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In Control: Home Automation Rules

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Consumers who install home automation systems are often looking for peace of mind, says Bobby Ring, president, Meyer & Depew Company, Kenilworth, NJ. “Our company is working with several providers that deliver home automation through a communication protocol called Z-Wave,” he says. “Through a Z-Wave bridge in the thermostat, we are able to provide homeowners with lighting control, locks, video cameras, smoke detectors, water and temperature sensors, and water valves. All can be monitored and controlled remotely from their phones, tablets, or computers.”

For example, his company can install a water sensor under the kitchen sink or washing machine that will cut off the water to the house if a leak is detected. “This can be particularly useful in vacation homes, or homes whose owners go to winter destinations,” Ring says. “They have peace of mind knowing the system is being monitored.”

Another product frequently requested by consumers is a door lock. “We can replace your door lock with a push-button combination lock that you can unlock remotely,” he explains. “We have one customer who has a vacation home who uses it to let the exterminator in. Other customers have people who go into their house on a regular basis, and they set up codes just for them. If the dog walker puts a code in, the homeowner gets an alert saying, ‘The dog walker just unlocked your door.’”

Meyer & Depew Company, which averages $11 million in annual sales and employs 60 people, has been selling home automation for about a year. Ring estimates that 75 percent of business is residential, of which less than 5 percent involves home automation. “There seems to be a very big effort by a lot of parties to control the thermostat,” Ring says. “Your alarm company wants to control your thermostat, your cable TV company wants to control your thermostat, and Google wants to control your thermostat. The thermostat has traditionally been part of the heating and air conditioning system. The HVAC industry needs to do what it has to do to offer these additional services so we don’t lose contact with clients.”

An App for That

Bronson Shavitz, CEO, Shavitz Heating and Air Conditioning, Chicago, believes apps are the future of home automation. “There will come a day in the near future where the majority of thermostats will be controlled from phones,” he insists.

Shavitz, whose company has been involved in numerous high-end projects installing a Creston, Lewtron, or AMX, wonders whether simpler is better. “You can have a really expensive does-it-all system, and only one programmer who knows how to program it. When there’s a problem, it’s a pain for the homeowner because now they have to have the automation guy and the HVAC guy.”

Instead of paying for high-end home automation systems with central control panels, he believes consumers are opting for less expensive apps with similar functions. “Inexpensive smart phone apps and Wi-Fi communication are allowing everyday homeowners to get the benefits of remote access and alerts to their phones if the heating or cooling is out. In the past, it would be very expensive to do. Now, it’s quite affordable.”

A fourth-generation business, the company was founded in 1904 by Shavitz’s great grandfather, who delivered coal and ice out of a horse-drawn carriage since electricity hadn’t even been invented yet. The company, which now employs 45, averages $5 ½ million in revenue annually, of which 70 percent is residential.

Shavitz has clients whose home automation systems link up to cameras focused on their front gates. If somebody rings the doorbell on the front gate, they can click on the tablet to pull up the front gate’s screen and decide whether to let them in or talk to them. Another client in a high-end home has requested that the company be sent an email if the HVAC system’s temperature goes out of range by 3 degrees, high or low. “I can go remotely into the system and see what is going on. Whether it’s just a hot day with a lot of sun, or if the system is down and we need a technician.”

Last summer, Shavitz recalls that the water sensor went off in a customer’s home. “An alarm on the floor in the drain pan indicated a water leak,” he says. “He lives in a mid rise on the 13th floor on Chicago’s Gold Coast. If that overflowed, it would have been six figures of damage.”

How Do They Work?

David J. Peppelman, general manager, Christian Heating & Air Conditioning, Southampton, PA, has been selling wireless thermostats for about four or five years. He estimates that between 60 to 70 percent of the

company’s new home installations end up with a wireless thermostat because “customers choose it.”

The company, which has been in business 26+ years, and has about 65 employees and a dollar volume of $10 million, features a full training facility where Peppelman has taken steps to ensure that technicians know the ins and outs of repairing and installing various thermostats. “We have a thermostat board in our training facility with about 15 thermostats hooked up,” he says. “The majority are wireless.” He adds that customers also find the demonstrations of various features and products helpful.

Shavitz points out that homeowners, as well as technicians, need to be fully versed on how to operate the features of a wireless thermostat. “When they are purchasing a thermostat, the features they want at that time, versus the features they use in 12 months, usually are different,” he says. “We often have clients who will 12 months down the road say, ‘Man, someday I’m going to learn all the things this thermostat can do, but right now I just need to know how to turn the temperature up and down.’ It’s nice to have all these features, but there’s a big disconnect in learning how to use them.”

Tips of the Trade

HVAC contractors who are featuring home automation in their businesses offer a number of tips:

Try marketing specialty packages. According to Ring, it’s a good idea to establish a basic offering that includes a high-end thermostat, as well as several packages. For example, a security package could allow homeowners to lock and unlock their front doors, control their garage doors, and turn on an outside light when approaching the home. A protection packages might include a water safety device that would shut off the main water line coming into the home if a water leak were detected.

Advise consumers to check their insurance. “Homeowners should contact their insurance carriers to see if home automation helps with their premiums,” Ring says. In vacation homes, the insurance company factors into the rates that someone will not be there all the time. Security and safety features may reduce premiums.

Confirm bandwidth. Make sure the homeowner has sufficient bandwidth to handle another device, advises Peppelman. “With people having smart phones and iPads and other wireless devices, everything is fighting for a signal as well as bandwidth,” he says. “Sometimes homeowners will have loss of connection, or the system will say it’s off line. Most of the thermostats don’t grab as much bandwidth as an iPad or iPhone, so their signal doesn’t stay as strong and they sometimes lose connectivity.” He adds that some manufacturers offer a dedicated router that generates a stronger signal from

their router to the thermostat. “We’ve found over the years that it’s better to put that in as a bundle than to go back and try to figure out why the homeowners aren’t getting connectivity.”

Do your homework. In addition to thoroughly investigating any third parties you are working with, Ring recommends that you carefully read all the agreements that you may be asked to sign. He recalls one company that asked him to sign a contract making his company responsible for anything and everything that happened in the home, even if one of their products failed. “That’s a huge risk when you’re guaranteeing that the water will be turned off if there’s a leak,” he says.

Margo Vanover Porter
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Posted In: ACCA Now, Building Performance, Residential Buildings, Technology

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