FulTECH SOLUTIONS

Local Energy and Building Sustainability Power Houses, team up to further improve their customers’ bottom line

FulTech, with aims to insure it’s Integrated Building Solution, is the best on the market, has teamed up with EIW to give the ultimate in BMS and integrated building energy savings.

JACKSONVILLE, FL – Fultech Solutions, Inc and Energy Intelligence Worldwide, Corp. (EIWCorp) announced today that they have teamed up to offer a powerful and unique suite of Integrated Building Technology and HVAC efficiency solutions to both their customers. These Jacksonville-based firms are taking building systems into the 21st century, one building at a time. To this end, both firms are now offering their customers a wider array of services and expertise to make buildings intelligent and thereby significantly reducing energy use and operational cost.

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Local Energy and Building Sustainability Power Houses, team up to further improve their customers’ bottom line

How to get the most out of your Smart Home system and integrator

This months discussion (2 parts) will focus on how to get the best system for YOU, in today’s market and with today’s technologies.

Part 1

How do you know you are getting a good Smart Home system?  How do you know what Smart Home systems are on the market? How can you determine if your Smart Home Installer or Systems Integrator has the know how to install your system?   Determining whether your Home Automation Dealer or installer has what it takes is the first step towards having a system that will serve your house/family for decades.

Having been in business for over 18 years now, we’ve seen our share of poorly designed, installed and/or programmed  systems.   We’ve seen a recent rash, as of late, of very expensive systems that were not completed or had never worked properly, and were in the 6 figure range.   This is not acceptable in an industry that is well out of it’s teenage years.   There are many professional dealers today who are available to help install quality, high-end system.  You just have to know what to look for in them.

One of the sad problems with making a bad purchase decision with respect to a “smart home” system,  is that you are pretty much stuck with the results unless you spend a good portion of, or more than, what you spent having it installed.  Sometimes much more, if the wiring wasn’t even up to par or is missing in key locations, which in some cases cannot be fixed and means downgrading audio and video equipment.  Counter to why you did this in the first place.

Finding a good systems integrator is the most important decision you can make with  respect to your home automation system, in reality they should and will become trusted technology advisors, for years to come.   A well educated, experienced and connected integrator can guide you into the best design for your budget and functional needs, and leave much room for growth.    4 main elements of a good system are design, product choices, installation and programming.  The design is a key element of a good system.   Foremost is an infrastructure that can handle all of your needs now, and well (10-20 yrs) into the future.   If your dealer only installs a wiring system for what you are getting now, that doesn’t leave you any room for growth, does it?  If they don’t know about new systems, technologies and protocols of future products, they simply cannot wire for it.  If they don’t have a good handle on all of the products, systems and devices you might want to install, they cannot know to wire for it.

If your dealers installs sub-par products and components, there really isn’t a lot anyone can do to “fix” that.   You may have saved a little money, but the products are not up to performing what you really expected and those parts will likely need to be replaced.   If the system wasn’t installed properly (poor wiring, wiring to wrong locations, poorly done connections) then this will need to be analyzed first, then fixed, which can be quite time consuming and expensive too.    Finally, if your integrator didn’t have the aptitude to complete the configuration and programming of the system, it will never work right and this too must be remedied.    All of  these are costly, time consuming and when completed don’t leave you with the best impressions of what a real “home automation” system can offer.     To help customers avoid making a mistake we’ve put together some advice that will hopefully help you determine what you want and how to choose the integrator that is right for you.

There are a few steps to this, which I’ll list here then discuss each in detail.

  1. Research and Discovery (your systems integrator can help with or do this)
  2. System Design
  3. Prewire/structured cabling (future proofing)
  4. System installation/Integraton
  5. Programming
  6. Delivery
  7. Maintenance

 

RESEARCH – Find a good dealer.  Do your homework here. Ask the right questions.

How long have they been in business, doing the same thing, with the same name?  Are there any bad BBB or other reports?  Have they been involved in lawsuits?   Do they have a showroom, office, model home (they should have at least one of these)?   Do they have a readily available list of referalls?  What type of credentials (education, licenses, certifications) do they have and are they up to  date?   See their work?  It is imperative that you see some samples of any dealers work, lest you have know way to actually know what you are getting.

