Home Automation Industry Poised for Growth

Home Automation Industry poised for Growth
by Mary Rose Anderson

It was easier to travel to the moon 43 years ago than it is to fully automate the average homeowner’s abode today. That’s according to several leaders in the long-time-coming home automation industry.

At least everybody knew what they wanted when they were developing technologies to go to the moon in the late 1960s, says Rob Gerhardt of the Dallas based Electronic Environments, a high end home automation installation and service

“Getting a liability and quality level that is acceptable to a consumer market is not really that easy," agrees Tricia Parks of Parks Associates, a national marketing research firm which specializes in emerging household technologies.

At least when General Electric is testing a new high-tech jet engine, the pilot or “end-user” is highly-trained and wants to see the system work. Consumers at home are far different, says Parks. With home products, she says, “it’s not as easy as it looks.” Home products, according to her, have got to be easy-to use, incredibly durable, befitting of the consumer’s psychological - as well as practical needs, and affordable.

Failed attempts to introduce home automation to the marketplace by General Electric, Mitsubishi, and others in the 19805 proves the difficulty the industry has had getting off the ground. As a general rule, price and ease-of operation has played a major role in confining this market to commercial buildings and the homes of the very, very rich.

By definition, home automation involves a central computer which controls two or more household functions or subsystems. Using any combination of communication links wired and wireless the temperature, security, lights, appliances, even multi-room monitoring and entertainment audio/ video controls can be tied into one network.

With home automation, residents enter simple commands into the system from nearly anywhere with wall mounted keypads, hand-held remote controls, or computer touch screens throughout the house. Remote access  from outside the home is also possible with the use of the telephone. Upon receiving commands as “Away,” “Good Night,” “Good Morning” or “At Work,” the computer then adjusts household appliances and other subsystems accordingly.

“I could tell the house what I routinely do at night and then hit a button and say ‘Good Night House’ and the house would come back to me and say ‘Lights off, outdoor lights on, doors locked, alarms set, will wake you at up at seven,” explains Parks. The system could even start coffee brewing, raise the thermostat, and someday - draw your bath water upon your scheduled awakening

Likewise, a “At Work” command adjust might just shut off all appliances left on, adjust the thermostat, and monitor the house for such emergencies as attempted break-ins, a fire, a flood or frozen pipes. If a family member returns from work or school unexpectedly, inputting a simple code at the entryway could let them in. “It sounds scary to people now, but really it’s not. It’s not anymore scary than your car,” Parks says.

“We’re redefining the definition of comfort in the home to include peace of mind, security perhaps even energy savings,” says Steven Amoldt of the Minneapolis-based Honeywell. The point of home automation systems, says Amoldt, is to use electronic technology for improving a person’s life, not complicating it.

Parks agrees, saying if it isn’t really easy to operate these relatively expensive products, they won’t succeed. “Many people still don’t use most of the functions on their entertainment remotes because they don’t know what (the buttons) are and they care - even I don't care enough to take the time to out," she notes.

While home automation systems vary widely, they tend to fall into these broad categories: customized vs. standardize; professionally installed vs. do-it-yourself packages and interfacing technologies. Regardless of the category, several key factors have long-kept most home automation technologies out of the average resident’s home.

Protocol

Communication between such dramatically different subsystems is no easy task. “One of the issues the manufacturers have to solve is they’re trying to use this to create some common interfaces,” Parks says. “So you know your whole house would have the same philosophy,” Amoldt agrees, saying, “There’s been reluctance in the past for someone to step ahead and say I’ll coordinate the lighting, air conditioning, and heating. In other words, an HVAC contractor, and electrician and a security company.”

However, that’s a hurdle currently being overcome from many different angles. Completed just this year, CEBUS, the largest non-military standard ever published in the United States was written with home automation in mind. CEBUS is the result of an impressive array of corporate leaders i who met every six weeks for eight years, laboring over this comprehensive set of standards. With such notables as the director of Phillips laboratories and Panasonic’s top design engineer, it is likely most home automation manufacturers will heed this protocol.

