Automation for the People

While the home-automation market is still in a bit of a Wild West state, the combined factors of industry consolidation and consumers’ growing interest in interoperability are forcing some order into the chaos of available products. As the base of interested buyers expands from early adopters to the broader population, one can begin to see the general outlines of product tiers taking shape.

The timing for this evolving definition is important because homeowners and renters alike are becoming more interested in thermostats, lighting, locks and security cameras they can monitor and control remotely, using mobile devices or computers. Parks Associates, a leading home electronics research company, released data in April indicating one-third of broadband households plan to purchase a smart-home device within the next 12 months. With the U.S. Census Bureau reporting that just under 75 percent of U.S. households now enjoy a broadband connection, Park’s figures could mean the market is getting ready to boom.


In a larger sense, consumers now have a choice. They can go with high-end custom systems that require professional installation, families of compatible midtier products that might or might not require a contractor, or a lower cost range of offerings intended for the DIY crowd. Product integration—the ability to control multiple products, create “scenes” that could involve lowering window shades and lighting and setting up advanced rules—increases with price, but all of these products can add convenience to a homeowner’s life.


Life at the top


Top-of-the-line home-automation packages are progressing quickly, from cable/fiber-only communications to a broader array of hybrid wired/wireless offerings. In the past, these options have primarily been available only in new construction or major renovation projects, but manufacturers increasingly stress minimally invasive approaches in existing homes, as well. Wireless products and controls can be tacked on to these systems, but the added benefit of direct, wired connections to audio/video equipment, security systems and some lighting controls can mean more reliable service (thanks, in part, to higher functioning Wi-Fi if additional signal boosters are incorporated into the design).


Since its founding in 2003, home-automation provider Control4, Salt Lake City, has offered high-end residential systems. A few minutes surfing the company’s website illuminates the extensive capabilities possible with its equipment, from color-changing swimming pool lighting to home entertainment installations suitable for a Hollywood film executive. But company representatives are quick to point out that falling technology prices are making what was once high-price functionality available to a wider audience.


“You can get started with an entertainment-room automation system for around $1,000,” said Blair Sonnen, Control4 spokesperson. “Our average customer bill is under $5,000, which, when compared to five years ago, is a fantastic leap in bringing home automation mainstream.”


While Control4 systems originally were fully hardwired, Sonnen said today’s versions take a hybrid approach with a centralized, hardwired controller that can be paired with satellite, wireless controllers to extend a signal’s reach, and its own lineup of wireless dimmers. In addition, Control4 has opened its code to a number of other wireless home-­automation manufacturers, giving its customers access to a broader range of products.


“Five years ago, there were a lot of products we were engineering and providing to the market as solutions for various home-automation needs because, quite simply, they didn’t exist,” Sonnen said, listing some of the most popular third-party products that now are compatible with the company’s controllers. “That Sonos multiroom music system? The Nest thermostat your family loves so much? Yes, they all work with Control4.”


Midmarket appeal


Lutron Electronics Co. Inc., Coopersburg, Pa., is a controls manufacturer making a big push into the home-automation market (or, in its terminology, “connected home”). Its two-tiered line of router-connected SmartBridge hubs controls the company’s own Caséta wireless switches and dimmers and Serena, Triathlon and Sivoia shades, Honeywell and Nest wireless thermostats, as well as Control4 and Crestron systems. Users can access SmartBridge-controlled devices using the Lutron app, which is available on the Apple Watch as well as standard tablet devices and smartphones.


[SB]Automation is nothing new for Lutron, but, similar to Control4, the company had previously focused on higher end installations. As apps began to move control from in-wall touchscreens to smartphones and tablets, the company decided it was time to broaden its marketing efforts.


“When the smartphone came out, we were watching the market. We were targeting people who were comfortable with their smartphones and using them every day,” said Matt Swatsky, Lutron’s director of product management. “We had parts and pieces, and we took them and pulled it together in one experience.”


Especially interesting for electrical contractors, Lutron’s SmartBridge Pro is only available through electricians, residential system providers and lighting showrooms. This higher grade bridge also plugs into a Wi-Fi router, but it can connect to a range of the company’s window shade products and interface with security systems from Elk and Alarm.com.


