What was once an amenity that people with big pocketbooks could afford is now within the financial realm of most households. What used to be an home improvement that required endless visits from a professional installer can now be up and running in a couple of days. What used to involve reading a manual to operate is now so intuitive that even tech newbies can use it with ease. These are just a few of the positive changes happening in the smart home systems marketplace. Across the board, manufacturers have broadened the appeal of their systems by lowering prices, implementing new technology, and offering increasingly attractive packages. Here is a closer look at some of the industry trends that are helping turn smart home systems from a small niche luxury into a mass market amenity.
1. Production Homebuilders Embrace Technology
Housing starts and permits have been rising steadily since 2011. Builder confidence is as high as it’s been since early 2006, the end of the last housing boom. So, too, it seems, is confidence in the home technology sector.
“We’re seeing resurgence in the market,” says Greg Rhoades, director of marketing for Leviton Security & Automation.
“It’s not like 2006 and 2007,” he says, but the momentum is strong enough to convince Leviton to rejuvenate its slightly moribund builder program across all home technologies including structured wiring, electrical vehicle chargers, home automation, lighting controls, and more.
Leviton and HAI (the home automation company acquired by Leviton) “have had builder programs, but they kind of waned when the market waned,” says Rhoades. Now Leviton marketers are investing heavily in programs that simplify the company’s 27,000 SKUs into good-better-best packages, with discounts on model homes and other concessions and tools for builders.
Like the good ol’ days less than a decade ago, manufacturers and builders are buddying up again to offer home technology in “all new homes in such-and-such community.” And Leviton isn’t the only manufacturer allying with national production homebuilders.
Control4, for example, has inked a national deal with Toll Brothers that it swears will bear fruit, nationally. Lennar, meanwhile, is deploying Nexia DIY home automation systems, and trying professionally installed security/automation systems from startup Qolsys in its sub-$300,000 homes. Pulte promotes Nexia and ADT Pulse in its communities. Home systems manufacturer Clare Controls says it has homebuilder commitments to offer Clare in some 10,000 mostly higher-end spec homes. To date, says Clare CEO Brett Price, the take rate has been about 20 percent, anchored by the home security category. To consumers, the advocacy, and large-scale implementation of home systems by builders affords the opportunity to roll technology into the home mortgage and to have the system up and running the day they move in, among other benefits.
And don’t worry about these builder-promoted systems as being overly expensive. At a 2014 meeting of top home-builders, sponsored by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, production builders bristled at the idea of adding even a $500 technology amenity, especially given the hardship of supporting the technology after the sale. Although builders remain extremely price conscious—good news for homeowners looking for economical home systems solutions—they are more receptive to technology than ever before. In 2013, 30 percent of them said it was very important to include the latest in home technologies in order to market new homes. In fact, 64 percent of them said it was much more or somewhat more important to market home technology now than it was two years ago—substantially higher than in the past, according to research conducted by the Consumer Electronics Association.
2. Cloud-Based Networking Simplifies & Secures
You use the Cloud to share music and contacts with family members on your cellphone plan; why not also use it to store information about and securely access your home systems remotely? Cloud-based smart home systems have helped minimize the hassles and headaches once associated with managing and maintaining networked, Internet-connected smart devices within a home. Pre-cloud, the integrity of a networked home system was often compromised. For example, if a homeowner bought and installed a new router, all of the connected power managers, thermostats, cameras, and home automation systems could go offline until a home systems integrator was able to roll a truck to the customer’s home to re-configure the new device.
In a cloud-based ecosystem, the network settings and configuration is offloaded to the cloud, where device manufacturers themselves do the heavy lifting. Regardless of what happens at the premises level—new routers, new switches, new hacking threats—the remote servers can adjust quickly.
Furthermore, a cloud solution simplifies the management of multiple premises. In the case of the consumer, this means universal access to a system in the main house and another system in the vacation house. From the same control dashboard, you can set the security, lights, themostats, and other devices in two separate homes.
Dustin Fletcher, of the integration firm Sound Concepts in Jonesboro, Ark., tells of a single customer with two homes and two airplane hangars, with a total of 30 SnapAV WattBox power management products among all four properties.
With the pre-cloud version of the remotely accessible WattBox, Sound Concepts would have had to log into one property or one device at a time. With the new OvrC cloud-enhanced model, Fletcher can view all four properties and all 30 devices in a single dashboard, organizing them based on device type, room, property, status, or any number of parameters. And configuration is just a matter of downloading an app and entering a serial number. The products are online, ready to access, configure, and control, in mere seconds.
Many home automation vendors are opting for a cloud-based approach to system configuration and remote access. For example, Pyng, the newest system from home automation manufacturer Crestron, lets a home systems integrator configure and update the features via the Cloud. The cloud element also allows Crestron to log activities from Pyng users to ascertain usage trends — data that could help influence the development of new products.
3. Affordable, Engaging Home Automation
Consumers are seeing smart-home messages everywhere, from their local cellphone and home improvement shops, to Super Bowl commercials, yard signs, and incessant crowdfunding news.
At the same time, mass-market products are becoming more affordable, easier to install, and easier to use. All of this activity on the mass-market side has prompted custom-oriented home control vendors, along with the integrators who install the stuff, to change their game plans.
Say goodbye to budget-sapping programming, expensive hardware and, perhaps most importantly, the inability for consumers themselves to make changes to the systems they use every day. Yes, with today’s systems, a user can (gasp) add a light to a scene without having to pay $200 for a programmer to do it.
“We have a lot of clients who want to take control of personalizing their systems without having to call us, says Troy Bolotnick of Interior Technologies, a Savant dealer in El Segundo, Calif. “Not that they mind calling us, but there are payments involved.”