Visit some of your local dealers and insist on seeing either a working demonstration, model home or showroom demonstration of what your system will be like and how it will perform.  Seeing a model home is great, in my opinion, as you get to see exactly (or close to) how your system will work and function.   This also allows you to see first-hand, how your actual system will most likely look and feel and to discuss touchscreen/interface layouts and what elements work for you.  I would also ask for a list of customers to call on and see how many names you get and actually follow up with those customers and see how their experiences went.   No dealer will have a 100% referenceable list of customers, as you cannot make everyone happy, but you should be able to get a good feel for how the dealer interacts with clients, before, during and after the installation process, which is important.  If you get a quality system, you’ll want to develop a relationship with your dealer/integrator for years to come, so you can keep up with latest technologies at the lowest cost.  Hiring someone new each time, certainly increases cost and time to install the components versus hiring the company that knows your wiring infrastructure, what systems you currently have, etc. and often leads to a hodgepodge of systems that weren’t really designed to work well together.     Obviously, if your integrator is not that experienced or doesn’t have the team to get the project completed, it can be a long process and sometimes a failure.

Next thing to look at is what you want out of your system?  Most people that visit our showroom think they know what they want before they come in, but once they find out what is available and why they are available, they start to reconsider there “wish list”.   Foremost, do your research.  Online is a great place to start.  CEA has the TechHome division which helps to educate consumers on what to look for at http://www.ce.org/Membership/Divisions-and-Councils/TechHome-Division.aspx.  There is also an installer locator to help you find dealers in your area.  CEDIA also has good information on their site with a focus on educating dealers.   Finally, the consumer magazine Electronic House (available on news stands and online) is an excellent resource of all that is going on in today’s home technology world.

There are a few things to consider to start.  What sub-systems do you want to control?  Audio, Video, Lights, HVAC (temperature), drapes and shades, pools, spas and fountains, gates, full access to sources (feedback), and more.   What, how you control it, and how much control you want will help dictate what type of system is for you, to start, at least.

Control system based or not? There are several control systems on the market of varying levels.  You have some systems that require no controller, such as some Zwave basic systems.  You simply address components around the house and use an interface to control them.  This is the most basic of controls, and though you can add to it, there is no “brain” or control system to make custom macros and events occur.  A control system adds to the cost, but is the backbone of the system and is what drives what you can and cannot do in the future.   Basic keypad driven systems, only learn and send commands, and may not be able to do things based on time of day, triggers (daylight, motion, etc) or disarming the security.    These offer basic conveniences and are easy for the average homeowner to tackle on their own, but some dealers do offer these systems.  For instance, this would allow you to use your TV remote to turn on the lights and ceiling fans, while sitting in the room.  Zwave has a plethora of products to choose from that is growing.

First, there are basic controllers that are basically higher-end security control panels, which typically offer integration with basic components from specific manufacturers and these systems and usually don’t offer audio and video switching and integration.   These may offer all you need and newer systems offer the ability to use apps and other newer technologies as well, but they are limited somewhat on the A/V side of things.  An example of these systems are what AT&T, Verizon and other large security vendors are offering.  HAI is one of the more advanced systems on the market and can integrate with other systems to become a pretty complete system, with a very reasonable price range, but requires a knowledgeable integrator to get full functionality.  This type of system would allow you to control lights, HVAC, and other basic functions and have those devices do things based on feedback from the main system (arming/disarming, motion sensing, time of day, etc).  This adds an additional level of control to systems like lights, security, HVAC and even door locks in recent months, but requires very little programming and mostly just configuration and setup.

Next up are mid-level A/V integration systems.  These systems usually include audio distribution as their key feature and may offer video distribution as well as other integration capabilities like comm ports and interfaces for some 3rd party devices and products.  These systems can be simple keypad based systems that only learn and send IR commands to more advanced programmable controllers with the ability to integrate with other products and systems.  These are usually designed around smaller, whole home audio based systems but do have the ability to integrate with other systems and have relatively simple programming requirements, though large systems might be time consuming.   That being said, the limited programming also means limited customization and other capabilities.  These might include your Russound, Niles and Elan, on the more advanced side.

The most advanced controllers offer the ability to integrate with just about any product from any manufacturer, even if they weren’t designed specifically to integrate, they offer full audio and video integration and distributions and offer long-life spans of 10-20+ years on most of the systems out today.   These systems offer the ability to custom program, which gives them the most flexibility and customization and are suited for small, medium or large homes with room to grow, expand and upgrade for years to come.  Manufacturers of these systems are Control4, AMX, Crestron and a few others.  Some have been around for decades or longer, others only a few years.

 

SYSTEM DESIGN

There are 3 key components to any good system, the design, the dealer/integrator and the manufacturer of the system/products.   Why are these so important?  First, if you don’t have the system you want in mind, you can have a good design.  Without a good design, your system is limited from the start.   If you don’t plan for the inevitable (upgrades, updates, improvements, changes in technology) you will be sorry in a few short years.    You need to research what is available, what you expect, what cost are involved (real world cost) and what you are willing to spend to get that functionality.    There  are many ways to “skin a cat” so to speak, and many ways that will work for you.   Putting it all together and insuring all parts will work together is part of the design process and cannot be properly done unless you have some background information.

