All Grown Up? Home Automation

Even though home automation technology has been around for decades, the opportunity it represents for electrical contractors right now is phenomenal. The need for energy conservation, a public sector initiative established to meet that need, the rapid evolution of home automation technology, and an aging but well-to-do baby boom generation are all converging to make home automation, also known as domotics, a rich vein of potential revenue that can be mined for decades.

In 1893, eccentric electrical engineer Nicola Tesla filed U.S. Patent 613809 that described, in essence, a remote control. It was not until the 1950s that the devices became commercially available. Zenith Radio Corp. produced the first in 1950. Called the Lazy Bone, the device could turn the TV on and off and change channels. However, the control was attached to the television by a bulky cable, which customers would frequently trip over, thus adding injury to the insult inherent in the Lazy Bone.

The next attempt, by Zenith engineer Eugene Polley, was the Flash-matic, introduced in 1955. It truly was a remote control, but it had issues. The defining characteristics were four photocells, one in each corner of the television screen, and a directional flashlight that the viewer used to activate the photocells and turn the picture and sound on and off and the tuner dial clockwise and counter-clockwise. The Flash-matic, it turned out, was not a fair-weather friend; on sunny days the television would change channels at random.

That ended in 1956, when Zenith engineer Robert Adler designed the Space Command remote control using ultrasonic technology. That remained the dominant design for the next 25 years, which just about brings us to the modern age of home automation and the beginnings of controls that have more constructive intent than the erstwhile Lazy Bone.

Today, home automation controls are practical, cost-effective solutions for convenience, security, safety, energy conservation and entertainment. Even within the last two or three decades, this was not always the case. The first integrated home automation systems could be expensive, cumbersome, and difficult to install and maintain.

“Now, home automation systems are affordable, effective, and relatively easy to install and use,” said Jay McLellan, president and CEO of Home Automation Inc. (HAI), New Orleans.

A good, reasonably priced system, he said, can be operated from a six-button panel by the front door. Lighting, heating and cooling, and security systems can be adjusted depending on whether the homeowner is home, away, awake, asleep or having a party. More robust systems might include a home theater, multi-room audio, irrigation control, access control, vehicle detection, surveillance cameras and even remote pet feeding systems.

McLellan said a basic system, including lighting, security, temperature control and phone access, would cost between $3,000 and $3,500 and include 10 lighting switches, two thermostats, an interface console, and a small equipment box. Such a system can be remotely accessed by telephone. Devices, including smart phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs) and personal computers, can access more sophisticated systems over the Internet. The best systems today, including home entertainment systems with all the bells and whistles, can cost as much as the homeowner is willing to pay. One installation can make a contractor’s year.

Kenneth Wacks, a home and utility systems consultant, believes home automation systems are not only desirable but, in an increasingly energy-starved world, necessary. Wacks is a member of the Department of Energy’s 13-member GridWise Architecture Council established in 2004 to develop the architecture of a smart grid for reliable, cost-effective and efficient distribution of electricity. The council serves as a resource to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which was charged under the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 with identifying and evaluating existing standards and technologies. Smart grid proponents are counting on an educated, involved consumer and more sophisticated energy demand and response systems. Experts believe that development of the smart home and smart grid standards will help drive the market for home automation equipment well beyond where it is now.

Wacks called hard wiring—as opposed to other method, such as wireless—the gold standard of home automation.

“It’s reliable, long-lived and often performs better than Wi-Fi, which is subject to competition—multiple devices using the same available bandwidth, i.e., 2.4 gigahertz. It will also ease supply-and-demand responsiveness as the smart grid gets smarter and utilities offer savings incentives to customers who agree, for instance, to use certain appliances during off-peak hours,” he said.

Wacks said all builders should plan for the installation of structured cabling. He cites TIA-570-B, an American national standard that defines the number and size of wires to be used to support broadband Internet access, home entertainment systems and home automation. The top quality cables commonly being installed today are Category 6 twisted-pair wires and RG-6 coaxial cables with quad shielding. The standard is voluntary now, but may very well be included in state and local regulations.

Brad Wills, director, Insulation Systems and Control, Schneider Electric, Palatine, Ill., said contractors should build relationships with developers and jointly plan “to offer customers an option for a home networking system that supports automation control or, alternatively, offer the same system as an inherent part of the sale package as a way to differentiate their offering from that of their competitors.”

