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Business is Booming

By Susan Bloom | Mar 15, 2015
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The term “baby boomer” refers to Americans born between 1946–1964, when the United States experienced a marked, sustained rise in birth rates following the end of World War II. The first baby boomers began turning 65 in 2011, and this group is expected to live longer than previous generations. The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that the number of Americans over age 65—considered the fastest-growing demographic in the nation—will nearly double to 72 million and account for some 20 percent of the total population by 2030. A demographic known for its relative affluence and activism, this growing community has exerted an increasing influence on the nation’s economy, healthcare, culture, and consumer markets and driven noticeable demand for a variety of specific products and services, all of which signal attractive opportunities for savvy electrical contractors.


The buzz on boomers


According to research by AARP, nearly 90 percent of seniors report that they want to stay in their own homes as they age—a practice known as “aging in place”—even if they require day-to-day assistance or healthcare support.


“What people want as they get older is to preserve their independence and way of life for as long as possible,” said Amy Levner, manager of Livable Communities for AARP, Washington, D.C. 


Older residences may not be designed to help seniors do that, so the home-remodeling market among baby boomers is expanding steadily.


For example, a study of remodelers by the National Association of Home Builders revealed that three-quarters of those surveyed reported seeing an increase in inquiries related to aging in place and that the aging-in-place remodeling market is estimated to be valued at $20–$25 billion, roughly 10 percent of the $200 billion-plus home-improvement industry.


“However, many people don’t really know what they need to do to their homes so that they can stay there for the long-term and will definitely require the expertise of electrical contractors,” Levner said.


Some of the biggest baby boom opportunities for electrical contractors are in the areas of lighting, security, and home automation and control. 


“Good overhead and task lighting—such as in kitchens and bathrooms, as well as aesthetically pleasing directional lighting, such as running lights set into steps or along walls to help navigate paths—make homes brighter and allow people to do their daily activities more safely and without creating a stigma,” Levner said. “Older residents also want easy-to-use security systems so that they feel safe, as well as solutions that can help them control indoor and outdoor lights, temperature settings, and even alert family members or authorities of issues or accidents.”


Leading with lighting


Andreas Wojtysiak, senior key expert for light and health at Osram, said that several subtle and overt changes to the eye and visual system occur as we age. 


“We may experience reduced depth perception and speed of adaptation, meaning that it takes longer to see in a dark room when you’ve been in a bright room before,” Wojtysiak said, adding that among other age-related changes, “the very common need for reading glasses in people 40–50 years old is due to the reduced elasticity, accumulation of tiny damages, and clouding and yellowing of the eye lenses, all of which result in a higher susceptibility to glare from light sources. Our changing vision also has implications on the way we filter different wavelengths and synchronize day/night rhythm, whereby more natural daylight during the day helps to stabilize the sleep/wake rhythm and alleviate sleep issues.”


“As we age, our lighting systems should provide light of a cooler color during the day to achieve good vision and support our circadian rhythm, while reduced light levels with warmer light colors are more appropriate at night,” Wojtysiak said.


Karen Lee, head of applications marketing at Osram Sylvania, agreed.


“As the lens of the eye clouds and yellows over time and as a function of age-related disease, the amount of illumination needed to perform visual tasks multiplies. By age 60, we need three times as much light to see as when we were 20,” she said. 


She recommends that electrical contractors consider the following lighting strategies for older customers.


Increase energy-efficient ambient and task lighting in different rooms in a layered fashion to balance multiple residents’ needs and save energy in the process. 


“Task lighting may be used to add illumination for individuals who need it, while ambient lighting installed on dimmers can be adjusted according to tasks and occupants,” she said.


“With the yellowing of the lens that comes with age, some older people may prefer higher CCT light sources, such as 3,500K solutions as opposed to 2,700K incandescent-like or 3,000K halogen-like options,” Lee said. 


Because older people are more sensitive to glare, contractors should suggest well-shielded, diffused sources and luminaires.


According to many research studies, exposure to high levels of blue-rich light in the morning and avoidance of blue wavelengths in the evenings before sleep is ideal for maintaining good circadian entrainment. 


“As such, it’s advisable to use warmer, red-rich light sources in evening hours and just before bedtime,” Lee said. “Higher output light sources may be used in busy areas like breakfast nooks in the morning, while lower output, warm-color or amber sources may be used in bedside lamps or light fixtures that are left on as nightlights.”


Among seniors, injuries caused by slips and falls triggered by impaired vision, poor balance, and loss of core strength and mobility become an increasing concern. 