If you are working with an experienced systems integrator, they can often show you various systems, with varying functionality at different price ranges.   Here at Fultech, our philosophy has always been an “A La Carte” method of introducing our systems.   If we don’t show you all the parts, pieces and such of a system, you won’t know what is available and cannot make an educated decision.   Instead of trying to meet a particular price range, we show you all of the systems and sub-systems that can be integrated, designed for your home, and show the cost for each sub-system.

The second, and most important part of the design is future planning.   You may not know what you want now and don’t want to put too much thought and effort while building a new home.   That is fine.  A good integrator can plan your wiring infrastructure or structured wiring to meet your and technologies future needs and requirements.   This still means some planning needs to be done, but an experienced integrator should be able to wire your home for most of the technologies that are available in the next 5-10 years.    On that note, many consumers think wireless is here and can do anything.  This is the panacea we’ve all been waiting for, but it is not quite here and probably a good ways off still.  So I wouldn’t bet my house on wireless for all systems at this point.   Wireless is years away from handling video well, doesn’t typically handle audio very well and often when mixed with other systems, can create or gain issues to and from them.

Manufacturers.  I’ve always said, I pick my manufacturers carefully, as I can only back my clients as good as my manufacturer backs me.   I choose products made in the USA for a few reasons.  First,  my patriotic duty I feel, is to provide as much work for Americans, in America.  Next, they are typically the fastest and easiest to get repaired or replaced.  Overseas products are often expensive and time consuming to repair or replace.  Finally, I often am able to develop long term, personal relationships with my manufacturers representative and tech team, making my installations go smoother, as i have access to information that speeds the process.   We pride ourselves in the fact that 90% of  our systems and products are made in the USA.   I also look for how strong the manufacturer is and how long they’ve been in business.  I’ve seen a few “new” systems come and go over the past 15 years, and if a customer purchases one of these systems and the manufacturer goes out of business, there is a little a dealer/integrator or anyone else can do for that system.     That being said, a good, quality, well engineered, home control system will typically last 10-20 years, and this I have empirically witnessed over my 17+ year career.      A good integrator will look for your best interest, by covering their own, with good products and manufacturers who back their products and their dealers.

 

INFRASTRUCTURE

The infrastructure for any home automation, control or AV system may be called many things;  prewire, structured cabling system,  “smart wiring”, low voltage wiring, is one of the key components and the underlying infrastructure for all of the other sub-systems you will be controlling in your home.    This is THE key component to your systems longevity, as without a good infrastructure, just like a home’s foundation, you will NOT have a quality, expandable and upgrade-able system.    A few dealers offer a base wiring they install in homes at a low cost to builders, which is minimal at best, but uses Cat5, thus allowing them to state they have a “structured cabling system”.  Other dealers offer packaged prewire systems of  A, B & C, differing in price and quantity of cables in the house.    Still, others will wire for what you are purchasing at the time you close the contract with them, maybe a little more.     I feel all of these approaches have flaws.   First off, getting  a packaged wiring system assumes  a lot of unknowns and limits you down the line, for any upgrades to whatever wiring is in the walls.    If you don’t wire for it, you can’t get it.  Our approach, and most high-end integrator approach is to wire for any and everything we can and do sell, in the appropriate locations for each home.    So, we will wire for things like speakers in the laundry room and other areas in which you didn’t purchase speakers, because you nor we know what you might want in the future.    It cost little more to run more cabling when the house is opened up and being wired already.   The typical industry standard for prewire is between $1-2/sq foot, more for smaller homes (<3000 sq ft) and less for larger homes (>10k sq ft).   This seems counter-intuitive  but makes sense when you consider a larger home may have the same number of rooms as a smaller one, thus requiring more cable lengths  but not more locations of cables throughout the home.     A smaller home has the same issue, same number of rooms, but only slightly less cable.   Regardless, we typically run between 100-200 drops (locations of a cable run to each room) per home to facilitate integrating things like audio/video, garage doors, fireplaces, pools/spas, boat lifts, gates, and future upgrades and additions, if the home indicates it can or might have these features.   Thus, the wiring is in place, even when a client from 2002 call us and wants to add speakers to the laundry room.
An experienced integrator will know what to wire for in your home, based on your discussions with them, your home plans and design and what your functional needs may be.

