Traditionally, residential wiring was the easiest, most straightforward work an electrician could find. But with the demand for “smart” home structured wiring, that tradition is changing. Electrical contractors, as well as the IBEW, face a looming decision: should they adapt to this swelling industry? Electrical contractors who install residential wiring are not the only ones considering roles in structured wiring. With the onset of this technology, several other industries are showing an interest in getting a piece of this pie. Yet so far, only a limited number of electrical contractors have taken a strong role in smart home wiring.

It seems that NECA, IBEW and the National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee (NJATC) have a new priority: training journeymen to install these systems in large developments as well as custom homes.

A smart home (also known as home networking) is defined as a residence that uses a central control system to integrate the residence's various automation systems, including Internet connections, PCs, cable television, phone lines, security systems and lighting. There are many levels of this technology, but at least some level of smart home wiring is going into the vast majority of new homes under construction.

The residents of these homes can expect to have single button and voice control of the various home systems simultaneously, either in preprogrammed scenarios or operating modes.

As the technology grows, so do the opportunities for electrical contractors. The importance of intelligent building wiring has not been lost on the NJATC, and training labs have been emerging at JATC locals around the country. These labs train journeymen and apprentices in the installation of LonWorks, an open system being used in residences and commercial buildings.

Mike Hundt, training manager for Echelon, maker of LonWorks products, has worked with JATCs throughout the country to establish training programs and incorporate LonWorks installation basics in the fourth or fifth year of apprentice training. The two-day installer course teaches electricians to wire up low-voltage wires and connect them to a network. The second phase of the course is a three-day session on network integration in which the electricians learn to program devices, connect them with one another and perform troubleshooting and analysis.

“You can't just survive on pipe and wire anymore,” Hundt said. “There are a ton of opportunities to get into building control.” Hundt indicated that companies such as IBM and Siemens are showing an interest in smart home installation, a sign that the business could become even more lucrative as it grows.

“They [companies like IBM and Siemens] do the up-front work to see what is expanding,” Hundt said. That up-front work led the technology giants to consider structured wiring installation as a great growth potential. “It's happening everywhere,” he added.

According to Hundt, young journeymen are enthusiastic to get their hands on computers, however, the older guys returning to training “do a little grumbling.”

There isn't much grumbling, however, at the Omaha, Neb., JATC. The LonWorks training program here is the third established in the United States. It is held in a training lab where students can learn both installation and programming.

We've never had this opportunity before,” said Omaha JATC assistant training director Marty Riesberg. While network wiring had always been proprietary, now electricians can do training and installation.

“It used to be Siemens, or whoever, was doing it themselves,” Riesberg said. In that case, a vendor such as Siemens would hire an electrician to pull the cables, then do the programming themselves. “That always created a tension between wiring and programming (if anything went wrong with the system),” Riesberg said. Now electricians can take charge of the entire project. And so far the electricians love it. Riesberg has seen considerable enthusiasm from those who undergo the training.

In a new Las Vegas lab, where director of training Madison Burnett helped launch the training program in October 2004, the program will soon include fifth-year training for all journeymen. The lab is set up to simulate a building with seven floors in which students can both install and program smart technologies.

According to Steve Nguyen, director, corporate marketing of Echelon, now is the time for contractors to expand their business, “and take a bigger piece of the pie.” He said the IBEW came to LonWorks with the issue of how to make their membership more valuable. Already they have seen early success from the classes being offered. LonWorks stands poised to join in several trends taking place internationally, including a metering system installation in Italy that connects homes to the outside power sources through low-speed power connections, so that anyone using the meters can communicate with their own home systems. In the United States such initiatives still lag behind, in part because of regulations.

But voice/data/video (VDV) home options are not lagging here in the United States. Cahner's reports say that the market for smart home products could reach $1.7 billion by 2005. Parks Associates has reported that by the end of 2004, 45 percent of single-family homes in the United States will include whole-house wiring.

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 technology they may want later. The cost of each structured residential wiring system averages about $2,500. With full integration of a computer network, home automation and home entertainment, the price tag can easily reach $50,000.

