Home and building automation is a very real part of the electrical industry of tomorrow. What you may not realise is that it is also a big player today. Paul Skelton reports.
For the best part of a decade, if not longer, home automation has been ‘on the horizon’ – something that is so close to practicality and yet so far from reality. It always seems to be spoken about as if its arrival is imminent but it’s not here just yet.
Well, the truth is it is here… and it has been for some time now.
As the editor of Electrical Connection’s sister publication Connected Home+Business, I have been immersed in the home and building automation sector for just over a decade. In that time, I have seen it grow from being a young, niche market to one that now draws attention from the likes of Apple and Telstra (neither of which actually offer ‘home automation’ solutions; rather, they sell ‘smart devices’ under the banner of automation.)
The terms home and building automation actually denote a holistic, integrated system that encompasses technologies like lighting control, energy management, AV and security. And at the centre of it all is a control system that acts as, well, the Fat Comptroller from Thomas The Tank Engine – nothing happens without its knowledge.
So it’s understandable that finding the right control system for your project is imperative to a project’s success. What you may not know, though, is that there are dozens of control systems on the market and they all offer installers something different.
Before we get to comparing and contrasting these systems, it’s important for sparkies to understand why home automation is important.
“The electrical sector is dynamic and keeps changing, so you can’t sit still and expect to thrive,” Convergent Technologies managing director Nick Libertone says.
Convergent Technologies is the Australian distributor of Lutron, Vitrea and Transformative Engineering control solutions.
“The home and building automation market is completely different to 15 years ago. When I started with control system manufacturer Crestron back in 1998, it wasn’t easy getting systems integrators on board because they didn’t want to touch IT. Today, if these same guys didn’t have a control system then they’d be in all sorts of trouble.
“The electrical contracting market is heading in the same direction.
“While some products become commoditised and others fall out of favour, contractors have to always be moving forward and doing something new to remain relevant. You have to jump on the latest products; you can’t do what you were doing five years ago and just cruise by.
“Now more than ever, people are learning about home automation and they want it in their homes, and it’s your job to give your clients what they want, even if it’s not something you personally want at home.”
Rene Rieck is automation manager for manufacturer WAGO.
“’Intelligent buildings’ adapt dynamically to a user’s needs and surroundings. High convenience, low power consumption and great reliability: those are the primary demands of today’s customers for modern building services.
“There is a constant rise in the prices for oil and energy. This offers opportunities for automation. Conscious use of energy ensures our future and makes homes and buildings more economical.
“For electricians, being able to offer smart home and building solutions can bring a number of benefits that will help your business to grow. You can differentiate your company from others; increase the value of projects; spend less time pulling cables and more time programming; offer a higher value service; and. build lasting ongoing relationships with customers ensuring referrals and repeat business.”
So what do you look for when buying a control system?
“For the automation novice, there are a few things to consider when selecting which system to specify. For example, simplicity to program and a brand that offers a complete solution so you don’t have to patch different systems together to get results,” Nick says.
“Dealing with an established company is also important. Lutron, for example, is the world leader in lighting control so they have longevity and ease of service. There are so many products coming on to the market that are start-ups, or haven’t been in the market for very long, so the products may not be supported as well as they are with someone like Lutron.
“With electronics, it’s not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’ it will go down, so service is vital.
“Work with a company that is progressive and accommodates future technologies, rather than a company that isn’t as quick to move. You should also look for software that is progressively growing and a company that has a track record of innovation, that way you’ll know that you will be looked after.”
In addition to working at WAGO, Rene is also a certified KNX trainer.
KNX is an open global standard for home and building control and automation.
“Electricians should be making use of the possibilities created by intelligent home and building system technologies, like KNX, for their professional success,” he says.
“Your customers’ needs change constantly. They want independence, and they require compatible system solutions that have a future. This is what KNX offers.
“With KNX, you are one step ahead. By correctly adjusting the parameters of heating, lighting, shutter control, etc, and the communication between them, you can drastically reduce the energy consumption, daily life becomes easier, more flexible and future proof in many ways.”
There are undoubtedly some readers of Electrical Connection who picked up a control system several years ago and thought ‘this is too hard’, or ‘I’m not paying someone to program’.
Well, things have changed.
“Ten to 20 years ago, to become a control system installer you needed a fairly advanced knowledge of logic and programming. Today, almost all of the systems mentioned in this guide have a simplified method of programming that is quick and efficient,” Nick says.
“Now, practically anyone can program one of these systems.”
Nick suggests looking at various manufacturer product training sessions to find out more about a specific system, but to get a foundation you need to learn basic networking skills.
“More and more as you move forward, the progressive electrician needs to look at this technology; it’s a springboard to other things.”
As an introduction to the control market, we have compiled a comparison guide on 31 of the control systems available in Australia. Other companies were invited to participate but failed to reply prior to print.
The main takeaway for electricians, however, is hopefully an understanding that home and building automation is here now and ignoring it won’t make it go away. In fact, it could end up costing you in the long run.
To download a PDF of the comparison guide, click here.