 

Next time we’ll focus on the remaining 4 components of a quality integrated system.

How to choose the right Smart Home System – Part 3

January 30, 2014

PROFESSIONAL CUSTOM SYSTEMS

This is part 3 of a 3 part series on how to choose the right Smart Home System for your home.   Parts 1 and Parts 2 can be found on the side bar or click the links.

The highest end and most prevalent systems available now are the professionally installed control processor based systems.  These systems are usually the most robust, most expandable, most reliable and long lived systems available.  As with anything in life, you get what you pay for.  These are professionally installed and programmed and work very well, almost bullet proof, when done correctly.   Old horror stories of systems that never worked or are problematic are systems that were improperly designed and programmed, so do your homework on your dealer/integrator.

These systems are typically installed in a new home while it is being built, due to wiring needs for audio and video, but these systems can also be retrofitted into an existing home and offer reliable wireless alternatives for just this purpose.   While a security based system can do a fair amount of automation, once it is obsolete, there is no upgrading without replacing the panel or main system, and usually all the components as well.  Since security systems are a commodity, for all intents and purposes, they are not built for expanding and upgrading, just to get in the door.   Thus, they have limited lifespans with respect to automation as they can’t be upgraded, not true for automation based security panels like HAI/Leviton panels.   A control processor based system typically can communicate with multiple protocols (Wifi, Zwave, RS232, Ethernet, RF, etc) and thus can “talk” to mutliple 3rd party devices.

Custom installed systems are also typically designed for 10-20 year lifespans, meaning they are built to upgrade, expand and last for decades, allowing for adding new functions, features and products over time.  These systems are sold design/installed systems and can run between $5000-100,000 and more, depending on the complexity and number of devices in the home.   The best systems include both audio and video distribution and will work with HD, HDMI, 3D and Ultra-HD systems.  These are usually the only systems that allow for complete whole house audio and video distribution.  These are systems like Crestron, ELAN, AMX, Control4, Savant (Apple based), and others who offer the whole house system and controls via touchpanels, control systems, amplifiers, video switching, lighting, shades, drapes, door locks, garage doors, gates, pools/spas, waterfalls/features and just about anything you want to control.  Best of all, almost all of these systems are American owned &  manufactured and support large numbers of employees, right here in the USA.

Programming and cost

Most custom integration (smart home) companies charge a programming fee, which can be from 5-20% of the total cost of the system.  There is also installation and design, which you are paying for one way or the other, but is often included in programming or other cost.   If you have a relatively small, simple system, it is not a problem to program most DIY systems yourself.  If you have a large more complex system, that involves 3rd party devices such as gates, pools/spas, many loads of lighting, etc, then configuring and programming these systems can be exponentially more complex and often require not just the knowledge of a software programmer but also the experience of someone who has installed, setup and programmed a complex system in the past.

With respect to cost, the cost are actually relatively similar, relative to components and parts and pieces, between most systems.  As with most things, there is a price difference between different quality products, so the least expensive products will probably provide the least amount of features and lowest quality, while more cost typically means more features, better quality and longer warranties.  Quantity is usually the driving factor in the overall cost of a complete system, which totals out from number of light switches, audio zones, video zones, thermostats, etc., all of which contribute to the cost of a system.   For example, 10 lights switches at $75/each vs 100 switches at $75/each can make a large difference in price, a $750 or a $7500 lighting system.  A “smart” light switch from the cheapest system may be $45 each, but those don’t dim or fade up and down, only on and off and don’t offer scene controls.   While a high-end switch might be $110 or more each, but includes scene controls, dimming and fading, works with LEDs or low voltage lights (more common these days) regardless of who makes it, and you can install and unlimited number of them.   A thermostat may be as little as $250, but only integrates with an app, or a high-end integrated thermostat might be $550, but integrate into any system.    Finally, the processors can be from a $100 hub up to a $3000 Linux or other custom OS based processing system, the latter being much more programmable and customizable.  Again, if cost is a concern, consider, you only have 1 processor typically, so skimping on cost there doesn’t seem like the best course of action.  Since device quantities make the largest impact, that is where you can save money upfront, even leaving room to upgrade later.  A basic DIY system may offer 10 switches, a hub and thermostat, but maxes out at 20 switches more, so you can not add much else to that system.  If that is sufficient for you, that is great, but be aware of the limitations of the systems available.   A custom system offers the ability to add almost any device, from any manufacturer, at a later date, even years or decades down the line.

So, price usually follows functionality and expandability.  The more features and expansion you can have, typically the more the system will cost.    I hope this has helped in clearing up some of the differences between these systems and assist you in making your decision on which type of system is best for you, your family and your home.

