A Contractor’s Guide to Home Automation – ACHR NEWS

“Smart home.” The phrase was reportedly first created by the American Association of Home Builders back in 1984, whose goal was to push forward technology into the design of new homes.

By 1998, the Integer Millennium House, located in Watford, U.K., which also identified itself as the “Smart Home,” displayed new innovations in technology, such as interactive security and lighting controls, low energy electrical appliances, and automatic louvres and blinds that controlled temperature and ventilation.

Throughout the early 2000s, technology boomed, and homes that were once considered “futuristic” and far too expensive to justify became more affordable and available for consumers.

According to a report from MarketsandMarkets, The Internet of Things (IoT) is estimated to grow from $157.05 billion in 2016 to $661.74 billion by 2021 at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 33.3 percent from 2016 to 2021.

However, while it surely is an emerging market, many contractors are reluctant to go all in on home automation at this time.

“The evolution of home automation truly is just beginning in the HVAC market,” said Butch Welsch, president, Welsch Heating and Cooling Co., St. Louis. “These home automation systems are evolving rapidly, and I believe we, as contractors, are still learning how to utilize these technologies. Homeowners are also just learning and becoming aware of these technologies, as well. That said, I do believe home automation will soon be a part of every newly built home.”

TRENDS AND REQUESTS

For contractors, connected thermostats remain the most important and frequently requested home automation item.

“Customers are starting to ask more about Wi-Fi-enabled products,” Welsch said. “As it would seem apparent, the desire for Wi-Fi products is very much age-related. Younger customers who have grown up with technology are much more likely to ask for them.”

Similarly, Steve Ohl, president, R.F. Ohl, Lehighton, Pennsylvania, said customers are showing more interest in smart thermostats and the connectivity associated with them.

“Customers want the ability to change, modify, and view temperatures from their cellphones,” Ohl said.

Travis Smith, owner, Sky Heating and Air Conditioning, Portland, Oregon, said he operates in a unique market where many people have vacation homes. Therefore, Wi-Fi-connected thermostats are must-have items, so occupants can monitor their homes from afar.

“Wi-Fi thermostats allow customers to adjust temperatures from anywhere, to turn the temperatures down if they leave the house and forget to set it back, or turn the temperature up as they arrive at a vacation home,” said Smith. “Living in an area with a lot of second homes, many customers want to be able to view their investments, even when they are 200 or more miles away.”

However, home automation equipment that syncs various systems in the home with smart thermostats is becoming more popular by the day. 

“From the contractor’s standpoint, at this time, one of the difficulties is that manufacturers are developing equipment that communicates between the furnace, air conditioner, and thermostat,” said Welsch. “However, each manufacturer now has a unique set of thermostats that communicate with just its equipment. This makes the situation more complicated when dealing with more than one manufacturer and when considering adding other electronic components to the system.”

But, not all manufacturers are doing so, and are instead making home automation devices flexible to avoid this hassle for contractors.

Trane’s ComfortLink II Xl1050 Control with Nexia Diagnostics is designed to avoid this proprietary home automation conflict.

“Any of our stats can connect up to 261 devices, and these don’t have to be Trane devices,” said Mike Meritt, sales leader, Trane, an Ingersoll Rand brand.

TO SYNC OR NOT TO SYNC

Some contractors are coming around to selling thermostats that sync to smart home controlling devices, such as Amazon Echo, Google Home, and Apple Homekit.

Jay Egg, president, Egg Geothermal Consulting, Orlando, Florida, was turned on to the idea when he visited the National HVACR Educators and Trainers Conference in Orlando, Florida. Prior to the show, Egg purchased an Amazon Echo, so connectivity was fresh in his mind.

“I was speaking with some Emerson folks, and one thing led to another. The next thing I knew, I had a couple of Emerson Sensi Wi-Fi thermostats. So, I thought, why not install one in my own home? Now, I simply say, ‘Alexa, turn the heat up two degrees.’ Yeah, that’s right. She’s got my geothermal heating and cooling system under her watchful eyes. We’ve added a couple of lighting circuits and the garage door to Alexa’s domain of controls, too. If this is ‘high-tech,’ I’ll take it. It doesn’t require me, or anyone else, to hold an electronic device or sit at a keyboard. There isn’t even an AUX connection. I guess this is all part of the Internet of Things [IoT].”

However, not everyone is so convinced it’s worth the cost or time.

“The folks who seem to be interested are online junkies who buy their devices online and only call us when they screw up  their DIY installations,” said Steve Moon, president, Moon Services Inc., Elkton, Maryland. “They then want us to come out to connect their devices and repair the damages they’ve done for almost nothing because they don’t see our value. The people who do get their units working use them for about three months, on average, and then they’re off to the next great thing. I know a T87F is a thing of the past, but it has served us well for a long, long time. Dinosaurs rule.”

John Aliano, general manager, American Residential Services Aksarben, Omaha, Nebraska, isn’t convinced that home automation’s impact on the contracting profession is overwhelmingly positive.

“You can buy everything you need for home automation at any big-box store or on the internet,” said Aliano. “The problem with this is that we have no control on what type of system is going in. ‘It was on sale,’ a customer may say. If there is a component failure with the system after installation, customers want us, the contractors, to cover their warranty issues at no charge. To install the system, homeowners are not willing to pay what is needed to cover the labor expenses.”

And pricing on home automation systems, especially with online shopping websites, is problematic for contractors, which takes some of the appeal out of selling them.

“With the big-box stores, and a lot of do-it-yourself systems on the market, it’s challenging for contractors to be competitive from a price standpoint,” said Welsch.

THE FUTURE IS WITH TRAINING

In hopes of keeping contractors up to date on new technologies, many manufacturers are concentrating on increasing their training offerings.

Christine Rasche, product marketing manager, connected homes, Carrier Corp., said Carrier offers a variety of training designed to increase confidence in the installation and sale of home automation equipment.

“We offer installation training and classes through Carrier,” Rasche said. “We then train our distributors to offer these classes, too. We also offer a personal use program to our dealers, so they get a system of their own at a discounted price if they go through the training. Then, once they start installing their own units, they’re provided with hands-on training in their own homes before they enter the field.”

While some contractors are proceeding with caution when it comes to smart home automation products, further training and awareness may force their hands sooner than later.

“We haven’t really given much home automation training yet, but we plan on doing more this year,” said Ohl. “It’s certainly something we’re keeping our eye on.”   

Publication date: 5/1/2017

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