach has served him well. While he handles only one or two homes per year, he said he can and does make a good living off of these projects, which can span months and even longer.

“When you choose a niche such as this, you have to know how to market it,” Piccirilli said. “I try to focus on things that save people time, and they love it. For example, every time they open a door, you can make something happen, like the lights turning on or the shades rolling up. There’s so much you can do in the home; it’s all about electricity and controlling it.”

Coming to middle America

Lighting is another lucrative area a contractor can add to its scorecard. Again, convenience sells—there’s nothing worse than trying to figure out which lights to turn on when there are banks and banks of switches.

Customers want lighting systems that are simple to understand and easy to operate. While there is a large market for sophisticated lighting control systems, the majority of people want their systems to be as affordable and simple as possible, according to Phil Scheetz, residential marketing manager, Lutron Electronics Co. Inc., Coopersburg, Pa. Lutron, he said, introduced the AuroRa system as a solution for that middle market.

“An easy way for installers to expand their business is to increase their lighting control offerings,” Scheetz said. “Installers should familiarize themselves with the wide variety of dimmers and lighting control systems available today. Dozens of new products are introduced each year from single-light dimmers to radio-frequency-based lighting control systems, to automated shades and draperies. Wireless technology is king in the home automation market right now, and the lighting control category is no exception. Installers need to keep on top of the latest offerings, not only to satisfy homeowner requests, but to help grow their business by presenting these new products to their clients.”

All signs point to continued growth for systems and services in the residential home. It’s up to you to find the right niche.   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.