However, “research has shown that linear bands of lighting, such as those produced by our LINEARlight FLEX LED systems, can provide visual cues that help orient and stabilize motion,” Lee said. “Horizontal lines of light can highlight pathways and corridors, while vertical lines of light around doorways can assist seniors in standing up from a seated position or getting out of bed in the middle of the night.”


Finally, to compensate for losses in fine motor control and manual dexterity, light sources, such as fluorescent, compact fluorescent and LED, are not only more energy-efficient, but need to be changed less frequently and are cooler to the touch, Lee said.


Contractors similarly report a growing popularity of and success with LEDs among aging residents. 


“I love LEDs for my older customers because they’re a ‘one and done’ type of deal that keep homeowners off ladders where they could slip and fall, and they also like the energy savings,” said Brent Michelsen, president of CityWide Electric, West Fargo, N.D., which specializes in residential work.


David Chandler, owner of Well Built Homes in Bound Brook, N.J., also sings the praises of LED technology for seniors. 


“These days, my older customers want more and brighter light in the form of more recessed overhead and undercabinet lighting, not just lamps that hold a maximum 60-watt bulb anymore,” he said. “I recently installed LED lighting in an older customer’s shower, and she couldn’t believe how much lighter it was. Seniors definitely recognize the difference with LEDs and prefer them based on their brightness.”


Lee also stressed the importance of this market for electrical contractors going forward.


“Addressing the needs of the aging population is an excellent market opportunity for contractors,” she said. “Whether designing a new home as a residence for life or modifying an existing home to adjust for its occupants’ changing needs, a well-educated contractor can be a valued consultant to a homeowner while earning that contractor additional business along the way.”


Safety and security


According to Rob Puric, director of product management for Honeywell’s Connected Home division, seniors are one of the company’s target audiences based on that group’s desire for residential security. 


As a first defense, “older Americans often want lights to go on at certain trigger times, both so that the house looks lived in as well as because they don’t want to go into a dark house that promotes tripping and falling or places where intruders could hide,” he said. “In certain states, these systems require an electrical license to install, and residents often prefer a contractor to oversee them anyway so that they know they’re getting a professionally installed system that’s tailored to their specific needs.”


Puric said that home automation systems can be as simple or sophisticated as the user wants, from options that simply turn on certain banks of lights “to our Total Connect mobile app, which controls security systems, lights, door locks, temperature settings, and more and serves as ‘a private concierge’ that can be accessed from anywhere.”


Another popular option targeted to baby boomers is the company’s LYNX Touch security system.


“[It] has a two-way voice capability back to a central station activated by a panic button on a panel or pendant that can send police, fire or medical assistance if needed,” Puric said. “This capability has become increasingly popular among seniors as well as among their grown kids as a way for them to have peace of mind regarding their parents’ safety. These systems can also incorporate a Wi-Fi-enabled camera to show clips of events that happen and help keep family members or neighbors in closer contact with the older resident.”


Puric agreed that safety and security systems for baby boomers represent great opportunities for electrical contractors. 


“Roughly 20 percent of the 115 million homes in the U.S. get professionally monitored security systems, the majority of these by homeowners age 40 and over,” Puric said. “We’ve found that seniors in particular don’t want to experiment with them but rather prefer contractors to help them set up a system that will meet their needs and be easy to use.” 


He recommends that contractors establish relationships and partner with their local security and HVAC dealers; both need electrical contractors to install their systems.


Other opportunities


Among other opportunities for contractors to serve the growing baby boomer market, Michelsen said that he has been raising the height of electrical outlets in new residential construction applications from their previous location of 17½ inches to 22 inches because it’s 4–5 inches less that residents have to bend over. This is an upgrade that he has made standard in his practice after doing it for his own parents and seeing their positive response.


“We’ve also installed heated toilet seats, which a plumber would provide but which an electrical contractor would have to wire for, as well as an elevator for an older customer in a wheelchair,” Michelsen said.


Levner said upgrades like these will grow in prevalence as baby boomers age. 


“A chair lift, elevator, Wi-Fi-enabled thermostat or other electrical solution may be the key to people being able to stay in their homes,” she said.


Ultimately, electrical contractors are experts who are ideally suited to serve baby boomers. 


“Older Americans want to live well and continue to do the things they want to do, and contractors are well-positioned to suggest ways for them to do that,” Levner said. “Their advice, counsel and support are critical to this community and the contractors who do this well will see additional business from referrals.”


For more information on baby boomers or tips for contractors to better serve this sector, visit the AARP’s targeted site at www.aarp.org/livable.


About The Author

BLOOM is a 25-year veteran of the lighting and electrical products industry. Reach her at [email protected].

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