Explorations in Digital Communications

The residential connectivity explosion continues, and we are on the cusp of the adoption curve of technology—good news for electrical contractors.

Whether you work with a builder or venture out on your own, it is a “gotta have it” type of world. That is what many of your customers are saying about home controls and automation.

They want to access the office network from home, peek in on the teens while away, turn on the spa before entering the driveway, and set parameters for the security system remotely. That’s what digital communications allows them to do.

Those contractors who gravitate between the commercial and residential market, as many do according to recent independent ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR research, are in a position to take advantage of exponential growth in this area. Residential electrical contracting also offers an opportunity to garner recurring revenue, through the execution of a service and maintenance agreement, a must-have when working in a market characterized with lots of hand-holding.

How does digital operate in the home? The communications/signaling technology controls or manipulates the home environment: security, whole-house audio, lighting, heating, air conditioning, ventilation and more. Behind it all—or at least behind most of this type of connectivity—is digital data communications, the series or pulses of digits that communicate to and from products throughout the home.

Digital signal processing is in the news because of all the consumer products that now incorporate this communication platform—think high-definition television and the like. In electrical contracting, particularly the low-voltage side, digital communications enable a variety of applications. But, in order for adoption to occur, users have to be able to perform functions simply and without hours of frustration currently associated with products in which they are lacking expertise.

“Consumers want technology that is simple to use,” said Darrel Hauk, president and chief executive officer, Channel Vision Technology, Costa Mesa, Calif. “For example, to be able to see the person at the front door by changing the channel on the television, talk to the person while on their cordless phone and listen to music throughout the house. In the connected home, each area is wired for satellite, cable, phones and networking, without over-complicated systems. That’s what digital communications does for the home environment.”

When digital communicators first emerged in security applications—aka the digital dialer in the 1980s for alarm signal transmission over the plain old telephone system (POTS)—the machine-to-machine language depended on the manufacturer and the equipment, and there was no perceived need for each separate product to talk to each other.

But as the industry matured, consolidated and became more application-savvy as well as information-technology and microprocessor intensive, open protocols and universal communications became more the norm, and that’s where we are today—trying to figure out ways for all the little pieces of the digital puzzle to walk with and talk to each other in amicable fashion. Manufacturers have done a stand-up job making that happen.

Some products are end-to-end digital, while others rely on some form of analog signal (continuous electrical signals) converted to digital or an interface that allows it to communicate. Cameras are a good example. Many still receive an analog signal and convert it to digital, no harm done. The important part is that there are numerous options and services now available, thanks to the digital revolution. It is only going to get better.

Application in action

Here is a capsule of what is happening in the digital home across the United States:

  • Two fast-growing areas of digital home health services are wellness monitoring and e-health services, which will quadruple over the next five years, according to Parks Associates, Dallas. At an assisted-living facility outside of Portland, Ore., Alzheimer’s patients wear sensors that allow their children to keep track of their parents’ vital signs and activities using a secure Internet connection.
  • Interactive services such as targeted advertising, voting for game shows and gaming over the television are also key areas of interest in U.S. households, according to Parks data.
  • Incorporating music from portable music players and other mobile devices to dispense throughout the house is the next hot application.

With all the digital home options and services now available, in the adoption stage or ready to emerge strongly, residential contracting can certainly be the sweet spot in the electrical contractor’s revenue base in coming years.

ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR magazine, through Renaissance Research & Consulting, New York, conducted an in-depth study on the specific role the contractor currently plays in the residential market. The home-control market was explored. According to the Special Research Report “Electrical Contractors’ Roles in the Residential Market,” companies who work on automation or controls handle the work internally (rather than sub out) and do so almost always with the same staff rather than a separate division or department.

Even more significant is the contractor’s role in selecting the brand used in the automation or control work. High percentages said they also typically specify/select brands and/or design systems if they work in a given category, suggesting a far broader role than one limited to installations. In addition, almost 60 percent of those who currently perform residential work expect its volume to increase over the next three to five years. About one-quarter of electrical contracting firms that do not currently perform residential work predict that they will be doing so in the next three to five years.

