Being competitive in automation means doing your research:

In the Rocky Mountains sits a large, rustic home outfitted with 32 separate audio, five dozen lighting, nine different video, 27 HVAC, and 21 video zones; 32 security cameras; a media-room home theater; swiveling and popup plasma TV screens; and a Web-enabled home-control system. This mammoth high-tech mix of entertainment, comfort and security is an extreme electronic house, but it showcases why the installation of whole-home systems is the genesis of what can become one of your longest-running customer relationships.

As a growing number of homeowners desire information at their fingertips in a seamless, easy- to-understand manner, systems have become more mainstream. However, no matter how gadget-savvy the homeowners are, they will eventually need support, upgrades, changes and, most likely, expansion.

The cutting edge of low-voltage technology is never dull. By keeping skills and knowledge sharp, whole-home systems can be a long-term profit center, according to Brad Wills, director of ultraterminal business for Schneider Electric. “For those thinking about ongoing service and revenue opportunities, this opens up a whole new frontier,” Wills said.

The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) reports one-third of the nation’s homebuilders now offer structured wiring packages as standard or optional amenities. If the wiring and systems are installed properly, the real business opportunity lies in tweaking the systems with aftermarket upgrades and services, said Jack Merrow, director of marketing management, Leviton Manufacturing.

“Often, a homeowner doesn’t know how to use an integrated system to the fullest and might not know what they have if they’ve purchased a home and didn’t meet anyone from the installing company,” Merrow said.

Installing structured wiring that powers controllers for amenities from lighting systems to window shades to iPod systems is not a new concept. Home automation has been on the radar since the 1980s with computer-controlled appliances. Consumer demand has exploded in the last 10 years, however, as powerful data networking commuted from the office to the home.

Parks Associates, a research firm specializing in digital and home networking markets, estimates that 1.7 to 1.8 million networks will be installed in new home construction from 2006 to 2010.

“More households will be storing content in the form of pictures, music and data files centrally on network-attached servers,” said Bill Ablondi, Parks research analyst. “The next step is distributing audio and video around the house. This sets the stage for entertainment networks to evolve from data networks.”

Redefining service

Today’s systems maintenance goes far beyond product warranty. For years, it wasn’t possible to interface competing residential structured wiring systems. As with all technology over the past 10 years, there have been significant developments in open protocol products and cabling. System functionality has improved. Installers are factory trained. The hardware and software are more intuitive. There is less confusion about configurations and operations; therefore, there are fewer fundamental failures.

For Electric Innovations, based in Sioux City, Iowa, a Siamese bundle of Category 5 cable within 16-4 shielded wire used to be a source of callbacks. “To resolve this, we now pull them separate, and the shielded wire now has an extra conductor in it,” said Karen Hodges, EI sales manager.

No installation is completely trouble-free, but “maintenance” may be a bit of a misnomer in an age when service is less about troubleshooting and more about proactive support, said Randy Wilson, a board director for the Custom Electronics Design and Installation Association (CEDIA). “Amplifiers can be installed that will e-mail us when there’s going to be a failure, and we can perform preventive maintenance sometimes from our office before a client would know anything’s wrong,” Wilson said.

Leviton’s Merrow believes expandable backbones are the key to the flexibility. “One of the most important factors for a contractor’s future sales and service is a base package that includes an enclosure with 50 to 60 percent empty space in it and making sure this package has space for future module expansion. This base package should be wired according to TIA/EIA-570B grade 2 standards.”

According to Craig Weide, systems integrator with Toledo, Ohio-based Transtar Electric Security and Technologies, a CEDIA member, there is currently nothing superior to wiring a home with CAT 6 unshielded twisted pair cable.

“This is the backbone that will tie systems together, allowing gigabit-fast data transmission and powerful capacity for digital home entertainment and control networks,” Weide said. “With this cabling in place, contractors can create an upgrade path that accommodates new digital technologies based upon Internet protocol.”

These developments enable remote operation and monitoring of home security cameras, lighting, climate control and home automation systems from anywhere Internet access is available.

Schneider Electric’s Clipsal lighting controls (shown above) provide dimming and operation from any control or switch point in a home or building. A natural upgrade would involve the installation of input devices like monochrome or color touch screens for additional functionality and improved wall aesthetics. Adding a touch screen, the system can integrate a number of other amenities including HVAC, audio/video and security in one user point.

“Later this year, we’ll implement our C-bus-enabled program in the United States, allowing third-party components to seamlessly integrate with the Clipsal C-bus protocol,” Wills said.

Trends in popular culture continue to set the pace of technological developments. For instance, a frequent integration project for Transtar is synching iPods to whole-house audio systems.

“The hottest products in consumer electronics are all the iPod interfaces that allow plug-and-play and display the metadata on TVs or touchscreens,” Weide said.

High-definition television (HDTV) is the primary driver in the area of home theaters. There are new sources and signal types such as “full HD” LCD flat panels, projection technologies like Sony’s SXRD and other new 1,080p resolution systems capable of displaying new HD DVD images.

In the area of core utility systems, energy management is an increasing focus. Recent developments in securities technologies allow the programming of up to 32 different zones in a home and constant monitoring of all interior motions.

Structuring support

Supporting whole-home systems takes service to a new level as it presents an opportunity to grow with a customer. But again, proactive planning is important. Successful contractors know that homeowners need to spend time in a home to know exactly how they want their systems to perform. So, incorporating after-closing visits and routine annual system reviews to the original package is a smart, value-added feature for builders and homeowners.

While first visits typically involve programming issues, annual visits could include the following:

  • Systems tune-ups
  • Operations reviews
  • Cleaning and calibrating video devices
  • Discussing usage patterns and upgrades
  • Product developments

As cabling installations have crossed over from standard power line carrier technology to digital applications, contractors who wanted to compete have either morphed into system integrators through training or acquired new talent to coordinate systems projects. Despite the fact that a greater number of qualified electrical contractors install commercial systems, there are opportunities for residential contractors to grow their market share.

“We’re seeing about 70 percent of home systems being installed by a low-voltage home theater contractor and 30 percent by electrical contractors,” Wills said, adding there’s an inherent advantage to electrical contractors because installations and support are integral to a home’s electrical infrastructure.

As a result, changes in company structures may be on the horizon. “The trend we’re seeing in Australia is low-voltage installers and electrical contractors merging to form a third company that is a total turnkey solution. From a speed-to-market standpoint, it’s a lot easier to either purchase a company, hire the competency or create a partnership,” Wills said.

Transtar’s business grew substantially once builders and homeowners realized that they could streamline the process with one company capable of design, build and support.

“We used to bid just standard electric jobs. Now that we have systems expertise, we’re able to capture whole jobs,” Weide said.

Finally, don’t overlook inexpensive methods of marketing service work. “Contractors not taking the step to advertise themselves and put their company on the line for supporting their installation lose out on not getting callbacks for system expansions and easily handled adds, moves, changes,” Leviton’s Merrow said.

He also recommended leaving contact information in the home—in the form of a company label with phone number on the cover of wiring cabinets, a brochure or business cards. Another strategy is obtaining permission from the builder or subsequent real estate agents to meet directly with the new homeowners. These simple steps can go miles toward gaining homeowner confidence and providing a more useful system and subsequent higher margin upgrades.          EC

MCCLUNG, owner of Woodland Communications, is a construction writer from Iowa. She can be reached via e-mail at mcclung@lisco.com.