Good luck in your home automation research and endeavors.  If you need a professional opinion, design or a system, don’t hesitate to contact us directly and get a free consultation related to your home system and needs.

How to choose the right smart home system – Part 2

January 20, 2014

This continues our previous discussion on “how to choose the right smart home system for you“.   Last time we reviewed a little history of home automation and the various, new to market, DIY systems available today and why you might choose to go that route.  This time, we will focus on the 3 remaining types of systems available; Telco/CableCo marketed systems, security panel based systems, and professionally installed custom systems.

TELCO Systems

Second, in our list of the main types of today’s smart home systems, are the starter systems recently advertised by the likes of AT&T, Verizon and Comcast.  These are quite similar to the DIY systems, in that they are often basic systems, offering a limited quantity, quality and type of devices that can be integrated.    Typically, the Telco technicians will NOT be installing high voltage devices (light switches, etc).  The Telcos CAN install door locks, thermostats (in some cases) and lamp modules (that simply plug into the wall outlet) and then do the setup to get things working, on top of a security system.   Systems such as these offer some integrated controls such as an app control of a thermostat, doorlock and a set number of lights.  You most likely won’t get audio and video distribution from these systems.  These systems may also have the option for cameras and CCTV that you can view on a tablet or smart phone as well.  Not much more is known about these systems, as they are being rolled out in select cities and are not yet currently in our area.

With respect to cost, typically there is an installation fee (sometimes this is waived for basic installations), there is a cost to the products and then there is usually an ongoing monthly fee.   These systems usually involve paying a monthly service for these systems, as opposed to purchasing them outright.  Additionally, to early terminate a contract you may have to then pay a penalty for the equipment.  We will see how this model fits the smart home business, but with all the recent hype, we will surely see, soon enough.  Fees for these systems start from $29/mo to $100′s/mo (averages we’ve seen are around $50+/mo).  You can find more about these system from ADT, AT&T, Comcast and Verizon but they are similar, if not the same as some of the systems mentioned in my last article.  As one caveat to contract based systems, I’ll point to a recent story that broke to some major news outlets that one might want to consider before purchasing one of these systems.  A Protection Racket.

SECURITY BASED SYSTEMS

Next up are the security panel home automation systems.   These are usually installed when your home is being built and sold by your builder or the security contractor, directly to you.  These systems can be as basic as just an alarm system to an app that lets you arm/disarm your home to a system that controls some lights, HVAC, and door locks.  Many newer security based systems can also be retrofitted and some are completely wireless, so don’t have to be installed in a new home any longer.  These include many systems from Ademco to HAI/Leviton which are security systems that can also control some lights, HVAC, turn on TVs and such and give you remote access to the system.

Most of these systems also do NOT include distributed audio and video, but offer all of the aforementioned bells and whistles, plus a full home security system.  Whole house audio (sound in different rooms) or whole house video (watching video around the house from the same source) aren’t typically part of these systems, but can be added to them.  Some security companies will offer to install 3rd party audio systems such as Sonance, Niles, Russound and other audio distribution manufacturers and add stand-alone keypads in certain rooms for audio control only, but these are usually not integrated with the security system.   One could also use some of the newer Sono’s and other wireless audio systems to include some basic whole house audio with these systems, but it won’t be integrated either.

Security systems do offer a lot of inherent capabilities to a home control or smart home system in that they are based on sensing things.  So you can tell your system to monitor the front door opening and closing, people moving in a certain area or whether the system is armed away (no one is home) or disarmed (people are home) and all of these can trigger events that result in the control system causing things to happen, such as arming the security in Away mode, turns off all the lights, turns the HVAC off or sets it back and turns locks any integrated door locks around the house.

You’ll probably end up with several apps to control your home with this method, something we advise against, as you can read about here.   But companies are getting better at integrating more different products, so this should improve over time.  Similar to the Telco systems, these can be sold as monthly services or as installed systems, often times both.   So you might spend $500-5000+ on the starter system and $20-$50/month on the monitoring and services.  These will be sold and installed typically by your local security contractor and include offerings by a few home automation rated security panels, some more advanced than others (many such as Ademco, HAI, Leviton to name a few).

Next time, we’ll explore the final type of system, and the most common source of today’s systems, the professionally installed custom system.   Until then, happy shopping.

If you have immediate questions or needs, please don’t hesitate to contact our offices.  Thank you for reading.

How to choose the right Smart Home system for your house?

