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Luxury homes are often a launching point for technology, such as home automation, security, lighting management, and entertainment systems, that could become commonplace throughout the residential market. In the meantime, contractors providing electrical installations in today’s luxury homes are becoming well-versed in automation and recessed electrical systems that are better hidden than those of the past. The most successful contractors, according to automation technology vendors, take the role of upselling products to their clients—explaining what automation technology is available and why it might be worth the money, even if the homeowner didn’t ask.
However, the recession has altered the growth of many automation technologies, and such systems have been harder to sell in the past few years. In some cases, homeowners have been putting the latest innovations on the back burner as they looked for ways to save money.
“Luxury homeowners of today live full lives. People are busy with careers, family and all the commitments that come with everyday life,” said Rob Doherty, Crestron Residential Lighting Controls’ regional sales manager, Rockleigh, N.J.
Therefore, they are looking for conveniences, safety features and anything that may simplify their lives. But as the economy improves, more luxury homeowners are shifting back to quality (read: expensive) versus more economical systems. New apps on the latest tablets and smartphones make it simple for homeowners to manage the home remotely, and that is likely to move the automation industry into more mainstream houses.
High-end residential installations often begin with a single automated piece that could be placed into something greater. For example, many homeowners install an entertainment system in one room, with plans to integrate lighting controls or thermostats in the future. With such customers in mind, contractors recently have been learning how to put an automation backbone in place ahead of a completely integrated system. To help contractors stay up-to-speed with the technology they potentially sell and install, manufacturers offer a variety of online and in-person training courses and programs. They aim to help electrical contractors who, in high-end residential installations, often are requested to select brands or design systems, including architectural or custom lighting, landscape lighting and home theater/sound systems.
Manufacturers and integrated systems contractors report that, in the past six months, they are seeing a growing demand for automation and alternative lighting, loads and sources.
James Sherman, director of marketing, residential, Leviton Manufacturing Co., said that, when it comes to lighting, “A lot of the products are developed taking this into consideration.”
Leviton, a global manufacturer of electrical devices based in Melville, N.Y., offers universal dimmers that enable homeowners to control a variety of lighting hardware. Leviton has developed controllers that can function with traditional incandescent lighting and the latest lamp innovations such as dimmable compact fluorescent (CFL) and light-emitting diode (LED) lamps, without sacrificing performance. The new devices give electrical contractors the ability to offer a single lighting control capable of properly dimming next-generation lighting sources, while remaining backward-compatible.
Leviton’s universal dimming devices also address performance issues, such as flickering, reduced dimming range and low-level startup, which are experienced when incandescent-only dimmers are paired with dimmable LED and CFL lamps. Users may adjust for any dimmable LED or CFL lamps.
This kind of technology serves the inevitable transition of LED lighting being installed in homes, and the phase-out of the incandescent lamp. Crestron continues to test LED lighting on its existing lighting control products, so the company can adjust and create reliable solutions to properly dim LEDs.
“Clients today look for speed with their computer networks, high-quality video pictures, and their own music when and where they want it,” Doherty said.
Remote access to control and monitor their home through their mobile devices is also another must-have. Energy management, he added, is a focal point for many. Controlling lighting with a time clock reduces energy consumption. An “away” button shuts off certain lights and adjusts the thermostat.
Crestron provides an integrated home technology solution that is used in both the high-end residential application and the more mainstream homes. The ability to start with a single system where the client has an easy-to-use remote to control the audio, video and lighting in a room, for example, provides the foundation to add more lighting control, controllable smart thermostats, and music and video distribution throughout the whole home at a later date.
“Our wireless radio frequency system (infiNET) has been popular over the past few years with the downturn in the new construction marketplace,” Doherty said. “Because our infiNET dimmers and switches replace existing switches on the wall, clients can start with a few controllable dimmers and grow the system as they wish.”
The dimmers also can function as keypads, so the user can control a single light or groups from one location. infiNET can communicate with any Crestron system being installed.
Some companies also are connecting tablets with homes. Savant, Hyannis, Mass., offers the industry’s only Apple-based control, automation and media system. It enables users to connect to their home’s lighting switches, thermostats or personal media players using their Apple devices. The automation and media system works for both residential and commercial markets.
Doherty predicts home automation growth as manufacturers and partners fine-tune apps to make them easier to use. And, the growing familiarity with apps has spurred homeowners to ask contractors about automation possibilities.
The high-end contractor purview
Since contractors in the residential market often work directly with their customer—the homeowner—there is a great opportunity in specifying products.
“Specifically, there are opportunities for contractors to add value to their offering by providing lighting control and energy management solutions. Some of our electrical contractor partners also have an A/V division to provide all the ‘value added’ solutions Crestron has to offer,” Doherty said.
Furthermore, contractors install most of the lighting control systems in homes today—both new and retrofit wireless systems.
“It seems a fit for these contractors to provide product and service, as well as programming,” Doherty said, adding that Crestron also has independent programmers that the contractor can retain for support if needed.
Contractors should bear in mind that technology companies, such as Crestron, offer training courses, design and quoting support, and local sales support to assist them in becoming successful at installing lighting controls and energy management systems.
Learning to sell a product, however, can often require a change in mindset for contractors, said Jeremy Kleinberg, residential systems product manager at lighting control company Lutron Electronics Co. Inc., Coopersburg, Pa. Lutron offers automated shades, dimmers, thermostats and full systems such as the RadioRA II and Homeworks. Homeworks provides a tabletop keypad that can control an entire home including the dimming panels, enabling the creation of multiple zones of light in a room or throughout an entire house.
To contractors, Kleinberg said, “Don’t assume a homeowner will ask about these systems; they often need someone to explain the systems to them.”
He said the Lutron training programs attract electrical contractors who want to move further into automation technology.
“It helps for them to be able to explain the system options to their customers. Really, it’s up to the contractor to lead the conversation,” he said.
Providers join contractors
Premiere Systems, a home automation company for low-voltage lighting controls and integrated home theaters, recently joined the electrical contracting business. It made sense, said the Chicago company’s president, Ken Johnson. He sees a natural convergence between automation dealers and contracting. Premiere may be one of the early companies in a trend of combining installation services and the technology itself from that side of the business. In most cases, it’s the electrical contractor who is moving into low-voltage installations.
“More and more, we were seeing the advantage in starting our own electrical contracting business,” Johnson said.
According to Johnson, that only works with a medium to large business. In the meantime, when it comes to high-end residential installations, his installers find that nearly all include lighting automation, motorized window treatments, and automation-infused entertainment systems.
“When I used to sell a system, I’d have to sit down and explain what it would provide,” Johnson said. “Now even elderly clients are very comfortable with what apps can provide and how they can be used in the home. When you meet with someone today, home automation is something they ask for, not something you have to talk people into.”
Johnson also sees a growing interest in recessed products, such as lighting that can be installed in ways it cannot be seen. That kind of installation requires more drawings and more project management than systems of earlier years and decades and fits right into the electrical contractor’s wheelhouse.
As the high-end residential market adopts automation technology, the solutions will become more affordable and can be expected to move further into middle-class homes.
“With technology’s growth and the increasing adoption, you’ll see the technology moving down the spectrum to the more affordable homes,” Kleinberg said.
SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at [email protected].