Home options and services

The home and office are an extension of each other. Users can work off the network at home or check in on the office through surveillance over the Internet. They expect and want the same level of convenience at their residences that they have access to at work.

“Whether it’s entertainment, satellite, broadband connectivity, intercom, audio and some management of HVAC and lighting, everything is based on digital technology,” said Jim Paulson, general manager, commercial and residential solutions, GE Security, Tualatin, Ore. “Soon you’ll be able to plug the iPod into the electrical outlet and play the music over the entire home’s system. That’s where we’re headed.”

With the right wiring, compatible devices and a little imagination, Paulson said, homes can offer everything from remote security and appliance control, energy cost savings and plug-and- play computer network and home entertainment functionality.

“The connected home ties together appliances, heating and air conditioning, computers, security systems, smoke detectors, lighting, home entertainment devices and more and lets users control them all via remote control from a telephone, cell phone, over the Internet, at home through wall-mounted keypads or touchscreens, or even through portable screens carried throughout the home,” he said. “A connected home allows all the electronics and systems to work together and gives owners access to their home from anywhere on the planet. It can also be an intelligent home, one that is wired to take care of itself and alert you to any problems.”

Paulson said there is no question that more digital data is becoming available for consumer electronics in the home.

“High-definition television may be leading the revolution, but products like VoIP [voice over Internet protocol] telephones, TiVo, iPod and the revolutionary place-shifting technology that Slingbox [which enables the user to watch television by turning an Internet-connected PC into a personal television] demonstrate are just the tip of the iceberg. The key to being able to make the most of these emerging technologies is the high-speed backbone that connects the digital content with the products that display it, such as home theater systems, distributed audio, the television in the den, home offices and family computers,” Paulson said.

Driving digital data

Consumers have choices they never had in the past. In terms of video, they can choose from cable or satellite and easily integrate security cameras whether at the front door or the nursery. But the real driver is digital content delivered through broadband Internet services.

People want alternative services like VoIP telephones, digital music services, digital photo services and digital content on command. The structured wiring system provides the ultimate vehicle to distribute these services in the home.

“It’s all about connectivity,” said Avi Rosenthal, national program manager, On-Q/Legrand, Harrisburg, Pa. “Our job is to manage and deliver content, no matter what that is.”

For example, Rosenthal said the digital home may include streaming MP3 video on demand.

“Our products enable the delivery and use of content,” Rosenthal said.

Electrical contractors, he advised, should focus on the lifestyle of the user, what content they want in the house, and how to deliver the things that they want to use.

“In the future, expect more communications to control technology, for example lights and security. More flexibility and more content will also be important. Expect for multisource, multizone audio capabilities, such as the ability to play four different sources of music or video in numerous areas of the home. But the biggest move is in content management, such as multiroom, multisource systems,” Rosenthal said.

Digital communications is reinventing home automation, making it easier to use and fostering greater acceptance by the consumer as well as creating new applications custom-tailored for the user. It’s all about what they want to accomplish within the home or remote office.

Wireless is always part of the solution, whether a radio frequency sensor or local area network device. Manufacturers are embracing the latitude of application digital communications affords and working with interoperability such as open protocols, interfaces and other hardware and software so a vast array of systems and services can talk to each other and work together. The implications are fantastic, for you and your customers. EC

O’MARA is the president of DLO Communications in Park Ridge, Ill., specializing in low-voltage. She can be reached at 847.384.1916 or domara@earthlink.net.



About the Author

Deborah L. O'Mara

Freelance Writer

Deborah L. O’Mara is a journalist with more than two decades experience writing about security, life safety and systems integration, and she is the managing director of DLO Communications in Chicago. She can be reached at dlocommunications@gmail.com...

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