January 14, 2014

So, after CES 2014 and the introduction of a variety of new systems this year, what does the future look like for home automation.  Good! For starters.  A broad offering of products insures that the connected home will expand into all demographics.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF

A little history.  Many don’t realize the smart home industry is relatively mature, or at least in the late teens, in so far as reliable systems, robustness and the number of available systems on the market, is concerned.  There are 15-20 year old systems currently in homes, that function as expected today, with more being installed every day.  There are well established and reliable manufacturers on the market that have professionally installed custom built systems available and working for over 30+ years.

Companies such as Crestron, AMX, Leviton Automation (Formerly HAI), Lutron and others have been selling systems and products for well over 20 or even 30+ years and are known for being reliable, well built and long lasting.  Some of these companies have emerged better than others over the years, and others, have come and gone, during that same time.

Some newcomers to the professionally installed market are Control4 and Savant, who seem to be fairing well and their systems reliable, though it is common knowledge that Control4 has yet to make a profit and is now a public company, which in my opinion is one of the many reasons AMX hasn’t done so well in the home automation market in several years (shareholder interference).

If you buy a system and the manufacturer either switches up the technologies due to shareholder feedback (not backwards compatible) or goes belly up, you, as the end user are pretty much stuck with what you have.  So that is something to really consider when researching a professionally installed system, or purchasing any systems, in today’s market.   Cheap might seem great at first, but when the manufacturer goes out of business, that savings is typically now garbage.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR

The trick in a growing and changing technology driven industry like the home automation industry, is to do your homework and understand the various products and systems available, not only what they can do for you, but more importantly, what they cannot.   If a system cannot meet a specific need and you spend X on it, you’ve basically wasted your money.

There are so many devices and systems on the market now that one of the main things to consider is what overall type of system is right for you.   There is DIY, the Telco systems (Comcast, AT&T, Etc),  the security company based system and finally the professionally installed custom systems.  There are a few questions to consider here in just determining where to start.

For starters, consider things like, are you renting, do you own the home, how big will your system be, how many devices will you control? These both consider whether a permanent installation is applicable and how much you might want to spend on it.   Are your home automation needs known, already perceived or are you unsure of what it can help you with? Do you simply want to know the front door is locked and the security is armed? Or do you want all of the lights and TVs to turn off and the HVAC to set back 10 degrees, when you arm the security? Do you have a few lights you want to integrate or many?

Do you want to research the products and systems or have a consultant or professional do that for you?  Is this something you want to program and configure yourself, typically meaning less automation and simpler controls, or something you want a professional to program and install, with more automation and almost limitless controls and expansion available?   Do you want only thermostats and security controls mainly and some lighting or are you looking for whole house audio, video and lighting as well as drapes/shades and more?

Most security and DIY based systems do not offer audio/video integration or distribution, meaning entertainment is not really a component of these systems.   Audio and Video switching and integration can add considerable cost to any system as it requires amplifiers and distribution switchers to make them work.

DO IT YOURSELF/DIY SYSTEMS

First up, are the Do It Yourself/DIY systems.   You pick these up from a store such as Lowes or Staples and install and configure yourself.  One thing to consider with the DIY devices is the reliability will often be the lowest of any products or systems on the market, they have caps on quantities, and they typically only work with the systems they were sold to work with.  The Tech support will be limited too, as there are probably multiple components to these systems including a router or hub, your own network, internet connection, various products made from various manufacturers and getting them to all work together in a DIY fashion can be frustrating, as best.  However, they are “designed” and marketed to be relatively easy to install, setup and use when used according to manufacturers specs.

Typically, these systems will be limited to a specific suite of products and devices that are known to work well together and within certain environments.  These systems are usually designed for the small home or system and limit how many things you can control or integrate.  You may only be able to install a max of 10 or 20 light switches, total.  Or it will only work with 1 thermostat or 2, and you may need 3.  You should insure you know how expandable any of these systems are.  What are it’s limits?

Staples and Lowes are both currently offering DIY systems you can purchase right off the shelf and install yourself.   These often come with a “brain”, hub, central controller or some main control system.  They usually bundle a lamp or appliance module or switch(es) with the system so you can start out with something simple.  Generally, simpler systems cost less, offer less and have fewer expansion options.  Additionally, most of these systems have caps or limits to them, so you might be able to do 20-25 light switches total, but no more, or 2 thermostats, but not 3,  as these are limited processors and systems and cannot handle the heavier loading.  Typically these systems start at around $300 or so and can go up to thousands with adding devices.

If your needs are simple, you can install and set things up yourself and you want to keep the cost really low, you might start out with a DIY system.   A few of which are listed in this review from the TheNextWeb.com   http://thenextweb.com/gadgets/2014/01/10/smart-home-system-best-suited/ .  Some others that come to mind are the WeMo system from Belkin, who has a variety of system and components available, and iRule, which is an app to control multiple systems and devices that are all networkable.

