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Homes Get Smart

Feb. 14, 2017
A burst of new interest in connected devices and responsive systems is bringing old dreams of the smart home to the real world.

The burst of interest in new technology for the home promises to keep things lively in the residential market for electrical distributors, reps and manufacturers. It seems we’re getting close to realizing the vision of the smart home that has by turns excited and disappointed residential-focused distributors for a couple of decades now, at least since the surge and fade of residential structured wiring in the mid-1990s to the early 2000s.

A look at turn-of-the-year predictions by home builders, interior designers and real estate firms, along with reports on the dazzling displays of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas during the first week of the year offered some enticing hints of the kinds of features and technologies that will need support from homes’ electrical systems over the coming years.

In earlier visions of smart homes, it looked like electrical distributors could be key players in bringing the systems to market. That’s no longer the way it looks, but within the build-out of smart home capabilities many areas exist where distributors will have the opportunity to play a role.

Wired networks are coming back. There was widespread enthusiasm for structured wiring and home data networks in the years leading up to the dot-com bust at the turn of the millennium. The idea then was that homes would need to have data cabling run to every room so families could easily hook up the family printer and computers to the network. Specialized wiring that combined AC power with data cabling, such as the high profile Smart House project, was a fascinating idea that never caught on beyond some model homes. That trend wheezed and faltered as the convenience of WiFi networks made the wires unnecessary and the bursting of the housing credit bubble in 2008 reduced demand for expensive add-on systems.

However, several home builders on the luxury end of the market are saying now that built-in data networks are proving increasingly valuable to buyers. The proliferation of appliances and other devices (dogfood bowls, flower pots, toilets, mattresses, toasters and everything else) with Internet protocol (IP) communication capabilities built in promises to glut the airwaves with data signals and revive the value of hard wiring to move at least the more important bits.

In a piece on home technology trends for 2017, CEPro said prewiring is coming back. “Applications such as 4K video and high-resolution audio demand direct connections for best results. For these applications, fiber inside the home could be a big factor in 2017. Even high-speed wireless in the home requires Ethernet for the most effective access points. At the same time, so many wireless signals in the home … and in the neighbors’ homes … and in the wider area … are wreaking havoc on unwired home networks.”

This trend fits neatly with the growing interest in power-over-Ethernet (PoE) lighting systems that combine low-voltage solid-state lighting with sensor and camera networks and could easily also provide the backbone of structured cabling for data-intensive applications.

Centralized control. Virginia-based homebuilder Miller & Smith presented a list of key trends and highlighted the widespread demand for centralized control of devices and systems in the house. “The integration of smart technology into new homes is becoming a top priority for many homebuyers. The most innovative homes on the market now focus on having one central operating system — controlled through one remote — that cohesively coordinates and connects an entire home’s technology. These homes, like Upper West at One Loudoun, include built-in, high-tech features such as a top-of-the-line home network that connects to WiFi as painlessly as possible, and smart locks for keyless entry. For homeowners, this means easier, streamlined living, which is why this trend will only continue to gain popularity into 2017.”

The master’s voice. Whether wired or wireless, a key trend highlighted at the CES show was growing enthusiasm for controlling all the home’s technology with the homeowner’s voice, the way George Jetson did in cartoons. Interest in Amazon’s Alexa voice-controlled assistant seems to be building fastest, and products allowing interfaces with Alexa have already grown far beyond the company’s own Echo device.

A report late last year from Consumer Intelligence Research Partners (CIRP) estimates 8.2 million customers now own an Amazon Echo device, which first went on sale in late 2014 to Prime members and became generally available in June 2015. That’s up 60% from the 5.1 million Echo users that CIRP cited in November 2016, and the firm said the big increase likely resulted from a busy holiday season that saw Echo sales spike 9X from the year prior, according to Amazon. The 8.2 million number is also up nearly 3X from this time last year, CIRP said.

Does Alexa matter to electrical distributors? Well, you probably won’t be selling it but your customers’ customers – the home owners and other end users – are getting increasingly comfortable with having much of their house controlled by a centralized voice interface, and if that trend continues you can expect customers’ expectations to be shaped by this technology.

Real estate giant Coldwell Banker conducted a survey on smart home technologies in the lead-up to CES that found significant growth in homeowners’ demand and desire for voice control. “According to the survey, 72% of Americans who have smart home products — controlled remotely by a smartphone, tablet, computer or by a separate automatic system within the home itself — want voice control. The survey also found that 48% of Americans with smart home products currently have voice control capability.”

