For electrical contractors specializing in bread-and-butter residential projects, such as changing out light switches and adding receptacles, the proliferation of the Internet of Things offers both challenges and opportunities. The challenge lies in the education needed to get up to speed on the capabilities and requirements of the latest generation of smart devices. Investing that time and attention could lead to big returns. For contractors, transforming from service-call responders into smart-home consultants is a shift that could become more important as demand for intelligent devices continues to grow.
Opening home automation to ECs
Though the high-end, hardwired home-automation market has been around for a couple decades, it has been more frequently the domain of specialized integration contractors. Installation has often taken place when walls were open, during new construction or major renovation projects. Today’s wireless products, on the other hand, often can be installed without cutting any drywall. With these devices, consumers could be more likely to ask ECs for both expert advice on product selection and installation help when electrical connections are involved.
“A little over half of all smart-home devices are installed by a professional of some kind,” said Brad Russell, research associate with market-research firm Parks Associates. “Some people don’t want to touch anything that requires turning off a breaker. Older homes with four-wire thermostat configurations, rather than the more convenient five-wire, may trigger a professional installation.”
Additional candidates for what Russell calls “do-it-for-me” services include more complex lighting installations, hardwired outdoor cameras, or wherever complex routing of wires or mounts might be required. Consumers might even need help with selecting new LED replacement lamps when dimmer switches are involved, because not every lamp works with every controller.
While the banks of do-it-yourself smart product displays at big box stores may seem to pose a direct threat to ECs, Blake Kozak, principal analyst for smart home and security technology with market research group IHS Markit, sees it differently. While manufacturers have stressed ease of installation in their marketing efforts, Kozak said they have not been as successful at presenting the actual value proposition of connected light switches and electrical outlets to less tech-savvy consumers.
“It’s not a ‘how’ so much as a ‘why,’” he said. “You have to have a lot of imagination.”
Big box customers are often confused at point-of-purchase displays. For example, for any given application, battery-operated and hardwired options might be available. For security cameras, consumers might decide between less expensive, but limited, onboard memory storage or unlimited cloud-based storage requiring a monthly service subscription. An EC who understands the benefits and tradeoffs and is able to offer an educated recommendation can help cut through the confusion.
“It takes all that out of the equation for the consumer,” Kozak said. “All they have to do is describe what they want, and the professional can come in and do that.”
The top three entry points into the smart-device market are lighting, temperature control and security, with security leading the pack, said Neil Orchowski, product development manager, strategic alliances, Lutron Electronics Co. Inc., Coopersburg, Pa.
Though one might think of smartphone-addicted millennials, he said age is not a helpful way to bracket potential customer groupings.
“Often it gets driven by something the customer wants to do with their house,” he said. “The way we break it down is: what’s that customer all about?”
Tech-savvy early adopters form one such category, and Orchowski sees a bigger potential market in consumers who just want to make life in their homes more convenient or secure.
“Where we see people getting started is that simple, three-way lighting solution,” he said. “You can add that additional point of control on the wall, and you don’t have to cut any drywall. It’s an entry point to doing even more throughout the house.”
"This is very generalized, but millennials have often been looking for technology to simplify their lives, while baby boomers are attempting to add value to their homes." —Fritz Werder, Legrand
He said Lutron’s Caséta wireless products can meet such a need.
Fritz Werder, vice president and general manager, Legrand’s Nuvo and On-Q home audio and networking equipment lines, sees functionality as a driver to adoption of home automation technology. However, such goals can vary according to age.
“This is very generalized, but millennials have often been looking for technology to simplify their lives, while baby boomers are attempting to add value to their homes,” he said.
Also, older customers can have more questions regarding how any data generated by these systems might be used.
“We’ve seen baby boomers be more concerned regarding questions of security,” Werder said. “The privacy issue is less of a concern for millennials.”
Baby boomers and millennials might be interested in similar functionality, but they may have different purposes in mind.
“The older generation might not be as interested in lights changing colors but more interested in lights coming on to light the stairwell,” Werder said.
Growing business as technology advances
The desire for professional assistance will only grow as consumer demand increases. While first-generation products offered what Werder calls a connected manual experience—in which touching a button on a mobile app results in a preset action—now, operations are more automated. Systems are evolving to provide automatic responses based on predetermined conditions. For example, exterior lights might illuminate and the thermostat might switch from “away” to “home” settings as your phone’s GPS alerts devices that you are pulling into the driveway.
“Where we see this interaction going in the future is toward the autonomous home,” he said. “I no longer have to think or set a chain of commands. My home learns my behavior and sensors know what to do based on typical interaction in the living environment. I get up in the middle of the night, and my home’s lights illuminate just enough to create a pathway to the bathroom, or I am listening to music in one room and it follows me to the next room.”
Just staying aware of such capabilities and the products that can deliver them could mean more business for ECs during standard service calls. Some clients might have stand-alone smart devices already that they simply aren’t using to maximum advantage, or they might describe a desire to automate lighting or thermostat operation in a passing comment. Being able to suggest and install an on-the-spot solution could mean a quick upsell in the short term, and a longer-term reputation as a smart-technology expert.
“A lot of times, consumers are using products that can be connected, if they so choose,” said Brian Donlon, vice president of sales, Lutron Electronics. “Quite honestly, what contractors should be doing is looking around the home and asking, ‘Hey, I see you have an [Amazon] Echo; have you thought about voice control?’”
Kozak suggests ECs be proactive and investigate specific products and solutions that could be useful to clients.
“I think contractors should start to look to partner with a manufacturer or an ecosystem,” he said. He also mentioned families of offerings that might be marketed by different makers but are designed to work using common protocols and wireless hubs. For example, a number of companies now offer smart devices that operate in concert with Nest thermostats.
“Get to know a set number of devices and maybe set up some sort of service plan along with them,” Kozak said.
The Eliot program by Legrand can connect heating, window shades and lighting devices as well as control a home’s electrical functions. It can play music from a single source through connected receivers with NuVO. It also works with Netatmo, which provides outdoor security detection.
Manufacturers are looking for these kinds of partnerships. For example, Lutron has developed the Residential Advantage Contractor Program to bring contractors up to speed on both new technologies and sales techniques.
“We offer a robust training and education process for our systems, but we’re also sharing some of the logical integration points,” Donlon said.
Participants receive instruction on incorporating Lutron into larger designs that include other company’s products.
“We train them on the parts and pieces of the Lutron system and also on the integration of voice control,” he said.
After completing the training, participating contractors gain access to free or discounted product samples and customizable marketing materials. Continuing training also is offered as new products and promotions are launched.
Legrand offers both webinars and classroom training to ECs on their devices and systems. Beyond manufacturer-sponsored training, Werder said that those interested in expanding an existing business into home automation consider hiring in talent to lead the effort. While the individual devices might be easy enough for an experienced contractor to install, getting a mixture of wired and wireless devices to work together—and ensuring a home’s Wi-Fi network is adequate and consistent for the task—is essential to ensuring customer satisfaction.
“That knowledge and skill in the area of networks [is essential],” Werder said. “It’s a gap many electrical contractors are going to have to close.”
Getting the training to close this knowledge gap will help ECs meet the needs of tomorrow’s customers, as even basic light switches and outlets gain networking capabilities.
“We know that the majority of our customers like to have someone else deal with our products,” Donlan said. “For the contractor that becomes knowledgeable and folds the solutions into the day-to-day work that they do, the consumers will follow.”