Meanwhile, Honeywell grew tired of waiting for the CEBUS standards to finish and came up with it’s own protocol called H-BUS. “We have been designing these “BUS” systems for our larger commercial buildings for years. Because building automation been in existence for 20 or 30 years and Honeywell has been a leader in it, we had existing communication capabilities,” says Amoldt. “But we also plan to be compatible with whatever system, if any, become standard, whether CEBUS or Echelon.” Echelon, according to Amoldt, networks and homes subsystems together with transferable chips.

Price

Until Honeywell introduced its breakthrough “TotalHome” product this January, most home automation systems ran between $10,000 and $200,000. As Electronic Environment’s Gerhardt put it, these were systems for commercial industry and the homes of those “as rich as companies.” Because a pool of experienced technicians is needed to provide design, installation, programming and ongoing service, Gerhardt believes home automation can only evolve from the top down.

Most of the subsystems employed today in home automation started out as commercial technologies, Gerhardt says. Automated security, lighting and heating systems were used on commercial buildings while audio/video technology was used in theaters, he explained. Therefore, he assumes that the collection of these subsystems “will be commercially mastered first. Then it will be in the very wealthy and eventually it will drop down.”

However, Honeywell’s TotalHome system may be just the catalyst for the home which the slow-to-come home automation industry has been searching. The bare-bones package offers 10 points of lighting or appliance control; 10 points of security control (fire, burglary, etc.); temperature control; two command entry panels, and remote phone access for only $4,000. TotalHome, Amoldt says, is targeting both existing or new homes in the $180,000 and up range.

Workforce Resistance

It’s going to take some effort to convince most home builders that their customers want technology like this, says Jim Cain, State University Extention specialist who works closely with smaller regional home builders. Most home builders, he says, “don’t see that their customers are going to pay what it’d cost them to install these things."

“The building community is slow to change,” says Cain. “They are conservative because they’re marketing very closely. They don’t do much speculative construction. They aren’t going to go out and take much of a flier. So you’ve got to sell the end-use customer on the technology before you even sell the builders.”

User-Interface

A large chunk of people can’t use their VCR. How do you expect them to program off of this stuff? asks Cain, who believes it may take us twenty or thirty years before we see home automation in most homes. “The kids are the ones doing that stuff now,” he says, so it may take an entire generation.

But TotalHome does not require homeowners to program their systems. “We think we’ve removed these barriers by designing what we call lifestyle modes,” he says. The homeowner “actually designs the program by verbally describing what he or she wants lo the salesperson. All of the programming is done by Honeywell,” says Amoldt.

“They design these initial modes and we program them in, typically on-sight. We just load them into a PC and then download that into our system,” he explains. A simple phone call to Honeywell’s central station can get it reprogrammed, which is also done over the phone line. “It’s really simplified the human interchange,” says Amoldt.

Consumer Perceptions

Consumers have got to understand and value the advantages of this technology. “What we see in the mass public is there’s a lot of resistance,” Cain says. “When you talk about making life easier, a lot of things that are not promoted by the home automation industry do things which people don’t to be onerous. So you push a button and lock the doors, or check on them, or tum off the lights. Most people don’t that to be onerous,” he says. He says when you offer technology which performs such simple tasks, “most people fear it’ll make them appear lazy or even snobbish.”

In addition, while people have learned to expect sophisticated instruments in their cars, they don’t see their homes the same way. “If you walked into a car dealership and the new car didn’t have a thing that told you the gas was running out, the oil was low, the door was open, or the engine was not functioning, you would not buy it,” Parks said. “Yet people spend thousands everyday on systems for their home and they have no idea when (the products) are going to break except to out once it’s already broken.”

“There’s no technological reason in the world they shouldn’t be warning you and informing you of the efficiency levels they’re operating at, of whether the filters needed changing," Parks said. Once home automation opens up the theory that home products should ‘talk to you’ and share information with each other, she says, “you’re going to get a system that is greater than the sum of its parts.”

 

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