Out of the Shadows

Imagine an electrical contractor meeting a homebuyer at the builder’s sales office. The contractor walks through the plans for the new house and asks the homeowner for a description of his lifestyle, the way he wants to use his home, what he expects it to be able to do.

Armed with a little understanding about the homeowner and a lot of knowledge about home automation, the products available and what they offer, the electrical contractor is about to make a sale of his services. He can describe what options the homeowner has, where he might want to set up his technology and what it will provide him. Then, the contractor can get to work.

Some contractors have even been known to make a party out of a new installation, said Brad Wills, director of business development, Square D Clipsal. These contractors bring the new homeowner a pizza and sit down with the homeowner to go over the installation, walking through the house and tweaking the system to suit the homeowner’s personal needs. This is far from the traditional role of contractors and, for many, it is too much to be bothered with. While electrical contractors have enjoyed a long tradition of quick in-and-out residential work with little interaction with the customer, there are lots of reasons why that mindset is changing.

Foremost is the potential revenue. Imagine selling a homeowner a Lutron lighting system that operates on radiofrequency (RF) technology and is simple to install.

Lutron’s home systems marketing manager Phil Scheetz estimates it takes a half-hour to install the new, preprogrammed AuroRa system and will earn the contractor several hundred dollars. Installing Lutron’s new AuroRa system is one example of how electrical contractors can easily provide a service that wasn’t available before.

AuroRa comes in a package containing five dimmers, one master control, one wireless controller and one central antenna. Each room button on the master control turns lights on to their locally set slider levels, or off, while the “all on” and “all off” buttons control five dimmers at the same time. The wireless controller turns lights on and off from the car, providing safe entry into a dark house.

The system installs as quickly and easily as five light switches. For remote access of lights, the user can plug in the five-button tabletop master control and clip the wireless controller to a car’s visor. The system’s compact plug-in central antenna provides RF communication between all devices and can fit in a closet or under a bed. Partnerships and teamwork are great ways for contractors to start. Many electrical contractors make it a practice to meet with homeowners and have also created partnerships with residential builders.

This kind of partnership allows the contractor to walk each prospective homebuyer through technology options and determine what wired and wireless features that the homeowner wants to buy along with his blinds and custom tiles.

It often starts with the structured wiring. Most builders are aware of the importance of home automation and at least half of new construction includes a centralized wiring system. By having that as part of the new home package, niche products and services follow easily.

Consider, for example, that a connected homeowner is twice as likely to put in a security system if the house is prewired for it. Because homeowners serve to save money and time by installing all the specialty options in their home at the time of construction, someone needs to have a conversation with them about just what they want, where it will go and how much it will cost.

Most builders are not comfortable discussing technology with homeowners.

“[Home theaters or security systems are] not an area they’re typically comfortable talking about,” said Jeff Wilson, GE Security manager.

Still, homeowners are best served when they are best educated. According to the 2004 Residential Study conducted by Electrical Contractor, nearly 50 percent of all newly constructed homes in 2005 contained structured wiring—these homes have the backbone to become smart homes of the future. When you look at luxury homes, the numbers grow further. More than 65 percent of these new homes will have structured wiring. The networks are expected to grow from 13 million in 2004 to more than 30 million in 2009.

Connected homes tie together all the extra services that were once an unknown to electrical contractors—appliances, heating and air conditioning, computers, security systems, smoke detectors, lighting controls, home entertainment devices and more.

Once the services are connected, homeowners can control them using remote control from a telephone, cell phone, over the Internet, or at home through wall-mounted keypads or portable touchscreens. A connected home allows all the electrical systems to work together and gives homeowners access from anywhere outside the house.

There are various options, but a wired home using the Ethernet protocol developed for computer networks comes with the strongest bandwidth. Ethernet cable can carry more data than most households will ever need. Bandwidth users are lining up, snapping up products including HDTV, voice over Internet protocol telephones and TiVo.

If the high-speed backbone is in place—and the electrical contractor working with the builder can help ensure that is the case, and the contractor understands the potential technology to include in a home—the builder, contractor and buyer can all reap the benefits.

Start with structured wiring

Building a new home gives the homeowner a dizzying list of options they might not fully understand. They can select cable or satellite or integrated security cameras, whether they are at the front door, driveway or nursery. Now imagine some of these same installations in other products: central vacuums, audio systems or security.

