To read the plethora of reports about the rising profile of home automation in the consumer sphere is to be inundated by references to Google, Apple, and Amazon and their popular devices that do seemingly everything, from turning on music to turning off lights. In this new app-crazy technology age it is easy to misconstrue the relatively simple abilities of an Alexa with the larger goals and capabilities of more complex automation home solutions that are the driving force behind the grander vision of the smart home, which is to control, automate, and regulate the entire home experience from one unifying device.
The smart home concept has dominated custom residential technology integration for more than three decades, with companies such as Crestron, Control4, ELAN Home Systems, RTI, and Savant Systems proving to be leading architects of a tech evolution that is now catching on in the wider consumer world. Reconciling big-box device popularity with the robust, proprietary, feature-rich smart systems familiar to the custom integration sector is an ongoing play for hearts and minds, often determined by the consumer’s understanding of what the smart home is versus how custom integrators can enlarge that vision by opening up wider control options unfamiliar to the average consumer.
On Manhattan’s East Side, a client of custom integration company Mattera Design had just closed on a 3000-square-foot apartment and wanted a “real smart home.” For the client, this meant control of speakers, lights, shades, smart TVs, WiFi, and much more through…apps.
“My client, like many people bombarded with all these DIY products and advertisements, thought that was a smart home,” says Joe Mattera, founder of Mattera Design Inc. “I could have simply explained to them the many, many differences between DIY products, apps, and home kits, but instead I took them to the home of one of my best clients. I like to call this residence my ‘RTI Experience Center.’”
Mattera’s show-and-tell paid off by changing the perception of the client of not only what a smart home actually is, but also how much more it can automate and control if installed and programmed properly using products designed and tested to elevate the experience. The client was sold.
Boston security integration firm Alarm New England reminds its clients the more they add to their home, the more likely it is for a system to break. With a focus on security first, company vice president Alexandra Curtiss insisted only a professional-grade system with a great monitoring station will do. “Who are you going to call when your front door lock is showing it is unlocked and you are not at home to check?” she asks. “What does it look like to call Apple or Amazon for support? Our customers see the difference and choose to pay a little bit more to know they have us to help them if they get stuck.”
Big-box control products are by no means the Big Bad Wolf, as integrators have found ways to incorporate these new and often voice-controlled devices into their robust and highly specified control and automation systems. Chris Worthington of Personal Technology in Alhambra, CA is a Savant dealer who thinks the wide dissemination of emerging technologies in the consumer sector is a good thing for custom integrators because it raises awareness about the possibilities for the smart home environment.
“The Savant customer typically wants the luxury version of everything; they understand or are capable of understanding that a system like Savant is required to bring all of the features and services together to meet their needs,” explains Worthington, who is the company’s president. “As far as explaining the differences to each client, I think the most powerful feature of Savant versus any competitor is Savant Scenes, which simplifies the entire user experience exponentially. Most critically, our clients want top service versus sitting at the dining room table with a pile of smart home appliances trying to make them work. They could mow their own lawn too…but they don’t.”
Worthington’s team, like many custom integrators, is not opposed to putting consumer-grade control products in the mix, but notes it has its drawbacks. Personal Technology recently outfitted a Pasadena home for a young family with ecobee thermostats (with Alexa functionality built in), Savant lighting and shade control, security cameras, and whole-house entertainment. After giving the family a tutorial, the system was up and running.
“We encountered a few challenges such as the kids using voice control to shut the house down in the middle of a party,” Worthington says. “It would be nice if [Amazon] sorted out some kind of authentication to prevent that. Another challenge is using Alexa for multiple sites — we usually recommend separate Amazon accounts for each location to prevent unintended crosstalk.”
Targeting the luxury market, Crestron integrator Todd Anthony Puma, founder of The Source Home Theater in New York, notes that his firm’s clients are often looking for a turnkey experience, minus the headache of networking incompatibilities, IP addressing conflicts, wiring, installation, configuration, and support. It is a point of difference that underscores the company’s promise to deliver reliability, functionality, and true custom experience.
“They want to cut a check and have us deal with all of that,” Puma says. “For clients who are more technically inclined, we impress upon them how unreliable these other systems are, that we do not sell or install them for that reason, and that if they choose to go that route, as many consumers do, we completely understand, but based on our experience with thousands of systems, we cannot get involved as the systems are notoriously unreliable.”
Recently, a longtime New York client of The Source Theater called on the firm to integrate a control and automation system in their second home, a beach house. After several discussions, Puma and his team designed a proposal for a more modest solution than at the client’s Brooklyn brownstone. It included a golf simulator, Sonos, Nest, and Alexa voice control to make it friendlier for guests and children — using interfaces they are more familiar with.
Puma adds: “We also utilized Crestron PYNG extensively to give the homeowner control over customizing lighting scenes, daily scheduling, locks, etc. This ended up being such a success with the client that we incorporated some of the elements into their main residence.”
Like Worthington, Tom Pieracki, president of Simply Automated, agrees that Alexa, Google Assistant, and Apple Homekit have been valuable awareness-raising products not only about the possibilities of the smart home, but also the experts who can install them.
“Rather than pitch product versus product, we make it a point to pitch our brand, who we are, how we do it, and, most importantly, how we plan to support our clients post-install,” Pieracki says. “I am excited to see the likes of Google and Apple bring their product to the masses, because it brings awareness to the smart home and home integration category as a whole, which is great for our industry. The more that consumers learn about what automation can do for them, the more likely they are to research other smart home products, manufacturers, and integration firms.”
The integration team at SmartHouse Integration, led by Dennis Beatty, has also embraced popular control devices alongside their ELAN Home-driven installed systems. In one of its latest projects, in fact, SmartHouse Integration started off with an Alexa after the client made it clear that both the ELAN system and Alexa had to work together.
“ELAN already had a driver for this before officially being listed as a skill, so we knew we would be able to make this work,” Beatty says. “It is a fairly large home on Longboat Key, FL; we installed ELAN automation to control the whole-house audio, a movie theater, Lutron lighting control, pool/spa, DSC security, ELAN cameras, intercom, and ELAN climate control. Much of the system is accessible with the Alexa voice control, which makes our client very happy.”
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Securing a Front Row Seat
With the smart home concept gaining traction with the general public and large corporate tech companies stepping into the market, mapping a future for the category with pioneers and newcomers staking claims has been a focus for both custom integrators and their supporting manufacturers.
“We can always count on tech companies innovating, but I think the integrators have to take responsibility for using, testing, and truly understanding the capabilities and limitations of the big three voice command systems,” Worthington says. “These manufacturers are in the process of figuring this out themselves. I always tell clients that Alexa can’t read your mind, you have to anticipate what it needs to hear and understand what its limitations are. The job of the integrator is to sort out all of these emerging systems and best use them to meet the needs of each client.”
Puma believes custom automation manufacturers also have a role to play and should work more closely with some of the consumer-grade products, including Nest, Sonos, August Locks, and others, while Curtiss similarly points to interoperability as paramount to the growing success of the smart home.
“It is not the hardware that matters as much as having a fast, reliable, easy-to-use app to control all of the endpoints on a system,” Curtiss says. “End-user tech support is also incredibly important if we are going to differentiate ourselves from big-box solutions. The smarter our homes get, the more customers will rely on us to help them with their wireless networks. How do we keep all these attached devices safe from hacking? Internet security will become an important feature of the future smart home.”