Making Custom Home Automation Stand Out in an App-based World

May 19, 2014

This Integration Guide to Home Automation was sponsored by ELAN, Leviton, and iRule as a supplement to Residential Systems, May 2014.

URC recently introduced ccGEN2, a streamlined two-way IP-based home automation system that is available exclusively through its distributors.
Earlier this year, Dave Daniels, head of Aspen, CO-based custom integration firm Xssentials, in addressing a room full of his colleagues at the Azione Unlimited buying group spring conference in Las Vegas, emphasized the need for custom integrators to retool their business models if their roles and the CI channel at large were to stay competitive in the face of the ever blurring lines between custom integration, DIY options, and utilities-driven initiatives.

Daniels’ advice to dealers? Zero in on providing the absolute best customer service while becoming an aggregator of the wealth of products that have come to define the CI industry. While a sharpening focus on customer care and a title change to cut a figure among the growing glut of products and services that have begun to encroach on the CI channel are sound steps in securing the channel’s future, CI-focused manufacturers too have a role in shoring up our collective viability. This is most evident in the home automation segment, one of the sectors that CIs had a tight grip on before the advent of mass market, wireless, and app-based solutions from a variety of outsider sources, including cable providers, utilities companies, security systems manufacturers, and thermostat manufacturers.

Control4, whose products include the HC-800 controller, encourages its dealers to explain to consumers that home automation is not having an app that turns one light off, a different app to set your thermostat, and another to arm your security system.
“The important thing is to reiterate what it means to have a truly connected home,” noted Paul Williams, vice president of security and communications products at Control4. “Often consumers think that home automation is having an app that turns one light off, a different app to set your thermostat, and another to arm your security system—when in fact home automation is hitting just one button that can do all of that for you.”

Reanimating the Client Base

In pointing to a recent analysis conducted by the firm Transparency Market Research that shows a 26.4-percent growth rate in the home automation market between 2013 and 2019, with market value reaching $16.4 billion by 2019, Tom Barnett, Crestron’s marketing manager, makes the point that there is plenty of room for everyone to play in home automation, no matter the budget or level of automation desired. The crucial differentiator between newcomers and longstanding CI home automation brands going forward, though not a point Barnett made directly, will have to be the client targeted. For custom integration that means reanimating exclusive relationships with the wealthy client base that has arguably made custom integration a thriving niche business. With CI pros as spokespersons and experts of bespoke automation products, dealer education and depth of knowledge, though always important, have taken on even greater value.

“At Crestron we have always believed that training and certification are crucial to help dealers not only position themselves as experts, but to integrate our products in effective ways,” noted Barnett, who said that in the past year close to 1,400 authorized residential Crestron dealers have attended training programs, many of which qualified them for CEDIA renewal units.

Honeywell’s Total Connect Remote Services app allows end users to log in to their system via a mobile device to remotely manage connected systems using one common interface.
In addition to dealer training via online classes and North American road shows, and its Crestron’s 4K initiative that prepares dealers for the widespread adoption of 4K Ultra HD, the company also provides a number of online tutorials and tools to help dealers, including the Crestron Design Tool for shading solutions, the lighting fixture testing hub, and a streaming IP camera testing program, among others.

Vantage Controls sees comprehensive lighting control as a key component of the luxury automation experience, and underscores this belief through its Equinox interface, which director of marketing Reid Cram said was developed thanks to in-depth interviews with experienced users of home automation in luxury spaces.

“The key advantages of Equinox include one interface for all sub-systems; one interface across touchscreens, keypads, and mobile devices and familiar navigation resulting in a simplified user experience,” Cram said. “Equinox offers a balanced blend of a prescriptive user interface for ease of use, ease-of-dealer programming and setup; plus the ability for users to personalize their experience as well.”

To get the word out, Vantage is providing certification training at its headquarters in Orem, UT, and has taken to the road with weekly training programs in various locations.

With the recent introduction of ccGEN2, a powerful, streamlined two-way IP-based home automation system that is available exclusively through its distributors, URC is offering marketing tools and training programs to help its dealers be more competitive, among them a ready-made e-publication with articles for consumers, as well as online assets that URC dealers can repurpose to position themselves as experts in the market.

“We also require that all reseller/integrators achieve certification by attending live and online training,” said Cat Toomey, URC’s marketing director. “In other words, we provide the products, the support, and the training our dealers need to maintain expert status in the home automation and control sector.”