One problem with residential technology is that most homebuyers plan on purchasing theaters and distributed audio systems after they move in. The advantage of wiring up front is that the low-voltage contractors can offer complete solutions to the homebuyer, and in the process of educating the homebuyer, they increase the sales of their products as well as those of the builders.

At the same time, the homebuyer gets the benefit of a complete solution that can be built into the mortgage. It also increases resale value for a homeowner planning to offload the property in the future.

Builders will typically offer prewiring for security as an option when building a home.

“The real opportunity is talking to the owner,” said Wilson. “We deal a lot with electrical contractors and low-voltage integrators. In builders’ sales centers, technology is not something [homebuyers] are typically comfortable talking about. When a homebuyer asks about that home theater or plasma TV, the questions need to be referred to the contractor. Once that structured wiring enclosure is part of the equation. Security systems sales go up dramatically.” When it comes to security, the residential market is growing most in the area of video solutions—IP-based cameras for the home’s front and back exteriors. GE also offers an integrated distributed audio and intercom system.

The GE Smart ConnectionCenter is a structured wiring and connectivity solution that manages and distributes broadband, telephone and cable TV and creates an in-home computer network through Ethernet. In addition to the common features of a structured wiring system, the ConnectionCenter allows mounting of home security systems, gateways, audio products and home servers, all in one enclosure.

The Smart ConnectionCenter also enables multiplayer gaming between rooms, houses or over long distance in another part of the world. CD-quality audio and digital video signals are also distributed throughout the home. A knowledgeable contractor can install a system such as this and, in addition, he knows what features might be good companion options.

If a contractor is configuring a home audio system for movies, for example, a good companion step would be a whole-home lighting control system that dims the lights, shuts the shades and drops the movie screen with one press of a keypad.

Taking it one step further, the lighting-control systems could tie into a home’s security system, so in addition to an intercom system to identify people, the system could tie into cameras that would show who is outside.

“Lighting control has been a category growing in consumer awareness,” Scheetz said. While there is generally a level of complexity in configuration of automated lighting, Lutron has made a point to make lighting installation simpler. While he said many production builders now have automation packages, by teaming up with a contractor who has lighting-control experience, and working in tandem with the builder, many homebuyers go for significantly more than the “package deal.”

Lutron is sending its own people into the field to work with electrical contractors and train those who want to know more about installing lighting technology. That is in Lutron’s best interest as well. A large percentage of these lighting systems are sold based on proactive suggestions from contractors.

“So if you just satisfy what’s already on the market you won’t get much work,” he said. “But if you proactively suggest a product, that all changes.”

Lutron offers a three-day course for contractors and distributors and offers on-site training as well.

Low voltage meets the electrical contractor

In Australia, where Square D Clipsal’s Wills sees the lighting automation business at least five years ahead of the United States, low-voltage specialists have increasingly formed partnerships with electrical contractors. It may be a natural evolution since both skills are needed for home automation installations.

State side electrical contractors may evolve to similar partnerships, Wills predicted. Since so much work related to home automation goes to low-voltage specialists, many electrical contractors have already started their own low-voltage division, often with their offspring at the helm.

That may be a great way to test the waters, Wills said. For others, a partnership between a low-voltage company and an electrical contractor allows the two companies autonomy when they need it.

Electrical contractors who are willing to take the reins in low-voltage installations have also learned to work closely with homebuyers. Usually after an installation, they can expect to return to the home several times to tweak the system to the homeowner’s needs. Wills said contractors often build several follow-up visits into their pricing before they begin.

“That allows them to provide good service to the customer but draws a line when the customer needs to start paying for service,” he said.

Homeowners with fully integrated lighting systems are in the $750,000 home range, although that number is dropping, Wills said. The size alone of some high-priced homes make automated lighting more practical, however the younger homebuyers are becoming more technology savvy and asking for more.

Often buyers start with a lighting system, then ask to have the heating, ventilation and air conditioning, security or other features integrated onto the same touchpad so that they can program the system to easily adjust the lighting, temperature and security appropriately whenever they leave or enter the house.

“The business will continue to be there,” Wills said, “This is still a small, immature market, but it’s growing at a rate of 10 to 15 percent each year.”    EC

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



About the Author

Claire Swedberg

Freelance Writer
Claire Swedberg is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at claire_swedberg@msn.com .

Stay Informed Join our Newsletter

Having trouble finding time to sit down with the latest issue of
ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR? Don't worry, we'll come to you.