Two decades ago, a home automation installer usually could be described either as a hobbyist or an engineer with a penchant for designing complex systems for his or her own home. Few others could work with or expand these systems. For that reason, coupled with expense of the technology, the movement toward a fully automated home with integrated systems has been sporadic with long delays.

According to those who monitor the industry, the time has arrived in which tradesmen—electrical contractors, security and low-voltage contractors and HVAC specialists—are beginning to join camps. That’s the way it should be, say many technology vendors who expect the trades to take over much of the installation and integration.

Home entertainment growth, a swelling elderly population and energy management demands all are driving the home automation surge, according to Dr. Kenneth Wacks, management and engineering consultant, home and building systems. And as the public seeks greater comfort, convenience and energy savings in the home, the technology is beginning to meet those demands at an affordable price.

Plenty of pitfalls have occurred along the way. Honeywell got into the home automation business in the early 1990s with home control systems that linked temperature, lighting, security and entertainment. Until that time, most home automation systems cost $20,000 or more, said Dan Joyce, Honeywell’s director of trade channel marketing. But Honeywell offered a less-expensive option at between $4,000 and $10,000 with control technology.

“What we found with Total Home [the programmable home automation system] was that the market wasn’t ready. It was just too complicated on the setup side,” Joyce said.

According to Joyce, the systems were difficult to install, and with HVAC, electrical and low-voltage tradesmen not working together, often it was impossible to find the source of a problem.

Since then, Honeywell has re-entered the business with solutions specific to each system, such as thermostat, security and lighting. Contractors for Honeywell install the Vision Pro IQ with integrated zoning control—multiple thermostats with an integrated humidifier, ventilation and temperature zoning that can send heating to specific parts of the home as needed. The system also can be tied into security. It is easy to install, operate and expand.

“It has to remain easy,” Joyce said. “If it’s too complex, it’s not enjoyable or wanted.”

These technological developments can be beneficial for all involved.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for all the trades,” Joyce said. “In the past there was the trade labor, then the home automation people had to come in—those who were ‘smart enough’ to know the integration.”

“[Soon] everyone will be smart enough. For contractors, all of it drives more content in the home,” he said.

And for the most savvy contractors, more installation opportunities will come.

“This is absolutely the perfect time for contractors to be looking at this,” said Brad Wills, director of institutional systems and control at Schneider Electric. Although initially home automation had a slow start, he said, it’s now desired.

“This is the time to ask, ‘How can I make myself more important to my builder customers?’” Wills said.

Wills pointed to Australia as a model, where home automation is several years ahead of the U.S. market.

“What we’re seeing there is those electrical contractors are either buying each other or partnering up with each other to provide the low-voltage experience,” Wills said. “It’s not an adversarial thing. I think low voltage realizes the day is coming. With more electrical contractors getting into the business, there’s plenty of work to do. What we see is more trades working together.”

Whether in Australia or the United States, entertainment has been the driver, Wills said, from the living rooms and theaters of high-end and upper mid-level homes. It now has extended beyond entertainment to lighting and other home operation functions.

According to Wills, it’s fairly easy for contractors to learn the market. After about four hours of training, contractors can program a home automation system using drop-down boxes as opposed to writing code.

“It doesn’t require as much integration or as much configuration on the part of the installer,” he said.

Clipsal Integrated Systems, Boulder, Colo., for example, offers a C-Bus-enabled product for audio that can be controlled by standard C-Bus wall switches, touchscreens, remote controls or any other C-Bus input devices. It can be used as a stand-alone multiroom audio system, or it can be used in conjunction with C-Bus relays, dimmers and other C-Bus devices to provide an intuitive integrated automation solution.

Also, Schneider Electric, Palatine, Ill., offers an intelligent load center that incorporates an automatic transfer switch to alert users in the case of lost power and starts a generator, turning circuits back on during a power outage. That load server also can enable the homeowner to monitor their own power usage, the rate they pay for power, the demand at a specific time and what they will pay.

