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With a residential market in search of a pulse, finding opportunities is daunting at best. Projects exist, but they may require work unfamiliar to you. Is that a deterrent or a challenge? Better yet, is it a door to opportunity? For electrical contractors (ECs) who have discovered intelligent systems for the home, benefits include clean installation and easy margins. Integration work hasn’t been immune to the economic downturn. However, learning the ropes, finding ready-to-go customers, or partnering with or becoming a home integrator will position you for an expected booming market attracting a range of homeowners.
Premiere Systems in Chicago is a home automation technology installer (integrator) serving the upper-income consumer. High-rise condominium and high-end rental property development is helping Premiere Systems weather the economic downturn. Russ Radke, chief operating officer, regularly partners with electrical contractors.
“Today’s control systems can do more and require both high-voltage and low-voltage work,” he said.
Premiere creates its own architectural drawings, which help an electrical contractor better understand the work at hand.
“ECs have a wealth of experience in wiring and often structured wiring,” Radke said. “In fact, many ECs we work with are commercial but find their way into residential through us.”
Radke appreciates contractors with experience in low voltage or who are willing to learn. He recommends they become familiar with standards created by the Telecommunications Industry Association, the Electronic Industries Alliance and BICSI. Such standards focus on cabling; wiring; connectors; and other audio/video, security and data interfaces.
“We don’t mind getting a contractor up-to-speed,” he said. “But the more familiar they are with our world and how it intersects with theirs, the smoother the project.”
‘Just another level of wiring’
Gurtz Electric Co. in Arlington Heights, Ill., is mainly a commercial electrical contractor.
“Home integration found us,” said Christopher Ott, senior manager for Gurtz. “We are largely a core and shell and design/build contractor. Most of our work is in healthcare and commercial office buildings.”
Ott said a 37-floor condo gut rehab, for which Gurtz was the electrical finish contractor, brought Gurtz Electric and Premiere Systems together.
“Some of the condo owners wanted home integration features. That work fell to us,” he said. “In all honesty, the opportunity gave us pause because the work was different from what we traditionally had done.”
Radke said reluctance is a common reaction for ECs new to home integration.
“ECs are blown away by the amount of wiring needed for home integration projects, even if it is bundled,” he said. “There’s a lot to trim out and connect. That initial fear of overly complex work lessens once they think through the systems. It then all makes sense.”
Ott agreed that the initial concerns were soon overcome.
“Our job is to incorporate the integration systems into the electrical design,” he said. “Once we learn how to marry the two, it is just another level of wiring a building. You sit down with the system integrator and work through each other’s designs.”
New equipment and new contractors
An EC working in home integration is faced with equipment that needs to be wired, connected and communicable through a central processor. Every project can bring something new.
“I wasn’t aware that you can give a home system an IP address to control the mechanical and electrical systems from a laptop,” Ott said. “Customers want to remotely monitor their home whether it’s to view power or energy usage or check on their property through installed cameras. They can virtually punch up anything they want to monitor or change.”
Radke said finish levels are much higher residentially, especially in the high-end properties.
“You are dealing with equipment racks, wire management, touchpads, all of which must be attractively and cosmetically integrated,” he said. “They require extra time and thought. We might install three to four racks of equipment that a homeowner actually wants to show off. It falls to us and the EC to make this smart and unobtrusive.”
ECs also might find themselves working with contractors new to them, such as carpenters designing millwork to accommodate a home entertainment system or an interior designer charged with details that must harmonize with the home integration system.
Radke said the contractor who takes a team approach works best with a system integrator.
“An EC who shows initiative and interest in learning residential and home technology is a true partner,” he said. “People skills, including patience and flexibility, are essential, as well. In the past, the integrator was viewed as an outsider in the construction community, and that made it hard when we came in to do our work. Adding the EC to our project team is showing builders and others the growing prevalence of home integration.”
Going it alone
J Becher & Assoc. Inc., an electrical contracting firm based in Rogers, Minn., created its own low-voltage division. J Becher & Assoc. is a design/build residential, commercial and industrial contractor. Its low-voltage work includes structured wiring, security, multiroom audio, closed-circuit television (CCTV), card access control, central vacuum systems and full home automation systems. Like other contractors, home automation came to J Becher & Assoc.
