Home automation technology has become increasingly streamlined in recent years and has created a fresh set of opportunities for electricians. According to the 8th Annual State of the Builder Technology Study released in March, electrical contractors are still the chief installers (72 percent) of home technology — a good reason to brush up on your smart home skills.
Smart homes are homes that integrate security, lighting, audio-video and other systems to allow the automatic or remote control of the home. Lower costs have made such technologies more accessible to electricians and clients alike. Until recently, the pricing of remote devices was beyond most homeowners’ reach; but today, smart home wiring can be installed without dramatically changing the bottom line cost, says Ken Erdmann, Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association chairman.
“Now we see some basic systems where we can add an iPad and iPhone control interface, and a nice touch screen for about $900, and Cat5 wiring for the system will cost another $400 to $500,” he says. Currently, there is a push among the contracting community to get as many cables in during rough-in as possible because it simplifies future expansion — an incentive for electricians to expand their knowledge of home automation, he adds. “The more cable installed before the Sheetrock goes on,” Erdmann says, “the more options the homeowner will have in the future.”
Know Your Smart Home Wiring Options
Typical smart home automation includes a control interface for telephony, data, audio and video systems in addition to standard electric phone and cable wiring. “A more complicated system might include smart switches, a user interface and a distributed lighting system that has a central control processor,” Erdmann says. Using a single keypad installed near the front entrance or in the master suite — and, increasingly, from the client’s mobile device — clients can turn off exterior lights, control audio throughout the house or turn down the AC.
If someone in an existing home wants to add home automation capabilities, wireless control systems are another option. “There are some really good wireless solutions,” says Ric Johnson, a master electrician and Consumer Electronics Association’s TechHome Division board member. But wireless systems are more susceptible to noise interference from TVs, audio equipment and other electronic devices, he notes.
When possible, Johnson recommends planning for the future during construction by adding a conduit wire chase from the basement to the attic and extra conduits that could be accessible by drilling a few holes in the wall. “Say the client doesn’t want surround sound right now. If you don’t put wire in place now, you might have to tear the wall up later,” he says.
Components of Home Automation
A basic smart home system allows for audio and visual jacks in nearly every room in the home. Unlike a traditional home, which is wired room-to-room and fixture-to-fixture, in a smart home each point gets pulled back to a single control panel, requiring more wire.
“When you’re first learning to do it, it’s labor intensive because all of the wiring needs to be pulled to different locations than normal and labeled,” Johnson says. “If you have 50 wires in the control box, nobody will know on what module A, B, C and D the wire goes unless you label it.”
The best way to manage a home automation system installation is to coordinate with the builder and become familiar with the system manufacturer’s installation guidelines, because all the requirements will be product-specific.
There are some other differences from traditional wiring:
- Modular Systems: Modular wiring systems — thick, multi-function cables that feed multiple rooms back to the main distribution box — have simplified the installation process.
- Centralized Control Cabinet: “They’ve developed cabinets to put the material control modules and wire terminations in,” Johnson says. “Electricians now have banana wiring that consists of two RG6 coax and two Cat5e cables that can be bought, which allow for one single pull versus pulling four separate wires. The wiring will also provide video and audio controls.”
- Smart Switches: The lighting wires run from a centralized, structured wiring panel. As with regular lighting, you would still run low voltage wiring throughout the house, but you could also install a wireless or powerline controlled switch, also known as a smart switch, where regular switches would go.
- Extra Client Interaction: Installation may take slightly longer than with regular wiring, and you’ll need to budget in a few extra hours to educate clients on their options beforehand and instruct them on how to use it afterwards.
Prepare yourself for home automation work by contacting a building association to find builders who are doing the work, as well as what systems are commonly used in your area. Automation jobs tend to come through builders, so establishing relationships with high-end contractors could be your smartest move.
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