Home automation sounds high-tech. But that's because it is high-tech-it encompasses slick new home features ranging from HVAC systems that turn on and off in certain rooms depending on occupancy, to lighting and security controls, to a single remote that allows homeowners to simply and intuitively control the home theater.
For builders and renovators, high-tech can imply high cost and to others it can sound like an exotic luxury upgrade. But be prepared: Home automation prices are dropping and the demand is rising, resulting in these technologies gaining traction.
"You see it with age groups of buyers. The 20- and 30-something customers, they just expect this stuff to be going in the house," says Dan Flanders, president of Flanders Electric Inc. "Younger people know the technology, they aren't afraid of it, and they want it."
But to what extent should contractors include the latest technology into their plans?
"You look at what you can do [technologically] and what you should do, and you have to evaluate what is reasonable. But a lot of this is affordable, in high demand and it's here today," says Matt Carter, director of industry outreach for the Consumer Electronics Design and Installation Association (CEDIA). "For most builders, it's not beyond their ability to embed some of this high-value technology within the average home price. If you have $5,000 to $10,000 to spend on technology, you can get a nice turnkey control system that can make direct impacts on the home's efficiency and desirability to a technology-savvy client. That's a very reasonable number compared with even five years ago."
Carter, who also owns Encore, a technology installation business, says a basic system can integrate television and music in addition to security and energy-efficiency features. Energy efficiency is an important frontier for home automation, because homeowners can perceive those features as money savers rather than luxury upgrades. Automation that turns off the lights and regulates the temperature and hot water production based on occupancy sensors or usage patterns can have a positive effect on homeowners' energy bills.
With technology rapidly changing, performance improves and prices fall while a home can last for generations. For that reason, Flanders recommends that builders include raceways in their new homes. A raceway is an infrastructure of conduits that allows you to add or subtract certain types of cabling during the life of the house based on which technology is prevalent. So instead of hard-wiring an S-Video cable which becomes obsolete a decade later, you'd run the cable through a conduit; that way you could pull it out and replace it when the next generation of cable (HDMI, for example) becomes standard.
"I always find out what somebody wants, and try to be forward thinking even if there are limitations at the time," says Flanders. "I try to get the wiring in place so that the system they'd like to have in place is a viable option in the future."
For Carter, the key to selling home automation isn't pointing to the systems themselves. He says homeowners respond best when they understand what home automation means for them-specifically, that there's less to remember. One of his favorite examples is a busy morning where the whole family is running behind as the lights are on and the television is blaring. With a home automation system, once everyone is in the car you can press one button on a simple keypad that turns off the lights, sets the HVAC units back to a conservation setting, closes a water valve to protect against leaks, turns off connected televisions and activates the home alarm.
If you can do all that with one button, does that mean the automation industry has also solved its remote control problems? Yes, says Carter-you can get one remote to control all the electronics and even ramp up the air conditioning if you get hot while playing a video game.