“Ryland Homes set up shop in Minnesota in 1995, and we were their first electrical subcontractor,” said Jerry Becher, president of the firm. “Their customers were starting to ask for home integration technologies. The builder said to us, ‘If you can meet our standard price point, you can get this work.’ We agreed and ended up developing a separate low-voltage service. We were already doing electrical integration work with our commercial clients. That said, residential integration shares few similarities with commercial integration shy of CCTV and phone jack installation. It was a whole new world to learn.”
Becoming its own home integration firm required some image changing and marketing. The company moved into a new building to accommodate a showroom, customer conference rooms and a home theater room. Becher also decided to carry home electronic products, such as flat-screen televisions.
“Sure, some of the big-box stores can offer better equipment price points, but we can be competitive in installation and setup,” Becher said. “The showroom lets the consumer visualize and understand what home automation is all about. We also have our expertise as electrical contractors working in our favor. Costs are coming down in home automation, making if affordable to broader incomes. That’s key. It is really a consumer cross-sell vehicle.”
To create and run its new division, Becher brought in former home integrator tradesman Brady Elsenpeter to serve as the residential manager for J Becher & Assoc. To Elsenpeter, success in home integration work requires building awareness and gaining consumer acceptance.
“The average consumer doesn’t know what ‘home integration’ means and subsequently what we do,” he said.
J Becher & Assoc. competes against stand-alone low-voltage contractors, including audiovisual and security installers. For Elsenpe-ter, the quality of the work—supported by word-of-mouth endorsement—helps him succeed.
“Home integration is a service requiring a personal approach with the homeowner,” he said. “That’s why we have the showroom to visualize home integration systems. Marketing is hard and requires time and patience. But that’s how you build that personal relation-ship.”
That time and patience extends to the projects themselves. As part of its contract with a homeowner, Elsenpeter spends the day in a customer’s home to observe how they live and what elements of their lifestyle would benefit from home integration.
“It is an eight-hour day of observing and interviewing,” Elsenpeter said. “You truly develop a friendship as you start talking about tastes or favorites in music or movies. Maybe the topic is sports, gardening, love of technology or energy conservation. In the end, you are helping them design their personal space to accommodate a lifestyle.”
Both J Becher & Assoc. and Premiere Systems ensure the goodwill they build is not squandered. Each assembles and tests their home integration systems prior to installation in a customer’s home. The last thing either wants is the excitement of home automation dampened in the eyes of their clients.
An expanding customer base
Elsenpeter said today’s systems offer more affordable choices.
“That is encouraging to us and opens up the market beyond the luxury homeowners,” he said. “At the very least, we can get homeown-ers started through selling prewiring work, then build from there when the homeowner is ready to move forward.”
“Reaching a broader market had already started but the recession has cooled it,” Radke added. “We feel we are gearing up for an idle market ready to explode. Prices are coming down as acceptance rises and technological advances make systems smaller and simpler. In my view, the biggest help in popularizing home technology has been the dramatic drop in price of flat panel TVs. That has really freed the consumer to buy other parts of technology for home theater that might require dimmers, an automated screen or blinds and so forth. It’s the beginning of integration.”
The growth in wireless/radio frequency products also is opening the door to lower costs and broader homeowner appeal.
“Wireless is definitely a driver, especially with the retrofit market,” Radke said. “You might retrofit switches with controllable dim-mers that can talk to a central controller you’ve added. Equally important are builders who are coming around and beginning to see home technology as a more common feature now and in the future. They are also seeing home integration as a trade no different from other trades.”
“It’s a new residential technology for many ECs,” Becher said. “You are kind of scared to take it on. Don’t be. We made the plunge be-cause we were asked to, and it has given us something new and exciting to add to our business and profession.”
GAVIN is the owner of Gavo Communications, a marketing services firm serving the construction, landscaping and related design industries. He can be reached at [email protected].