Industry consensus is that smart homes mean more revenue; therefore vendors, mechanics and electricians are all vying for installations. While wireless (Wi-Fi) technology has gained in popularity in some areas, most smart home technology requires some kind of wiring, whether connections are made through existing power lines, phone lines or Category 5 or 6 Ethernet connections.

Some electrical contractors are already immersed in smart home technology. They offer installation of power source wiring as well as having some electricians trained in structured wiring inside the home to pull Cat 5 Ethernet cables. These electricians can install speakers, TV sets and controllers for the audio system as well as lighting, security and appliances. And since an electrician is already in the house drilling the holes and pulling the wires, it would be efficient to have one contractor work on both electrical and structured wiring, instead of hiring two separate labor crews.

In most new home wiring projects done by Electrical Service Co. Inc., of San Jose, Calif., smart home technology is installed from the start. The company has been in the industry during the past eight years and, as a result, has a firm place in the market. It works with three smart home manufacturers including Square D solutions.

“Most of our revenue is derived off residential high-density product,” said operations officer Doug Aumack. Of those Santa Clara County area homes, about 90 percent require some kind of VDV wiring. To provide this, the company electricians run Cat 5 cable, RG6 for video solutions, and either pair or single wires.

The company has a home base crew that is experienced in this kind of wiring and an in-house expert to help plan and develop the optimal solution for a product, so the right tools and training is in place, Aumack said.

“We've learned what's optimal in terms of placement in each room,” Aumack said.

Customer service extends beyond installation. “We put our sticker on the front panel and on the panel for sound and communications in the master bedroom closet,” he said. The sticker includes company information and a phone number for customer questions. However, Aumack said, “We rarely get a call.”

The basic installation includes connections for one or two telephones in each bedroom, two communication connections and two TV connections. They install a panel and cover with AC power, six-way video and telephone to nine locations. For a satellite prewire, they include RG6 lines from the attic area into the paneling. In the kitchens they install Cat 5 wiring for communication. There are three port termination points for TV, phone and data in secondary bedrooms.

Security at the front door and rear door can be tied into the alarm provider using discreet power. Security cameras can be designed to broadcast images from the front door onto the resident's television inside the house.

Technology is changing to adjust to former shortcomings. X-10, which is a common system as well as an entire communications protocol carrier produced by X-10 (USA) Inc. of Tampa, Fla., has lost some favor recently for unreliability. SmartHome (Irvine, Calif.) has found a temporary solution and is looking into new technology to replace the old X-10 system. Ken Fairbanks, director of sales for SmartHome, indicated the company has developed a booster to the traditional X-10 system that may steer more users back to X-10. BoosterLinc Plug-In Signal Booster, an advanced plug-in module, detects all power line signals on the line and amplifies them.

The X-10 system, which has been around since the 1970s, has proven to be problematic for some users as appliances or services are wired further from the power source. Now, however, several $99 boosters that plug into a typical home's power sources can boost the service to function reliably.

X-10 protocol uses existing power lines in a home to control sequences. Currently, the majority of networked homes are using the X-10 protocol, which is an industry standard. But as Fairbanks said, the protocol, “starts out with a low-voltage signal, then if you run a long distance, a number of devices can weaken the signal as it goes by.” Noise from various devices in the home can further weaken the signal. Computer gear and home entertainment products such as televisions are the biggest signal absorbers.

SmartHome is now offering light switches with the boosters built in, which works for any X-10 application, Fairbanks said.

SmartHome is also working on a next-generation technology as well that will replace X-10 in the home control marketplace. The new technology will be compatible with X-10 and allow homeowners to keep adding devices. One advantage to the next-generation technology, Fairbanks said, will be the speed. While it now takes six-tenths of a second to send a message, it will accelerate to one-400th of a second with the new X-10 technology. And encryption capabilities will control doors and motion sensors. The next-generation system is expected to be on the market in the first quarter of 2005.

When installing a VDV system in a smart home, there is finesse to working with structured wiring. Because electrical contractors may not be familiar with low-voltage wiring, plenty of manufacturers and organizations have launched their own training programs for installers. Whether many electrical contractors take the lead in this industry is yet to be seen. EC

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at claire_swedberg@msn.com.