Vantage Controls sees comprehensive lighting control as a key component of the luxury automation experience, and underscores this belief through its Equinox interface.
Similarly, Control4 emphasizes its more than 7,500 reliable products and its professional installation advantage over complicated out-of-the-box solutions, reminding its dealers that the major benefit that custom automation has over other “home automation” solutions is the level of expertise and personalization that comes from working with an expert.

“Working with a custom integrator is similar to working with a plumber or a mechanic–you turn to and trust those tradesman because they are experts in their field,” Williams said. “If your toilet broke or brakes failed, would you fix that on your own? Not likely. The same idea can be applied to home automation. If you’re looking for a truly seamless experience, you can rely on custom automation to deliver just that. It takes skilled programming and design to make your entire home react at the touch of a button.”

Noting that growing its dealer base and distribution has been a key to its continued strength as a company, iRule’s CEO Itai Ben- Gal pointed to their On Control professionals-only automation system that allows the integrator to offer a customized solution not just for the equipment in the room, but also to create a solution that is unique for each person in the home.

“Since the CE and automation industries are always evolving, we offer several tools for our integrators,” explained Ben-Gal. “First, we have a dealer-only dedicated training for initial on-boarding. Initial dealer training can be done at our headquarters in Detroit or via a web conference. We also offer our dealers advanced classes that go deeper, such as complex automation solutions or tackling larger commercial projects like sports bars. We also provide our partners dedicated professional support that is available seven days a week.”

To deliver a comprehensive home control system ELAN Home Systems focuses on three key components: inclusive integration, user experience, and personalization, according to control category director for CORE Brands, Joe Lautner, who further explained that the company combines high-end systems with appropriate mass-market products to allow customer to seamlessly integrate their control and entertainment home systems.

iRule’s On Controls, as a software engine, provides almost limitless customization and functionality.
“At Core brands, we host multiple categories, which gives us a certain level of expertise in home entertainment and control,” Lautner noted. “We are able to pass this expertise on through both live and online training, as well as aftercare support through our tech services team. Because of our training, we have people in the field that can support local dealers at any place, any time, and provide advanced replacement of critical parts to keep the homeowner happy and the dealer efficient.”

Apps as Entry Points

Referring to current less-than-intuitive mass-market automation systems controlled by disparate apps as “a clumsy array of Internet of Things appliances,” Savant Systems’ Jim Carroll, executive vice president of corporate strategy and business development positions Savant’s Smart Series of products–which provide a complete connected home solution supporting safety, entertainment, comfort and lighting control from a single app with more than 6,000 third-party technologies–as a respite from automation control clutter.

“The points that we emphasized at our recent integrator summits were that integrators should embrace all devices, bring all of the services that the customer wants under a single app,” said Carroll. “Users don’t want the hassle of bouncing from app to app within their portable devices to control their smart home technology. Savant integrators can offer a world of possibilities [by leveraging] our Wi-Fi-based system, that also supports Zigbee and Z-Wave, to create an entire easy-to-use ecosystem of connected home technologies that delivers safety, comfort, entertainment and lighting functionality tailored to suit their lifestyle.”

To deliver a comprehensive home control system ELAN Home Systems focuses on three key components: inclusive integration, user experience, and personalization.
Pete Baker, RTI’s vice president of sales and marketing, takes a more kind view of the ubiquitous app solutions now being offered by cable and utility companies, seeing them as a “positive trend” that creates excitement and interest in all things integration, though nothing beats an expert.

“RTI will continue to offer a complete line of wired, wireless, and software interfaces, along with robust control processors to meet the needs of every installation,” Baker said. “In addition, all of these solutions are programmed using the best software in the industry, our award-winning Integration Designer. By offering an ever-growing library of pre-written and tested two-way drivers for a spectrum of products in AV, lighting, security, HVAC, and more, Integration Designer gives dealers the opportunity to get as custom as they like without any software coding experience. This allows our dealers to efficiently program a very robust control system and offer their clients a custom user interface tailored specifically to their needs.”

Pro Control’s general manager Mike Everett has also placed a positive spin on the entry of utility and cable companies into a custom integration stronghold, explaining that the increased consumer awareness ultimately drives those wanting more powerful and reliable solutions into the arms of the custom integrator. Pointing to the company’s affordable home automation solutions that can all be controlled via the ProPanel app, Everett said the company allows dealers to pro-grade technology within strict budgetary requirements.

