Control system interfaces have gotten simpler and more user-friendly even as their capabilities continue to expand. The trick is to bring in their maximum potential without overwhelming your clients.
The control system isn’t just the glue bringing all systems together, says Steven Brawner, president, ProAudio Georgia, an RTI dealer. “It’s the roadmap to all the best features. Your AV system should be fun for anyone who wants to use it. If it’s difficult to control, then you may have one person in the home who understands it with everyone else avoiding it because they might break it. A properly deployed control system allows maximum feature access and avoids the opportunity to break the system.”
What you don’t want to do is overwhelm clients as you introduce the maximum in-home control. “Listen to the client,” Brawner says. “It’s really that simple. A feature that you think is amazing may be far too in-depth for what the client wants to accomplish. If you listen to your client and understand their daily routine and how they intend to use the system, you will often find yourself putting in far less effort and coming out with a superior experience.”
While many customers are technologically savvy, most admit that they do not understand control and automation systems, says Yash Momaya, director of operations, AAA Electronic Services, a URC dealer. “So they search for a trusted expert to help them understand and recommend an optimal solution. New customers may approach us with a natural interest in advanced technology or because they have experienced a particular system at a friend’s or relative’s home. Some have existing systems that no longer work or have real issues. Roughly, our installations are 60 percent retrofits or replacements and 40 percent new builds.”
What clients prioritize varies from synchronized lighting to scheduled shades to a unified AV system with multiple streaming sources. “They often have friends who’ve described the features of an advanced, professionally installed system,” Momaya notes. “Think about the pace of innovation in our industry. As an insider, it may be difficult to keep pace. As a customer outside the industry, it is intimidating and challenging to understand. Customers come to me as an expert to explain it and ‘just do it.’”
Momaya’s strategy is the same for all types of clients. “It involves understanding their lifestyles, needs, and challenges. I try to understand the psychology driving the system use whether it’s a vanity project, or if there’s a home office, or gaming needs requiring faster speeds and additional equipment. This trend toward smart homes with supercharged tech has accelerated due to families spending much more time in their home. Often, speed and functions are expected to run at office or commercial levels. It’s a journey to show and explain system aspects. Some clients are visual or process from a simple discussion. For those not comfortable with technology, I use a phased approach starting with a basic system like URC’s Total Control for a single zone and expanding from there.”
At Modern Media Innovations, the primary focus is on residential smart home systems, although the Savant dealer is often brought into commercial projects through residential clients who own businesses. “We are most often initially contacted by new clients to address their entertainment needs, such as distributed audio, home theater, or home networking,” says Mike Volk, owner. “From there, approaching whole-house control with the client happens fairly organically. I show the potential client how easily the Savant Pro app allows them to navigate and control their AV system, and they are always impressed by how intuitively the app flows.”
The next question from the client is almost always, “What else can Savant control?,” he notes. “From there, we dive into all of the environmental control Savant offers, such as lighting, shades, and climate control. These systems are discussed in detail and usually added to the project. No question that the work-from-home trend has triggered a big increase in demand for home networking, entertainment, and environmental control.”
Volk employs a pressure-free approach with clients. “We typically discuss their entertainment needs first, he adds. “That is the subject they are usually the most excited about. Once I discuss the practicality of leveraging Savant Scenes, as an example, to lower the shades, dim the lights, set a comfortable room temperature, and start a music playlist for a dinner party, the client quickly sees the relevance in controlling these other systems in the house. From there, we focus on the integration capabilities of each subsystem throughout the home.”
Products and Challenges
“We have had success with the Savant/Artison architectural speakers as well as the IP Audio solutions with AVB for whole-house entertainment, including soundbars and amplifiers with embedded control,” Volk says. “One of my favorite products is the micro-aperture POE AVB speakers, which are discrete and sound great. The entire suite of AVB-enabled entertainment solutions from Savant are fantastic. I love the scalability and versatility of this technology.”
Modern Media regularly deploys Savant in-wall lighting control, including Wi-Fi switches, dimmers, and keypads on most of the small to mid-sized jobs where only a few zones of lighting are requested, he notes. “On larger projects, we specify Savant’s panelized lighting control solution with low-voltage keypads and offer Savant’s Daylight Mode circadian feature. Savant power and energy management products are being specified on upcoming projects, which enable clients to live a more energy efficient lifestyle and maximize the potential of renewable energy sources.
