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Welcome to My Crib: Joining the smart home revolution

By Claire Swedberg | Jun 12, 2023
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Average home buyers have expectations around technology-based intelligence that a decade ago were reserved for only the highest-end houses. 

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Average home buyers have expectations around technology-based intelligence that a decade ago were reserved for only the highest-end houses. Today, developers and construction crews are challenged with providing the additions needed to enable connectivity and integrated systems.

The movement toward smart homes can be tracked back decades. In the 1970s and ‘80s, smart lighting development was underway, said Greg Rhoades, director of marketing for smart and new technology products for Leviton, Melville, N.Y. But it was expensive and complicated to deploy.

Early adopters wanted to manage their sprawling estates to ensure they didn’t have to walk around their 8,000-square-foot house flipping switches and adjusting lighting, he pointed out. “I think the biggest difference [between then and now] is that this is for everyone,” he said.

This trend was accelerated by the pandemic. For one thing, homeowners of all ages have changed. When it comes to senior citizens, “People want to stay in place longer,” as part of an aging-in-place trend, Rhoades said. Elderly homeowners need the comforts and conveniences that delay the transition to assisted living.

And as COVID-19 sent workers home to personal offices for remote work in 2020, those individuals also began looking for the features that improve comfort and accommodate work, right where they live. Evolution in smartphone apps and smart speakers has also helped lead the movement of intelligence into single-family homes, and the technology has been accelerating ever since.

In the electrical world, features such as voice control have an outsized impact, because users can see the response to their voice commands in real time, Rhoades said. “When I make that vocal command, I see that experience change immediately,” he said.

Leviton offers a lighting and energy management system called My Leviton to manage switches and dimmers, as well as integrate and automate systems. Rhoades pointed to a common use case: an individual going into their kitchen for a midnight snack. The home’s sensors identify movement and turn on the lights. But no one wants 100% lighting levels at that hour. So the technology is designed to be configured according to each home’s needs, such as applying a night setting with lower light levels.

Each homeowner may require a wide variety of adjustments. For instance, the lighting motion detector could be snoozed when a soccer game is on and people are throwing their hands in the air over each goal (but don’t want to keep turning the lights on and off). Further settings enable users to run their robotic vacuum when they leave the house or make sure the faucets are turned off when occupants close and lock up the door.

A consortium of technology providers has developed the open-source standard known as Matter to provide a common communication language for smart home technology. 

 

Open-sourced standards

Recently, a consortium of technology providers has developed the open-source standard known as Matter to provide a common communication language for smart home technology. This standard means integrators or electrical contractors as well as homeowners and builders can install a wide variety of systems and appliances and know that they will work together (if they have a Matter logo on the box).

Homes can leverage Matter in one of two ways: one is through a gateway that receives a set of data from meshed devices that bounce their information from one device to another. The other version involves Matter-enabled Wi-Fi devices that communicate to the router or hub directly. Typically, installers just scan a QR code to add a new appliance or device into this ecosystem.

“It’s a really simple process that’s secure and reliable, and ultimately just gives more choice,” Rhoades said. That makes life easier for contractors. Many electricians may not have adopted smart home installation into their service in the past because it could be confusing to install and operate.

Targeting energy management

In recent years, the residential building industry also has seen “an increasing number of builders and homeowners placing an emphasis on energy management,” said Mike Hoppe, U.S. product marketing director at ABB, Cary, N.C. The digital technologies company provides residential breakers, group metering and other electrical distribution products for single-family and multifamily residences. Since ABB acquired GE Industrial Solutions in 2018, it has been investing heavily in the residential space, Hoppe said.

“Homes are often the first place for many innovations in technology that later moves into commercial buildings,” he said. 

Over the last 10 years, homes have been shifting to smart home technology to manage their heating and cooling, lighting and security. This shift occurred as homeowners, building owners and tenants found it easier to reduce their residential energy costs using simple connected devices like thermostats.

