From electricity and telephones to cable TV and dial-up Internet access, the only thing missing in today’s technology is how to provide total system integration, including energy savings and lighting control. The tremendous demand for structured wiring and home automation products presents a unique opportunity for electrical contractors.

“One of the most important features in home automation is security,” said David Rye, vice president and technical manager of X10 (www.x10-store.com). “More and more families are installing cameras around the perimeter of the house that they can use in conjunction with remote controls and timers. All that needs to be done is to bring a thin wire into the house that is then sent wirelessly to the TV. This system is generally used with a motion detector that turns the home’s lights and appliances on.”

Structured wiring systems, residential gateways and home automation technologies enable contractors to offer new homebuyers the opportunity to have the technology they need now, and the infrastructure for what they may want later. More and more homebuyers are realizing that, by purchasing a properly designed and installed communications infrastructure, “smart” home technologies can be added at a future date as technologies and services become available.

“Home automation systems are ideal for alerting homeowners to someone approaching the house,” Rye added. “One of our most popular systems is the VCR Commander, which works with a wireless motion detector. If a person is in view, it will automatically send a wireless signal to the house that can either turn on a light or sound a chime. The VCR hookup sends a code to turn the VCR on so the motion is recorded. TVs, VCRs and lighting can all be controlled with one unit. Whole-house controls are becoming more and more popular as they integrate into one system.”

Residential wireless networking, high-speed Internet services, and connected intelligent devices are reshaping the home by connecting security, entertainment, HVAC, lighting and appliances.

“The core trends are a continuation and acceleration of the wired home initiative,” said Joe Dada, CEO of Smarthome (www.smarthome.com). “New homes have exploded over the past few years and we are seeing more consumers requesting whole-house audio systems because they are desirous of an easily used system. Our Smarthome Live system has a Web-enabled feature that works in the house with cameras to control a spa, furnace, VCR, TiVo, etc. You can also set them to receive alerts so if there is motion at the front door, it can record a video clip and the user can log on and unlock the door if they want the person to gain access to the home.”

“Home automation incorporates everything from the basic nanny cam to virtual vacations,” Dada added. “The cost for these systems is not high, so we anticipate the adoption rate will be high in another three to five years. Now, one of the most popular systems is the simple remote that allows a user to press just one button and all the lights go off. For the more advanced user looking for an elegant setting, there are whole-house lighting systems with advanced dimmers that give extended bulb life and are largely convenient. There has never been more momentum in the home automation industry. For the professional installer, typical packages range from $5,000 to $25,000 systems.”

When using automation to regulate house lights, the water heater and to pull the blinds, some energy conservation does occur.

“Most people are looking to autonomous solutions to provide a lived-in look,” said Chris Kahler, market development manager for integrated systems for Somfy Systems (www.somfysystems.com). “People use our systems to control their window treatments, moving them up and down when they are not home. They are also used with heating systems, which saves on electricity. The treatments are programmed to open during the day and let the sun and heat in and then shut in the evening so the heat doesn’t permeate the glass.”

New technologies promise home automation capabilities at lower costs than ever before to achieve their specified solution.

“Our most popular system is the Radio Transmitter Somfy, which tells the shade to go up and down through a touchscreen system,” Kahler added. “It sends a radio signal out to the motor that is attached to the control. The radio receiver in the motor talks to the transmitter.”

For about $100, a home can be wired to trigger lights by motion detection, turn a coffee pot on in the morning and control the gas fireplace.

“We are moving to whole house audio systems under the control of automation,” said Lynn McCroskey, chief executive officer of Zon Audio (www.zonaudio.com). “With a simple preset mode, you could set your house into a party mode with a selection of music playing as directed in the various zones or dim the lights at the pool. People are interested in these commands to allow cross-coordination of smaller house items because there is less that you have to specifically tell each device what to do. Things are moving away from centralized to a distributed control system. We offer whole home audio digital control systems that use regular Category 5 or 6 wiring. Families can listen to audio from a kids computer on the deck while listening to another source in the kitchen, all in digital form.”

As the opportunities for electrical contractors continue to grow, it is important to realize choosing products and manufacturers with a good reputation and long standing track record are vital. With this in mind, which direction can we expect the trend in home automation to head?

“Home automation is clearly a growing area for electrical contractors as more home developers and builders want to meet the consumer’s demand for home packages,” McCrosky added. “With our systems, all the contractor has to know is how to put on one Category 5 connector. If a contractor’s maximum profit is only off labor, it is hard to sell business and get the value of business. It’s important to try and promote the concept. They don’t have a long way to go to be a complete player and get in the game.”

One of the biggest trends now is finding low-cost, easily designed systems that integrate security, heating and cooling and lighting control. Thermostats can save energy when the security system is programmed to know the owner is away.

“With everything going on today with computers, sound systems and upgrades, there are more opportunities for electrical contractors in the home automation industry,” said Cal Bayliff of Coastal Electrical Corporation (www.coastalelectriccorp.com). “The existing home market though is not as good for home automation as the new home where it is much more cost prohibitive in the existing home.”

While most systems are accessible by phone, more advanced ones have programmability so the end user can easily add scenes, schedule lights and small appliances. The most advanced systems have Internet capability built in or as an option.

“New home builders are open to building home automation into a price but retrofit doesn’t seem to get it off the ground,” said Gil Vargas, president of Diversified Industrial Electrical, South Pasadena, Calif. “The biggest selling points is using lighting systems for security and backup with CCTV and sound systems. It seems to be more of a trend of people building homes to add to new construction but there is still some resistance in retrofits. Most people are looking to upgrade their system without having to impact the residents. Cost is typically not the biggest hurdle.”

The increased popularity of high speed Internet connections makes it easy to check on a home or business using a PC, PDA or web-enabled cell phone. Today, more and more homeowners are expecting their builders or contractors to understand and offer automation systems.

“We work very closely with the major automation suppliers to ensure that that our Runco and Vidikron products are fully compatible with their automation systems,” said Mark Stein, director of corporate communications for Runco/Vidikron (www.runco.com). “This includes beta testing of our products by the automation companies prior to our product being released into the market. The most noteworthy trend in terms of home automation is a gravitation towards IP-based automation systems. We are committed to providing state of the art compatibility with all of these systems to keep custom installation and integration of our products as seamless and simplified as possible.”

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