According to the Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association (CEDIA), that’s the low estimate of the size of the home technology industry. CEDIA says that number, which has been estimated as high as $16 billion, includes revenue from traditional audio/visual (A/V) installer companies, as well as security, Internet technology, and electrician businesses crossing over into home technology.
But trying your hand at wiring a home automation system for the first time may not be the best way to capitalize on the segment’s opportunity. Like the other trades you subcontract, home automation requires a special skill set and aptitude—not to mention a great deal of training—to get it right every time. So as your clients and projects call for more elaborate A/V and home automation setups, you’ll likely need help keeping up. Here are four reasons why a tech integrator should become your newest trade partner.
Reason #1: Home Tech Is Trending Upward
“Custom integrators have traditionally worked only with high-end clients because of the price tags that used to come with these systems,” says Jon Stovall, owner of Bethesda Systems, Bethesda, Md. “Now [the systems] are more affordable and more user-friendly, and a lot of components are DIY, so consumers are hungrier for them.”
The advent of the smartphone and wireless technology has also bolstered the home tech industry. “There’s no doubt that home automation, particularly at an entry level, is becoming much more affordable,” says Dave Pedigo, CEDIA’s senior director of emerging trends and learning. “With the rapid adoption of smartphones and tablets, a majority of consumers now own a control interface that just a few years ago cost tens of thousands of dollars.”
CEDIA research shows that the home automation industry, which ranges from basic home theaters and speaker systems to whole-house connectivity, has grown an average of 8% a year for the last several years and is continuing its upward trend.
Average project size also continues to grow, with work taking place in both existing homes and new builds. In fact, according to CEDIA, in 2007 electronics systems contractors indicated a 50/50 split between the two. Every year since, projects in existing homes have represented more of the work, now commanding 73% to 84% of residential jobs.
Reason #2: You Get Your Wires Crossed
Becoming an expert takes time. Knowing how long it took you to become an authority on remodeling, would you be willing to learn how to install all of the plumbing for your projects too? It’s not just a matter of running PEX and sweating copper. It’s getting training, certifications, licensing—and call-backs.
Like plumbing, HVAC, and other trades, home automation requires more than just know-how. Custom integrators dedicate a lot of time each year to learning about the latest products and technologies. Stovall says that this training is essential. “We’re learning firsthand what works and what doesn’t work, what integrates and what doesn’t integrate, and what bundles together to provide a good experience for the end user,” he says.
“We’ve tried to DIY some home automation projects on a smaller scale—mostly home media and low-voltage systems like controls for HVAC and garage doors,” says the owner of Hamtil Construction in St. Louis. “It’s been a complete nightmare. Even on a small scale, this work is difficult because so many people are involved in the process. With the alarm guy, the media center guy, and the guy who does HVAC controls, it either becomes a scheduling disaster, or we’re scratching our heads trying to make it all come together ourselves.”
Hamtil now partners with St. Louis-based Integration Controls. He met the company’s co-founder and sales and marketing director, Jamie Briesemeister, at a Business Networks meeting. Briesmeister says that integration companies not only allow installations to run smoothly but make the process of product selection easier from the start. Homeowners shouldn’t be expected to know the specs and serial numbers of every home theater component, she says, and neither should remodelers.
“We know what options are out there, and we have access to high-end, middle-market, and value-engineered products, but when we’re talking to our clients it shouldn’t be about the stuff,” Briesemeister says. “When you’re building a house, you don’t ask your homeowner what kind of 2x4s they want or where they want them; you talk about what they want their home to look and feel like.”
Briesemeister says that a good technology integrator will ask remodelers and their clients questions about their lifestyles. “More than where you want the TV, they should be asking you what you want to watch and if you want to control it with one remote or multiple.”
Lareau agrees. “There are an endless number of options out there, and we’re able to sit down and have a discussion to identify what the homeowner’s priorities are and narrow down the options from there,” he says.
Lareau and Briesemeister both note that CEDIA’s website is a useful resource for finding integrators in your area who will know to ask these kinds of questions. Stovall also suggests looking into national distributor Energy Squad to find dealers and integrators who specialize in home energy management.Lee Lareau, president of Custom Home Theater in Brunswick, Maine, says that his company doesn’t touch a new brand of products without proper training. “I just took a 4-hour class about new technology,” he says. “I remember taking that class 20 years ago and everything we talked about is history now. A good integrator has certifications and is on his game, just like a good remodeler.”