There is also time involved, Bolotnick notes: “It’s Saturday and they [users] are sitting around and say, ‘Gosh, I wish I could just do this ….’ Now they can.”
They can because Savant launched the One App Home, a new platform that empowers users to create and change rooms, scenes, schedules, and even the user interface. And it’s not just for teenage tweakers.
“My customer, who is 45 years old and makes millions of dollars, isn’t a do-it-yourselfer,” says Jason Voorhees, a Savant dealer, with Cantara Design in Costa Mesa, Calif. “But the fact that he can create a scene in 10 minutes called, ‘Getting home from work,’ is a big deal. It definitely puts the client user experience in an area where our industry has never been.”
ADT, too, is getting into the user-engagement game, adding support for IFTTT (If This Then That)—the DIY rules engine—for ADT Pulse, a professionally installed and monitored security and home automation system for the mass market.
One independent ADT dealer, California Security Pro, based in San Ramon, Calif., is gearing up for the launch of the ADT channel on IFTTT. Customer care representative and blogger Taniqua Johnson-Pino set up an IFTTT account and began learning the platform when she heard the news and played around with it in anticipation of the release.
“I see where people will really see the benefit of integrating ADT Pulse with what they already have,” she says. “It’s just fun. Home automation is a utility but it’s also fun.”
And manufacturers from across the home systems industry have added user-configurable solutions. Years ago, URC created Total Control for a more easily programmed and affordable option for dealers and consumers alike, and then ccGEN2 for a more widely available solution. RTI followed with its APEX platform after it had already spun off the more programmer-friendly company Pro Control. Elan Home Systems offers a $799 all-inclusive g1 control system, arguably the least expensive of the new crop of budget-friendly home automation systems from the masters; Crestron introduced Pyng, which puts the user in charge; and Control4 debuted Composer Express, which enables entry-level technicians to install and enroll a complete automation, audio, and video system before experienced (read: expensive) programmers step in.
“It’s become a labor-saving tool for us,” says Scott Fuelling of Memphis-based Phoenix Unequaled Home Entertainment. “Our techs can go out [to the job], get all of the devices ID’ed, get the system online, and pretty much have everything ready for the programmer.”
In the past, says Fuelling, programmers had to be on the jobsite to enroll devices into a system—not the best use of time for a class of professionals that is in short supply and high demand. He estimates Express saves the company about 40 percent to 50 percent on programming time.
It is true that our industry is long overdue for this paradigm of somewhat-affordable, easily-installable, user-customizable solutions. It took a kick in the pants from the mass market to get us here after two decades of tradition, but there’s no turning back now.
“In ten years,” says Voorhees, “we’re going to look back at this as the time when things really started to change.”
4. The Conscious, Learning Home
On the one hand, home systems integrators will tell you that the term “home automation” is misleading. A truly automated home, they say, will know what you want and when—no need to push any buttons to change the environment of your home. On the other hand, most home systems integrators are not particularly fond of the concept, known variously as the intuitive home, the learning home, the aware home, and the conscious home.
The concept that a home system knows who you are, where you are, and what you like —and responds accordingly—is not particularly new. For years, lighting systems have logged behaviors in order to replay realistic scenes to create a lived-in look while the homeowners are away. Long ago, TiVo recommended titles based on the user’s viewing habits. The big fail is that the presumptuous box recorded its recommendations without the user’s (apparent) permission.
“It consumed my hard drive,” recalls Bolotnick of the old TiVo days. “I like the idea of learning but I don’t think I’ve seen an execution I like.”
Today, TiVo has a more elegant recommendation engine from which users can enjoy or ignore—their choice. Indeed it’s the choice that matters, according to Crestron CTO Fred Bargetzi, who says the proper scenario would be a system that suggests, “Hey, I see you’re doing the same thing every day—turning the lights on, turning on the heat. Can I create a preset for you?”
Crestron is in a better position than ever to do just that. With its release of the cloud-enabled Pyng home-control platform, Crestron is able to capture every little data point—doors opening and closing, music streaming—from every anonymous Pyng box.
The insanely popular Nest thermostat is able to learn and adapt to homeowners’ routines and preferences, but Bargetzi notes, “To truly have a home that is conscious, you need more data than Nest can provide. If it can be aware of all the surroundings—like lighting, HVAC, security, and sensors—the more things you can do that are useful.”
Furthermore, unlike Nest, a truly smart system must keep on learning forever. Emanuel Mercial, COO of Webee Universe, a startup with a whole-house learning automation system, has owned a Nest thermostat for two years. And while he wouldn’t change it for anything else, he says the learning feature is limited: “It’s not that it’s bad, but it stops learning at some point. After that, you have to alter it manually.”
There is another major element to a conscious home, and that is awareness—awareness of who you are, where you are, and where you’re going. This concept is epitomized by a technology called “geo-fencing”: The home knows that all of the occupants are out of the house because the GPS radios in their respective phones tell it so. With the help of services like Alarm.com, the home system might text you with a reminder to arm the security system. At the end of the day, when a system tracking your phones sees that Mom is heading home, it might start to ramp up the heat.
GPS locational services are too macro to work inside the home, though. That’s where Bluetooth beacons come in. These Tiddlywink-size nubs can be placed throughout a home and paired with each resident’s phone. Every major home automation vendor will employ them in the next year or two, but for now it’s Crestron, which introduced its PinPoint proximity system last year.
“It’s a really simple concept,” Bargetzi says. “As I walk into a room, it knows who I am and it pulls up my own radio presets to be played in that very room.”
It’s silly, Bargetzi suggests, that a user who is standing in the bedroom would have to select “bedroom” from a menu of rooms, and then find his particular playlist.
“It’s not glamorous. It’s not sexy. The fundamental concept is location awareness in the home,” he says. EH
Leave a Reply