Many of Lutron’s partners don’t distribute through consumer outlets. 


“We tried to match it up with products that are sold through distributors, originally,” Swatsky said.


However, Swatsky sees opportunity for ECs even with the entry-level SmartBridge offering.


“Somewhere around 60 percent of people aren’t going to do electrical work themselves,” he said. “The majority of people would prefer to have a professional do it.”


For easier installation and broader compatibility with existing home wiring, the Caséta line doesn’t need a neutral connection. 


“That means the electrician isn’t going to have to worry if it will work in this or that location. It wires like a switch,” Swatsky said. 


Big-box options


Lutron and Control4 provide consumers with the added benefit of name-brand recognition. Breaking that mold is a slew of new DIY-marketed automation offerings backed by big-box retailers, rather than the manufacturers. For example, the office-supply chain Staples now features its Connect line of switches, plug-load controls and other devices alongside the laptops, legal pads and printer ink cartridges for which it has long been known. Also, banking on its history as a DIY leader, Lowe’s has developed a comprehensive suite of automation offerings under the Iris label.


Like other systems, the Iris lineup includes its own proprietary hub. However, the Iris hub is compatible with all three top home-automation communications protocols: Wi-Fi, ZigBee and Z-Wave. The company has established partnerships with a number of familiar brands—including Honeywell, Kwikset and First Alert—that now feature a “Works With Iris” logo on a number of their own automated offerings. This means users can control a broad range of lighting, temperature control and security devices using a single hub and a single app.


“We fill a void for vendors by offering them a platform to deploy their connected devices to the mass consumer market at scale,” said Anne Seymour, director of operations, Smart Home at Lowe’s. “A product with the visible ‘Works with Iris’ label makes it easy for consumers to quickly identify a smart-home product that will be compatible with their Iris solution.”


Lowe’s also is managing some of the customer relationship for partnering manufacturers; customers can call a dedicated support line for help in troubleshooting problems with Iris-labeled devices. As a Lowe’s product, the market is primarily DIY-ers, but the company has begun piloting a professional installation service, which could create business opportunities for ECs savvy enough to develop partnerships with local Lowe’s branches offering this option.


With a premium-­service plan that upgrades Iris-product functionality, Lowe’s appears to be taking on security and cable TV providers, such as Vivint and Comcast. For a monthly charge of $9.99—and no long-term contract requirement—users can set up lists of phone numbers and email addresses to receive alerts if alarms are triggered and create advanced rules and coordinated “scenes” in ways that can mimic the monitored systems cable and security companies now offer.


What’s next?


Broader interoperability seems to be the goal of most home-
automation device marketers. This comes with the recognition that consumers attempting to understand a new and frequently confusing product category shouldn’t also have to parse the difference between communications protocols or find ways to connect multiple control hubs to their wireless routers. Some companies are doing this faster than others—for example, many of Lutron’s products are compatible with Staples’ Connect hub and the GE-affiliated Wink hub.


Beyond these logistical challenges, some see artificial intelligence beginning to have an impact within the next five years.


“Where we see the home-automation industry heading is a shift from smart devices that are controllable in a smart home to intelligent devices that are in a ‘conscious home,’” Sonnen said. 


In such a scenario, devices could react on their own, based on conditions such as temperature, available light or alarm activation.


This futuristic vision is beginning to become reality through a new platform called “If This, Then That,” more commonly referred to as IFTTT (pronounced “ift” by the tech cognoscenti). IFTTT-capable products—including Lutron’s Caséta devices—can be tied together using simple command strings called “recipes.” For example, Caséta users can download a recipe that automatically turns off lights and closes shades if their Nest thermostat is set to “away” mode. And Iris Premium service subscribers can use “Magic” rules similar to IFTTT to ensure inside lights turn on when an alarm is triggered.


“The industry is just scratching the surface right now,” Sonnen said, adding that the difficulty in predicting where such a rapidly evolving market sector might be in just a half-decade from now. “The new normal that we are delivering is just the first step.”


About the Author

Chuck Ross

Freelance Writer

Chuck Ross has covered building and energy technologies and electric-utility business issues for a range of industry publications and websites for more than 25 years. Contact him at chuck@chuck-ross.com.

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