“Customers always seem to frustrate builders by focusing past the great-looking house in a great neighborhood and, instead, concentrate on peripheral items, such as technology. Rather than dealing with technology grudgingly, builders ought to understand the options to stay ahead of customer demands and learn how to make extra income from technologically based add-ons to a home sale,” Wacks said.

In new home construction, Wacks and others say contractors have an advantage over low-voltage equipment installers because prime contractors would rather deal with as few subcontractors as possible. They prefer one-stop shopping.

However, getting in the market may not be that easy. There is a tug of war in industry and in state legislatures over who has the right to install data networks. In the last 10 to 15 years, low-voltage experts have seen the demand for their services take off. Contractors have watched this trend with more than a passing interest and are now engaged in legislative battles over licensing and domain protection. Wacks said that electricians would have a more credible case for protecting their turf if they can claim some home automation expertise.

However, Wacks said, contractors would do well to get additional training and perhaps certification in home automation equipment. They can obtain training, which is not onerous, and even certification from a number of sources. Some manufacturers provide free training to familiarize contractors with the field, its players and various product lines. The Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association (CEDIA) offers training and certification programs and is working with the Consumer Electronics Association on standards. There are private training organizations, such as Bedrock Learning, Holland, Mich., which bills itself as a residential technology training solution and offers remote, flexible, 24/7 course access. Training and information are also available through the National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee.

Wills noted that Schneider Electric requires training before it will allow installation of its home automation systems, a practice not uncommon in the industry.

“It is important,” he said, “to put a value on the training as well as to filter out those who are not serious about it.”

So, structured cabling is the perfect type of system and now you know where to get training, but what about all that wireless buzz you hear? While wireless systems have some disadvantages compared to structured cabling systems, they can still be a cost-effective solution for residents of existing homes. They are relatively simple to install and program. While the components may be more expensive, installation is less expensive. Manufacturers say that, after about four hours of training, contractors can program a home automation system. It is important to note, too, that there are 100 million existing homes, compared to a million or so new home starts every year. Wills said the country will not make a significant dent in the country’s energy costs unless existing homes are retrofitted with wireless solutions.

He also said there is growing demand from consumers to understand their energy consumption.

“If there is transparency in the use and cost of electricity in the home, there is an instant 15 to 20 percent savings in energy costs,” Wills said. “For example, by dimming an incandescent bulb so that it uses only 80 percent of its energy capacity, a difference barely discernible to the human eye, the bulb will last up to 10 times longer, plus save energy. The homeowner can readily grasp this concept and come to the right conclusion.”

Combined, new and existing homes represent enormous market potential, especially in an environment in which energy policy is promoting conservation. But another trend, the aging of the baby boom generation, is also creating opportunity. The ability to control security and safety systems, lighting, heating and air conditioning, as well as entertainment systems, from a remote keypad is very appealing to today’s seniors. Home automation systems, in addition to turning on alarms at night, can light stairs or mark pathways to safety should a fire break out in the home. Having some friends over for bridge? Just hit the programmed “scene” button to adjust lighting and select music for the event. Grown children can check on their aging parents’ well-being remotely. Occupancy sensors can reveal an unusual period of inactivity in the home, a possible indicator of a medical emergency.

If the convenience, safety, environmental soundness and cache of home automation cannot convince the homeowner to buy, then perhaps dollars and sense will. Experts say that, over time, home automation systems pay for themselves in energy savings and increased home resale values.

Schneider’s Wills said making the decision to go with a home automation system is “a little like buying a car. It’s an emotional as well as a rational decision. You might want to buy home automation control systems mostly because it has a cool multiroom audio system and home theater, but the rational side, the one that says, ‘I can save a lot of energy and have a safer home,’ is the one that justifies the purchase. Think hybrid Maserati.”

Therefore, contractors have a compelling case to make to the consumer. If they don’t make that case, Wills said, and if they can’t offer home automation expertise, they risk losing the opportunity of a lifetime.

“Right now electrical contractors are sitting in the catbird seat, particularly in new home construction because they have a license for high-voltage installations,” Wills said. “If they fail to pay attention to the low-voltage end of the market now, they may be marginalized in the future. On the other hand, by fully embracing the technology, they expand opportunity, increase revenue, and, some say, take on more interesting work.”

HAMILTON, a former vice president of communications for the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, is a freelance writer and artist living in Parkton, Md., and can be reached at

About the Author

Rae Hamilton

Freelance Writer

Rae Hamilton, a former vice president of communications for the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, is a freelance writer and artist living in Parkton, Md., and can be reached at

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