“People do want to save energy, and it helps to understand how much energy they’re using,” Wills said.

Lighting controls

In certain cases, home automation and lighting automation are viewed as synonymous, such as when lighting is integrated with an entire home system, including HVAC, entertainment systems and security. However, at Lutron, one of the founding lighting automation companies, the two often appear separately in homes and may continue to do so.

“I think we will continue to have people interested in control of lighting and not necessarily joined at the hip with home automation,” said Phil Sheetz, Lutron residential systems marketing manager.

In the past two years, Sheetz said, he has seen a large increase in lighting control adoption. That demand has caused more manufacturers to provide systems that function either through the 400-MHz radio frequency band, which is used mainly by Lutron, or other higher trafficked bands for streamed data.

When it comes to home lighting, fluorescent and LED dimming are beginning to edge out incandescent lighting. California Title 24 requires that dedicated fixtures for fluorescents have dimming ballasts. LEDs used for accent lighting can be preprogrammed, dimmed or adjusted. This growth in residential market fluorescent and LEDs usage, Sheetz said, leads to integration.

“The next question is, ‘Can I have dimming of that?’” Sheetz said.

More commonly, homeowners are using automation systems to actively control the way they use their lighting, Sheetz said. Lights can be programmed to operate in vacation mode, giving a home the appearance of being lived in when no one is actually there. And systems also can be programmed to remove unnecessary energy-consuming events, such as lights in nonvisible areas.

Reliability comes to play

More reliable technology continues to gain in the home automation market.

“We now have very good, reliable technologies that can be used to link nearly every modern household convenience and control all of them for the homeowners’ convenience, security and cost savings,” said Phillip Kingery, export and OEM sales and tech support, powerline control components, ACT Inc., a provider of powerline-based home and building automation systems.

Kingery argued, however, that not all technology has been an asset to the automation drive.

“The rise of so-called energy-saving lights and other electronic gizmos actually pollute the electrical environment, and that ‘noise’ makes it hard to send signals over the those same lines,” he said. “However, newer technologies have overcome that hurdle by using radio, which bypasses the power lines and sends their signals through the air.”

The advantages are multilayered. “We can send our signals at a far greater speed, embed more data, use true two-way acknowledgements and do far more than we have ever been able to do in home automation,” Kingery said.

Growth potential

Growth has been strong at Home Automation Inc. (HAI). HAI’s product line covers security, lighting control, energy management and temperature control, audio distribution, touchscreens and remote access by telephone, smartphone and computer. It is a highly reliable system that doesn’t depend on computers. If the homeowner chooses, it can be professionally monitored for security.

“Speaking from HAI’s experience, growth has been at 35 to 40 percent per year,” said Jay McLellan, HAI president and CEO.

HAI’s growth may be indicative to the strong market growth potential. Contractors should be aware of what’s driving the home automation market.

For contractors, a good strategy is looking toward the older population. The age-50-plus housing market continues to grow. With remote control capabilities, the elderly can ensure outdoor lights are on at night, temperatures are comfortable and more, McLellan said.

And recent focuses on green construction and energy savings also may drive more business.

“One of the most important effects of a home automation system is energy savings,” McLellan said.

Because the system knows whether someone is home, asleep or away, it can adjust lighting and temperatures accordingly and maximize energy savings. The remote control aspect allows home-owners to be aware of energy consumption and adjust it while on the road.

“We expect every home built to ultimately have automation to maximize energy efficiency, especially as utilities look to conservation to avoid building new power plants and transmission lines,” he said.

Manufacturers such as HAI, Lutron, Schneider Electric, Leviton and many others offer a wide range of products with better performance at lower prices.

“We understand that there is not one single protocol or standard that can do it all. There are many different requirements for data speeds and costs. So our systems accommodate multiple protocols, and we partner with a wide range of manufacturers to make sure our products work together,” McLellan said.

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