Everything gets smart. As for what it is homeowners will be controlling, imagination is the only limitation right now. Most pertinent to the electrical industry, smart receptacles and wireless switches are gaining traction, because they give some “smarts” to even dumb devices, allowing the user to at least switch it on and off.

The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) in its annual report on home buyer preferences didn’t include much electrical beyond outdoor lighting and ceiling fans, but did identify a growing unmet demand. “Except for programmable thermostats, few buyers currently have the home technology features many of them desire. A wireless home security system, for example, is something more than 50% of buyers would like to have, but fewer than 20% currently do. There are similar gaps between desire and reality for security cameras and energy management systems, among other features.”

Devices and technologies to satisfy those desires were prominent at CES, particularly security equipment including cameras, video doorbells and smart locks.

Home theaters, meanwhile, appear to be a fading trend at the upper end of the market. In a piece on trends in high-end luxury homes, D Magazine out of Dallas found that fewer custom homes are including designated home theater spaces (except in some extreme cases where they’re installing IMAX screens and projectors). Customers there are beginning to ask for designated rooms for virtual reality (VR) systems to get a more immersive entertainment experience, some going as far as creating a sort of personal holodeck.

Yes, robots, too. The fantasy of a futuristic home with robot assistants and holograms and flying cars goes back to the time before the first episode of The Jetsons aired in 1962. We’re not there yet, but the equipment to make that possible is beginning to catch on. A personal robot named Kuri, made by Mayfield Robotics, captured a lot of hearts at CES.

Lights on. Back in electrical distributors’ wheel house, as we’ve covered extensively in recent years, smart lighting is a core interest throughout the residential market right now as the shift to LEDs continues to bring along new form factors and new ways of using and controlling light — not just for visibility but increasingly for mood adjustments.

CES geeks and home builders alike increasingly sing the praises of color-tunable lighting, Philips’ controllable Hue being the most prominent, along with rivals from Lifx and the security-oriented BeOn line. Tunable white lighting is a rapidly growing category that promises to play a larger role in homes as a way of tailoring lighting to the needs and desires of the situation.

LEDs Magazine reported that lighting paired with voice controllers is a rapidly rising trend. “In another example of the property business pushing into smart lighting, home construction company Brookfield Residential said it is building smart homes in the Washington, DC, area featuring voice control of lights and other things using the Alexa system from Amazon.”

Power up. Outside of the consumer electronics space, onsite power generation, storage and management are going mainstream, with implications from the smart meter to the controllable receptacle.

Tesla’s move to bring its sister solar company, SolarCity, into its fold is perhaps the most high-profile effort to create what many have said the distributed power generation needs to attain widespread adoption in homes — a single branded package, often referred to as an “Apple of power”— that combines rooftop solar with battery storage and, in this case, electric vehicle supply equipment for charging the family sedan.

With Tesla aiming to make solar panels in New York state in a partnership with Panasonic (as well as solar-power roofing tiles), battery storage systems at its Gigafactory in Nevada, and of course its Tesla electric cars redefining the luxury end of the automotive market, Elon Musk has positioned his businesses to usher in a new era of comprehensive onsite power production and use that is likely to influence everything about home electrical systems of the future. And already companies are aligning to battle Tesla for a share in each part of that equation.

Tradition and the leading edge. At this point, the electrical requirements of a typical home haven’t changed all that much, but the technologies the electrical system will be asked to support are evolving toward a smart, integrated, voice-activated future.

In this move to the electrical system of the future, there are countless areas were electrical distributors, their manufacturers supplying equipment and contractors installing it are the incumbent players. As the market evolves in a new direction, the industry would do well to get comfortable with formerly fringe ideas such as increasing uses of direct current (DC) and low-voltage power options so they can combine their expertise in the way things have formerly been done with an enthusiasm for helping builders and home owners find a better way.

About the Author

Doug Chandler | Senior Staff Writer

Doug has been reporting and writing on the electrical industry for Electrical Wholesaling and Electrical Marketing since 1992 and still finds the industry’s evolution and the characters who inhabit its companies endlessly fascinating. That was true even before e-commerce, LED lighting and distributed generation began to disrupt so many of the electrical industry’s traditional practices.

Doug earned a BA in English Literature from the University of Kansas after spending a few years in KU’s William Allen White School of Journalism, then deciding he absolutely did not want to be a journalist. In the company of his wife, two kids, two dogs and two cats, he spends a lot of time in the garden and the kitchen – growing food, cooking, brewing beer – and helping to run the family coffee shop.

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