“In addition to Savant’s lighting control solutions, we offer other environmental controls including climate systems with remote temperature sensors and motorized shades,” Volk adds. “Along with all of Savant’s product offerings, I sell many of the Savant partner-products as well. Arcam and JBL Synthesis are a great addition to Savant’s partner program.”
The biggest challenge our industry is facing currently relates to supply, he adds. “Out of all of my suppliers, Savant has done a good job of keeping up with supply issues. There have been fewer disruptions in shipping from Savant than with any of the other products I offer. Thus far, supply-related price increases have not been an issue with my clientele.”
Momaya is excited about URC’s Virtual Inspiration Home tool, which allows clients to take a guided tour of the whole home or a specific room. This helps the homeowner understand the phases of a project on their own terms.
“In our market, ” he says, “most of our customers are affluent, with large homes or luxury condos. Even when starting with a basic system, the probability is high that we will install a large system in the end. So, most of my installations include URC’s MRX-30, the top-of-the-line system controller. I can easily run a starter system and quickly expand with URC’s Total Control systems. I avoid chaining controllers, as this often results in future issues. With fast processing speeds, I can meet the future needs of large systems. For example, I just completed an installation in an upscale Staten Island neighborhood. As one of our largest installations, this system, run by one MRX-30, featured 32 zones of audio, 16 touchscreens, and 13 handheld remotes. It covered all aspects of control and automation and had all the horsepower it needed.”
For voice control, Momaya specs the URC TRC-1480 handheld remote with easy voice control and the TKP-8600 in-wall touchscreen. Audio distribution features the URC HDA 8100 with ducking and ample ports for adding zones (up to 8 stereo zones per amp). Streaming includes URC’s SMP1 and 2 and Denon’s HEOS to help integrate audio devices.
“Our industry continues to change quickly,” he notes. “Product availability is a big challenge, and URC has product, so I am covered on most jobs. When I noticed inventory outages for other manufacturers, I ordered a few extra to help bridge the gap. Streaming sources are a hot topic lately. Many of my customers have several sources in audio and video content. The key is to link as natively as possible across streaming services, which are continually changing, so there are no control system issues.”
Networking is another big issue in linking systems and devices. “The need to evolve with home office usage and security needs impact many of my installs,” Momaya says. “Ensuring a safe, secure network is the first priority. Like most installers, I ensure that my homeowners purchase a new router, as ISP routers are not up to the task of today’s demands. And I use heat mapping to identify network access points to ensure that we are not clashing internally with devices or externally with neighboring networks. Finally, VLAN, as installers know, is an important subnetwork for all AV services.”
Currently, ProAudio Georgia is installing the new RTI Music MS-3 music server, XP6s processor, T2x or T1b+ remote, and KA8 touchpanel on most projects, Brawner says. “All video locations need a handheld remote; it may sound cool but no one enjoys watching TV with their cell phone as a controller. The KA8 is a center-of-the-space main controller for all systems in the home. The XP6s can handle 95 percent of projects and is rack-mountable, so it keeps everything clean. Larger homes may need a larger processor and possibly a larger primary touchpanel. This is based on how much is happening and how much landscape the touchpanel needs to be easy to use and still relay the important features of the system.”
The largest challenge by far is the lack of proper networking in the home, he notes. “If a TV goes down, most people will just turn it off and either switch to another TV or do something different altogether. However, if the network goes down it can be a real serious problem. It often takes some hard negotiating to get the proper network into a home because clients are used to hearing words like ‘mesh’ and think it must be good because it’s popular. Using the proper networking equipment will make ‘the’ difference in the final product. Notice I didn’t say ‘a’ difference. Much like an electrician, plumber, or mechanic, a really good network will save you headaches, inconveniences, and money. If you hire a professional, listen to them.”
The second-largest challenge in the control space is retail equipment finding its way into custom projects, Brawner concludes. “The products we sell have been tested, deployed, and proven to work — and not just work with our systems, but work well with all other systems in the home. When a client or designer insists on bringing in an unknown device it makes what would otherwise be an extremely stable system highly unstable and unpredictable. Sure, that toy looks cool, and it worked for someone in a home that wasn’t as advanced, but does it play well with others? I say again, if you hire a professional, listen to them.”