You can also find these systems online in many outlets, including;  Smarthome.com, Leviton.comHomeControls.com, WeMO (Belkin), too name a few, plus many others.

Next time we’ll review the next few tiers of automation.  The Telco/Cable Co systems, the security panel based systems and the professionally installed custom control systems.

Until then, happy automating!

CES 2014 – Trends To Watch

January 6, 2014

I’ve been attending CES for more than a decade now and it’s one of my favorite events.   Not only do you see the latest and greatest technologies, but you also see a great slew of speakers (this year Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, is one of the many coveted speakers), see tons of star quality (last year, I got to meet Wil I Am and sat at a dinner next to Kelly Lebrock – more from my time, but hey) and network with some of the best minds in technology.

Technology at CES means almost all technology related to consumers, from home audio and video, to smart homes and automotive technology to digital health and wearable technology to a ton of one-off gadgets being debuted at CES by a huge variety of emerging entrepreneurs.   For my 2012 outlook, go here, to see past predictions and failures.

This year, I am looking at what is happening in 3 trending areas; Cheaper Ultra HD/4K TVs, Connected Home Technology and Automotive Technologies.   Ultra HD, or generically 4K, really debuted last year, and though they look awesome and we’ve sold and installed a few, the price is still a sticking point for many.  Ultra HD is 4X more pixels/resolution than what your normal HD picture provides, a really stunning picture.  This year looks to get Ultra HD into the mainstream as HD did years ago.  I suspect the switch over from HD to Ultra HD won’t be as quick as the switch-over from analog to HD, but should take effect over the next few years, especially as more content becomes available.   Ultra HD is a truly remarkable picture and not something that is going to fade away or not become mainstream like 3D. didn’t.  4K and 8K projectors have been widely used in movie theaters for years and is set to become the nest standard for video production.

Having been designing and installing smart home and building automation systems for over 18 years, this is my favorite area of the show to focus on.  With the recent entrance of the telco and cable companies entering the playground of integrated homes and less expensive and more reliable wireless technologies come into wide use, this looks to really explode the “connected device” industry over the next decade or so.   I personally don’t think these companies are setup to best serve the interest of the consumer when it comes to smart home systems, but it will serve to better expose the market that even after maturing over the past 20+ years, is still seen by many is “new” or at best in it’s adolescence.   The real deal in this area is new consumer ready technologies, which won’t really make your home “smart” but can add some control and comfort aspects without too much cost.   Things like connected devices for thermostats, lights, door locks and more will become less costly and more common, thus promoting the technologies and industry as a whole.   These devices typically connect directly to a hub/router or access point of some type, allowing you to access them directly via a smart phone or tablet.   There is a caveat here, each of these simple devices typically only has one way to interface (an app on a smart phone for instance), thus they aren’t really integrated, just controlled.  Furthermore, each device or system usually requires it’s own app, meaning you have 5 apps to control your house (one for lights, garage door, front door, thermostat, etc).   This is kind of like having 5 remotes to control your TV, 2 steps forward, 3 steps back, think universal remotes.  See my previous article here on how an app “should” control your home for our views on tablet based app interfaces.

However, these devices do allow for more of the mass market to test out and DIY some minor automation in their homes, thus forwarding the technology and availability of automation.  For a true smart home though, most systems require a single central brain or controller, to which all devices  (light switches, thermostats, etc) and interfaces (touchscreens, remotes, tablets)  connect to, which then in-turn, directs all the various controls to act and react to various inputs and events around the house.    These typically still require a good design and professional installation, but more and more DIY and user installed devices are becoming available and we’ll report back after the show and update you to let you know what we saw.  We are still not sure how “the Cloud” is going to be utilized in the smart home arena, as no matter what, it seem you still need to install the devices like light switches, thermostats, door locks, etc., in the house itself, so putting the control outside of a home seems counterproductive.  If the house isn’t connected to the internet, for whatever reason you wouldn’t be able to control it.  Furthermore, if the house isn’t connected to the internet, you cannot remotely control it, so what is the point of having a cloud based system for that.  Most of our systems have been internet enabled since the houses we’ve installed in had internet access.  Many don’t realize, smart home systems have been remotely accessible and controllable since the internet was available.  The internet should not have to be online to use your home system, especially while at home.   Never say never, but I am still trying to figure out exactly why I, or my customers, would want a decentralized, cloud based home control system.   Maybe we will see something this year that changes my opinion on this.

