Control Issues

Home automation, once the realm of gadget geeks and well-heeled customers, is gaining ground as costs come down and the technology becomes easier to use.

The statistics are telling and point to new business opportunities for electrical contractors: Globally, the home automation industry is projected to grow from $16.9 billion in 2011 to $35.6 billion by 2016, according to MarketsandMarkets. Right now, only three percent of U.S. homes have automation systems, but that percentage is expected to grow by double-digits in the coming years, according to an analysis by Reuters. What’s more, despite an increase in do-it-yourself home automation products, a Consumer Electronics Association survey showed that 67 percent of homeowners preferred professional installation over DIY.

That makes home automation services a natural fit for electrical contractors. “People are afraid of installing electronics; they don’t know what’s behind the walls,” says Erik Anderson, national sales manager for residential construction at Lutron Electronics. They are probably also unaware of the options. “The vast majority of consumers aren’t seeking out someone to install home automation and energy management components because they haven’t read much about them,” he continues. “But if a contractor presents the solution in the proper way while he’s fielding a service call, it has a high adoption rate.”

Anderson heads Lutron’s Residential Energy Accredited Contractor (REAC) program, which teaches contractors to uncover opportunities for automation, starting with low-hanging fruit such as energy-saving occupancy sensors or a wireless mini-system that can control up to 10 items. In a house with young children, for example, do the kids tend to forget to turn off their bedroom lights? How about the laundry room, where clients are carrying clothes baskets?

“You can say, ‘I’ve got this device that can be installed for X amount of dollars in half an hour,’” Anderson says, adding that it represents a base on which to grow. “Customers will often call you back to expand the system – say a wireless controller clipped to a car visor that’s used to light a safe path into the house,” he says. “The next step is a home control system that uses a brain, such as timing the thermal shades to drop down when the sun is blasting on the west-facing windows.”

Environmental awareness, budget-consciousness, and the widespread use of smartphones and tablets are driving the demand for automation. Since 2008, Aaron Reilly, president of AV Automation in Austin, Texas, has seen clients shift their focus from centrally distributed audiovisual systems to home management, including lighting, HVAC, and security. “They want things that make decisions for them, rather than constantly managing them,” he explains.

Security is a big issue, agrees Greg Rhoades, director of marketing at Leviton. Using a smartphone, it’s easy now to open the front door remotely for a locked-out child or check the video camera at the front door or boat dock.

“A lot of the technology is going wireless,” Rhoades says. “An electrical contractor can revisit homes where he’s installed a lighting system and say, ‘Not only can you control the lighting through your phone, but you can tie it in to other systems: when you hit the go-to-bed button, the alarm activates, windows close, doors lock, and audio systems shut down.’ It’s a great selling point for people with large properties.”

Leviton’s automation technology is designed to talk to a variety of manufacturer products. And while it requires some training, Rhoades adds, it’s based on many of the same wire pulls contractors routinely use. Another advantage: rather than sending a truck, contractors can often troubleshoot problems from home or the office.

Home automation costs have come down exponentially, in part because the electronics consumers already own, such as reasonably priced iPhones and tablets, are replacing wireless touch screens that can cost thousands of dollars. “The interface has gone primarily wireless, but we do still believe