Home energy management today can include electric vehicle charging, renewable power through solar panels and energy storage systems. The significant increase in EV charging alone is driving the need for more sustainable energy consumption. This will affect the grid as residential needs continue to increase, Hoppe said. “Therefore, we need to change how we think about the role of homes as they become not only energy consumers, but potential energy providers.”

As homes gain intelligence, they can be connected to the grid built around them, but increasingly, they may not rely on that connection. For example, a sustainable home could use solar panels for generating energy, Hoppe said. Connecting this system to a battery backup for storage allows the energy to be used during off-peak times and could be sufficient to power the home. Combined with one or more EV chargers, the system can be used to charge vehicles.

Having a smart breaker panel or load center along with a home energy management system allows the homeowner or tenant to then manage their energy use. Mobile apps can make it easy to schedule energy use when it costs less or is more convenient, according to Hoppe. Solutions like this could also work with existing connected HVAC, lighting and home security systems.

“This is an exciting time to be an electrical contractor. The technology can be easier to learn for installation than it may seem,” Hoppe said. “I would encourage electrical contractors to investigate home energy management solutions. This is also a potential way for electricians and small businesses to generate additional revenue in a fast-growing market.”

Cameras, IoT and sensors in the home

Facial recognition technologies are also continuously improving. The use of cameras and related systems can help create safer home environments, said Walt Zerbe, senior director of technology and standards at global smart home technology association CEDIA, Fishers, Ind.

Cameras can now tell the difference between known visitors (ones marked as “friendlies”) and strangers, and can also distinguish package and mail deliveries. Users also have the option to set zones and program their cameras to ignore cars and animals to avoid unnecessary notifications, Zerbe said. Systems can also manage pets. New solutions are coming to the market that allow pets to access various areas of the home, such as by using smart collars programmed for the time of day and location.

Some new access technologies use radio frequency identification (RFID) to identify people or objects, so no key codes are necessary. There are also many smart locks that support multiple properties, including Airbnb rentals and garage doors.

However, lighting will continue to be a major growth category in the smart home market, Zerbe said, including tunable white lighting and RGB color-changing control, which he predicted will become mainstream. “In addition to the aesthetic and health benefits,” he added, “lighting control is also beneficial for managing lighting loads and saving energy.”

Immediate deployments are generally kept to core products such as door access, cameras and voice control for music, Zerbe said. ”I expect long-term deployments to be much larger, with virtually all devices in the home connected and managed together as one,” he said.

Despite the trend toward wireless systems, wire is still king, Zerbe said. If a device is stationary and has the ability to accept an ethernet cable, it should have one—that is still the most reliable option. If products are mobile, then wireless becomes the preferred choice.

“Above all, any smart home system will rely on the home’s network to communicate and function,” Zerbe said, “The better the network, the more reliable the experience will be.”

Builders and homeowners still face complexity of installation, with a large number of products to choose from, as well as reliability, security and privacy concerns surrounding voice control and connected devices, such as camera surveillance and ease of use.

“Technology integrators are able to ease all of these concerns by providing realistic timelines and explaining the installation process,” Zerbe said. 

They can also offer maintenance of the system on a continuous basis. That includes providing multiple layers of security and customizing the user experience based on each individual’s abilities and preferences.

For new construction, the focus needs to be on properly planning the network and where devices may go, which means knowing how networks and devices work. 

 

For new construction, the focus needs to be on properly planning the network and where devices may go, which means knowing how networks and devices work. Zerbe pointed to the fundamentals, such as properly pulling, securing and terminating cables, including ethernet or Cat 6, multimode fiber and coaxial cables.

If the cable isn’t deployed correctly, serious problems occur, “as seen when using too much tension while pulling the cable, exceeding bend radius,” he said, “or stapling or morphing the cable with cable ties, which reduces the cable’s capability.”

Contractors who understand how wireless networks perform best will have an advantage, and continue to see an added revenue potential, as the residential market steers more sharply toward home intelligence.

shutterstock / RossHelen

About The Author

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at [email protected].

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