Reason #3: You're Not Tech Support
An integration company’s involvement doesn’t stop with smooth product selection and installation. If you do a custom installation yourself, be prepared to make service calls for homeowner training, product upgrades, and repairs down the road. Stovall says that service availability is a big reason remodelers should work with a reputable integrator.
“We’re talking about electronics. They break and they’ll require servicing,” Stovall says. “The premium a customer pays for the technology warrants that back-end level of service. A lot of systems break at the worst times, and we get most of our service calls on the weekends. If it’s the Saturday before the Super Bowl and your TV goes out, you want to know you’re working with a reputable company that’s available when you need them.”
Stovall, a former general contractor himself, advises remodelers and builders to ask potential integrator partners about service availability (including weekend calls). Contractors giving DIY systems a try should do the same. Products from brands like Leviton are available off-the-shelf for anyone to try, and chains like Lowe’s and Staples have recently introduced private-label home automation systems for DIYers. Lowe’s Iris Home Management System, comprising thermostats, locks, cameras, outlets, lighting, and more for DIY whole-house automation, has dedicated specialists on the customer care team, with tech support available by phone during morning, late-night, and weekend hours. At Leviton, director of marketing Greg Rhoades says that the company’s customer service is available as both online and live assistance and offers extended support hours and hands-on training. Leviton also has a network of integrators who can do the work for remodelers.
“We value our custom integrators because they know our automation systems inside and out,” Rhoades says. “They’re bright individuals who can help design and commission a system or upgrade an existing system down the road.”
Reason #4: Spend Clients' Money Wisely
User comfort with technology is increasing (thanks, iPad!), and the opportunity for integration is invading the middle market. But even as systems become more affordable, they can still be pricey. This can scare remodelers away from trying to sell projects and homeowners away from buying them. But integrators agree that the conversation shouldn’t be scrapped altogether. Whether it’s weeks later or years down the road, waiting to discuss connected home features after a project is finished will end up costing clients thousands more.
“The rule of thumb we use is that the wiring for home automation costs about four times more to do later, when you have to tear out the walls, than it costs to do up front,” says Dan Fulmer, owner of FulTech Solutions, Jacksonville, Fla. “Even if a homeowner isn’t sold on putting a system in right now, we always advise wiring the house anyway—and wiring it for more than they think they need or can afford—because if you don’t have the infrastructure in place, the project will cost much more down the road.”
Fulmer says that installing the wiring from the get-go also allows homeowners to add technology in phases that may fit better with their needs and budgets. “It’s not a waste of money to wire for more than you think you need,” he says. “If you plan and set yourself up right, we can do a lot more in the future.”
For these reasons, integrators say remodelers and builders need to bring up the topic of home automation early on. In fact, Stovall says one of the biggest mistakes contractors make with regard to home automation is waiting too late to think about it. Even basic lighting programs require the right types of fixtures to be installed so that they can all communicate with each other. If you wait too long, he says, “they’re in the ceiling, they’re the wrong lights, and we have to rip them out. The homeowner and builder and electrician might have no clue of how best to fix the problem.”
Lareau agrees. “One of our frustrations as a company is people not taking the time to sit down and identify what their [home tech] priorities are,” he says. “The more interaction you have early on, the better. An integrator will know what questions to ask—like which rooms they spend the most time in—so we can get a plan together. In a lot of cases, the homeowner and the remodeler don’t even realize how much we can do with home automation. They’d never know the possibilities without sitting down with an integrator first.”
If you’re among the remodelers that “don’t know what you don’t know” about home automation, Briesemeister suggests attending a seminar or inviting an integrator to speak to your local NARI chapter. “I do a lot of seminars and presentations,” she says. “Sometimes the best thing you can do for your business is to partner with someone who does something you can’t do.”
10 Questions to Start the Tech Conversation
Not sure about where or how to start talking tech with your clients? CEDIA offers this checklist to get the ball rolling.
• Do you consider yourself or your family tech-savvy?
• What lifestyle enhancements or solutions do you want your technology system to provide?
• How often do you watch TV?
• In which room(s) do you watch a TV?
• Do you prefer to have background music playing? If so, when, and in which rooms?
• What are the most frustrating technologies, products, or items you use today?
• Where do you spend the most time in your home?
• How do you communicate throughout the house?
• Is energy conservation important to you?
• What are the special circumstances, if any, of those living in your home?