Control Issues

The price/functionality equation for home electronics has shifted rapidly during the past several years. Shrinking memory costs, improved wireless capabilities and growing importance of Internet protocol-based solutions are contributing to a profusion of individual home audio, video, security and climate-control options — many available after-market at your local home-improvement or big-box electronics store.

Sophisticated home buyers, though, are looking at ways to bring these disparate systems together, under the control of a single remote or touch screen. A number of manufacturers now offer such designs to builders marketing to tech-savvy clients, with both wired and wireless options designed to scale to changing needs and future innovations — following are a few examples of these products.

Crestron

Historically known as a luxury brand, Crestron has broadened its marketing appeal in recent years. The company also is known for robust commercial and institutional installations, so it offers capabilities to meet just about any need, says Jeff Singer, marketing director. Rather than offering distinct packages, the company relies on its dealer/integrator network to craft custom solutions tailored to individual homeowner needs.

“One of our dealers or integrators would sit down with a homeowner and ask lots of questions,” Singer says, describing how an initial conference with an owner and builder might take place. Similarly, spec builders might approach an integrator with a price point and owner profile in mind. Builders could have an installer simply incorporate the infrastructure required for future customization (using the company's proprietary cable), or include a fully built-out design.

“The real power comes in because our control system is the brain of the house,” Singer says. “Any and all systems can be connected to it.”

“The real power comes in because our control system is the brain of the house. Any and all systems can be connected to it.”
Jeff Singer, marketing director, Crestron

As an example of the highest end of control, Singer cites one customer's Gulf Coast vacation home that incorporates a Crestron-controlled weather system. When wind speeds top 50 mph, storm shutters automatically close and e-mail notifications are sent to the homeowner. Web-accessible IP cameras provide visual confirmation that all hatches have, indeed, been battened.

Homeowners can access installed capabilities through a choice of touch screens, remotes or even their smart phones — yes, there's an app for Crestron. Scenario-based controls bring together multiple operations into intuitively labeled groupings, such as “Welcome Home,” which might brighten lighting and adjust temperature settings, or “Movie,” which could darken lights, close window coverings and fire up an entertainment system.

“The whole idea behind it is to take all that technology and make it fun, easy and brainless,” Singer says.

Colorado vNet

Colorado vNet systems are built around a decentralized architecture, with no central control processor. Instead, each component carries its own intelligence, an approach offering several advantages. First, new controls, whether wired or wireless, can be added easily, without need for reprogramming. Secondly, the larger system remains intact if a failure occurs at any single point — only the failed processor needs to be replaced.

Simplifying programming requirements has been a key goal of the company's developers, according to Petro Shimonishi, Colorado vNet's marketing and sales vice president. Thanks to TCP/IP-based communications, much of the programming can be done remotely by the dealer, including fine-tuning light levels. Similarly, firmware updates can be installed over the web, without need for house calls.

Network wiring infrastructure can be installed using non-proprietary Cat5 ethernet cable, and control capability can extend down to table lamps, wall fountains and other plug loads via wall-plug modules that can be mounted behind sofas or tucked under end tables. Dimming is possible with some compatible CFL lamps, and the company now is working on options for LED-based fixtures.

Understanding their mid- to high-end homeowners often are working with interior designers, product developers at Colorado vNet also have incorporated features to make this sometimes-hard-to-please group of professionals happier. A full line of touchscreen bevel designs, along with controls that are compatible with commercially available switchplates, can help system components blend easily with the surrounding furnishings. Also, the company is the first to launch a multi-lingual interface — users now can switch between English, Spanish, French and Portuguese, with Chinese, Russian and Arabic options now in development.

Elan

Elan has been a home-entertainment leader for years, and this April it launched a complete home automation line, called G!, providing control options for lighting, security and environmental systems, alongside its entertainment offerings. A key selling point for the new system is an intuitive interface that looks the same across all devices, presenting a seamless user experience, from touchscreen to phone to office PC.

Like Crestron, Elan also offers an iPhone app (with Android and Blackberry versions now being considered). In fact, each system module — for example, lighting, security or irrigation — is, essentially, an app that can be added as control capability is installed. System status, and even live video, can be accessed from any PC or iPhone in the world.

“It provides the ability, on demand, to pull your phone out and see your home remotely,” says Eric Harper, Elan's marketing director. “It gives you the opportunity to be in two places at one time.”

System infrastructure is primarily Cat5-based, using IP-based communications, with the exception of runs transmitting live video to the company's proprietary touchscreens — these require RG6 cable.

Harper sees energy management — including lighting and HVAC systems, along with pool systems and other equipment — as a future market driver for all home automation makers.

“Leveraging a lot of the technology these systems offer could be a way users save money on their power bill every month,” he says. “And that could lead to other things.”

Control4

Promoting affordability and simplicity, Control4 incorporates a centralized controller and standard Cat5 or Cat6 cabling and IP-based communications. Because the controller operates via radio frequency signals, not infrared, it can be housed in a closet or other out-of-sight location. Touchscreens can be hardwired, using power-over-ethernet, or wireless, using standard 110V current.

Similar to other home automation suppliers, the Control4 approach enables scenario-based settings, such as “away” or “bedtime,” that can carry out multiple functions with a single command. Additionally, users can create their own command schemes to enable, say, a unique grouping of speakers in different rooms into a single audio zone.

The company has developed relationships with a number of building-products makers to foster electronic communication between its controllers and those manufacturers' offerings, based on Control4's use of open-source protocols developed by the ZigBee alliance. For example, Kwikset locks now integrate with Control4 systems, so users can check lock status remotely, or use a single nightstand control to ensure all locks are engaged for the night.

The company has opened its own source code to outside developers as well, and recently launched its own app store. Users can download apps now that enable social networking via Facebook and Twitter, through the living room television, as well as quickly access the day's weather forecast or sports scores with a single press of a remote-control button.

“We're doing some pretty revolutionary things for the homeowner,” says Paul Williams, the company's vice president of support services. “We're really becoming the operating system for the home.”

That concept of “operating system for the home” is one Williams, along with others, sees becoming increasingly important as utility grids begin enabling demand-response pricing at the individual homeowner level. For example, Whirlpool recently announced it will be producing 1 million smart-grid-compatible clothes dryers by the end of 2011.

“We're seeing white-goods manufacturers entering the market for energy management,” Williams says. “What we see in the next five years is more of these products becoming more aware.”


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