To help reduce costs, Pro Control’s programming software is designed to be simple for dealers to learn, and is template-based for quick and efficient programming. At the same time, it offers full customization for those jobs that have existing or older equipment that no mass-market solution can tackle.
Honeywell’s Total Connect Remote Services app allows end users to log in to their system via a mobile device to remotely manage connected systems using one common interface and is an example of what Ralph Maniscalco, director of marketing communication for Honeywell Security & Communication, referred to as the company’s focus on developing automation products that make system installation and set-up seamless and more efficient for its dealers.

“We encourage our dealers to leverage a broad portfolio of home automation technologies and emphasize the importance of tailoring home automation and other system needs, based on functions that are a best fit for an individual household,” Maniscalco said. “It’s important for dealers to listen to customers when they describe specific needs, to ensure they recommend technology that will complement the way a family interacts with their system, and also to make sure technologies are capable of being adjusted, as a family’s needs change.”

By offering an ever-growing library of pre-written and tested two-way drivers for a spectrum of products in AV, lighting, security, HVAC, and more, RTI’s Integration Designer gives dealers the opportunity to get as custom as they like without any software coding experience.

Catering to the Market

“Where Leviton truly excels is being the universal backbone from townhouses to warehouses, acting sort of as the Swiss Army Knife of the industry,” said Greg Rhoades, director of marketing for the company, who after years of working in home automation said he finds it “refreshing for the end-user to finally be pulling the sale.”

Leviton has nearly 500 connected products utilizing many popular non-proprietary protocols that play well in several facets of home automation, usually implemented in houses 4,500 to 15,000 square feet. But, taking a cue from its dealer base, Rhodes said the company has also branched into micro-commercial applications where its vast ecosystem of products gets to shine. In addition, the company is opening a 7,000-square-foot showroom in New Orleans this year.

“We have a truly spectacular hands-on training program in New Orleans, but we recognize not everyone can afford the trip or pull away from their business for that long,” Rhoades said. “So this year we’ve brought the show on the road, conducting regional factory trainings around the world, attracting new installers looking to diversify their businesses. Leviton conducts trainings at tradeshows to benefit the industry at large, and will host four very specific automation trainings during CEDIA this year.”

Bitwise Controls’ Doug Jepson, director of channel sales, said the company “dynamic, agnostic approach” to its product offering—which includes automation controllers, interfaces and remotes for its proprietary control systems—will keep it healthy for the foreseeable future, but advises dealers “to expect that the industry will change but stay true to who they are and focus on what you do best.” To help dealers do that Bitewise has a support site for integrators to view a library of training videos, knowledge base articles, and monthly webinars.

Builders play an increasing role in the home automation market. Clare Controls manufactures the full-featured AV-based automation system, ClareHome, the basis for the company’s ClareHome Builder’s Program that partners integrators and dealers with builders looking to integrate automation solutions in new builds.

“In the face of increasing demand from their customers, mainstream builders are growing eager to incorporate technology in their new homes…but many are unsure of where to start,” noted Brett Price, CEO of Clare Controls. “The well-developed business plan shows a clear profit path. And it dispels builders’ deepest concerns: our ‘zero footprint’ installation eliminates any need to make expensive modifications to their home plans, and our cloud-based management assures exceptional after-occupancy support.”

Here to Stay

Home automation and control has been a part of the collective cultural imagination for more than 50 years if we use The Jetsons as a history marker. Custom integration has contributed significantly to expanding the possibilities and availability of the varying technologies that have underpinned this category, and there is no reason to think that the CI channel’s role will be significantly diminished or eliminated as competition increases.

Llanor Alleyne is a contributing editor to Residential Systems, having recently returned to the U.S. from her sojourn in Barbados.


David Daniels

Xssentials, Denver, CO
Our industry is going through a time of major change—we are no longer just selling products with names and model numbers—we are selling solutions and a customer experience. For our industry to be successful, we must place the emphasis on selling services and pay much more attention to customer satisfaction. Savant has been very forward thinking and their vision is aligned with what Xssentials believes is the path to success. We need a solutions partner who like us, is totally focused on taking care of the “wants” and “needs” of the customer.

Dan Miles

Custom Solutions, St. Louis, MO
With people increasingly purchasing DIY-type products such as a Wi-Fi thermostat or SONOS wireless Hi-Fi systems, pitching home automation is actually becoming much easier since most consumers already see the benefits in remotely accessing these devices. When clients come to see us for guidance on their AV and surveillance systems, all we have to do is show them how a basic RTI system with a processor can not only integrate their AV and security equipment, but also the myriad of DIY products they’ve been managing with multiple apps on their phones and tablets. They quickly see how they can have control over everything in their home without spending a ton of money. And once they realize that, we can start talking about lighting and shade control, or just about anything else that plugs in.

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