With respect to automotive technologies, this should be a big year for the connected vehicle.   Audi and others are revealing some new in-car technologies and this should be the year for the connected car, meaning in-car internet and other services. I don’t think this means you will be able to surf the internet,  but rather access services like Pandora, Spotify and other music services, not to mention better in-car GPS with more live fed data such as traffic flow, gas prices and more.   In addition, I expect to see a little more on the hyrbid and electric vehicles, but not as much as prior years.
I’m excited not only to see these latest trends and technologies, but also to attend some great events including the CEA Mark of Excellence Awards, which are the “Oscars” of our industry and of which we are honored to be past recipients.   I’ll attend the Leaders In Technology Dinner at the Wynn, honoring those who have pioneered major technology initiatives in the past 20 years and a few other cool events like the Women of CE.  Finally, I’ll be meeting up with many of the great people who make up our industry, from CEOs and owners of small and large companies, to manufacturers and some of the smartest folks in the industry.   CES 2014 should be a great event.   We’ll update you next month on what the hot items at the show were.  Stay tuned!

FulTech wins Crestron’s Integration Award for “Biggest Baddest Home”

FulTech wins Crestron's Integration Award for "Biggest Baddest Home"

Holiday Tech Gifts

December 16, 2014

Since it is the holidays and gifts are top of mind, we figured we’d put together a list of the top 5 technology related gifts for 2013 that our staff at FulTech found appealing.

For starters, since health is always top of mind, at least around Jan 1, fitness sensors and data devices are always a big hit. Our favorite this year, is the FitBit Force, which cost around $139 and offers several great new features including Android App based feedback, calorie counting, sleep activity detection and more. The runner up is the Nike FuelBand SE, which cost about $20 more, offers more social features, but not as much in the way of features. You can read more reviews here at Engadget’s website

Next up, is the newest thing in home automation; door locks. These come in a variety of flavors, all of which you can read an excellent review about in Electronic House magazine here. These locks come in Zigbee, Zwave, NFC, Touch, RFID, WiFi, TCP/IP and more ways to communicate than you can shake a stick at. So, you should be able to find something you like and these offer a lot for the money, including auto locking after 1 minute, remote locking via an app, email when kids arrive or leave and much more. Ranging from $200-750, these are also reasonably priced for most homeowners. Not all are DIY, some require an automation system, but these are the ones with the most to offer.

NFC or Near Field Communications. This is actually a service/protocol that is built into most new Android phones whereby placing the phone near a NFC tag, can make the phone do just about anything you want to program it for. This is a little more than DIY, but can really take an existing home automation system to the next level. For instance, simply placing your phone near the door lock can unlock your front door, turn on some lights, and even adjust the HVAC. Or placing your phone near a touchscreen or keypad can turn on your theater room Movie Mode, turning down lights, closing shades and turning on your theater to the BluRay.  The possibilities are really endless here, just imagine it and you can pretty much make it happen.

And old device with some cool new upgrades makes it back onto our list of gifts. The SlingBox 500 is packed with features and allows you to watch all your TVs shows at home, from anywhere in the world. A truly cool device that we’ve setup for clients second homes for years. With no monthly fees and relatively simple hookup, this is a great device for those who travel and want to keep up with their TV shows, though a little pricey at $300.   Here’s a good review from CNET.

And finally, for those without a butler or, for that matter, window washer, you can purchase the Automated Window washing system from EcoVac and leave your window cleaning to a robot. This unit literally sucks itself to your window and cleans away, with solution, squeegee and everything normally used to clean a window. At around $399, it’s not a bad buy. Check it out here at EcoVac.

From the FulTech team, we hope everyone has a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah and Happy Holidays this year and best wishes and many blessings for 2014.  Enjoy your families and friends and have a safe and happy holiday season.

Setting up your HDMI system – Part 2

Part 2 – How To setup a basic HDMI Theater Room

So, we’ve established the Analog sunset is well under way, so you may as well start the process.  Simply purchasing a new TV (most have only HDMI inputs with one analog input for your older stuff) will update your display to digital, but what if most of your sources are still analog.  Most new TVs come with at most 2, and primarily one analog input.  All the other inputs are now HDMI.    For most cable and satellite subscribers, most of those receivers have both outputs on the boxes (digital – HDMI and analog – composite and component video inputs).  What typically occurs is you cannot use both the HDMI and analog outputs.  If you plug something into the HDMI output, the analog outputs cease to function (no longer output a picture).  So you really have to make a decision on which way to go.  As you can see from the above rant, that decision has pretty much been made for you.  You are going digital, within a few years, no matter what we all want.

The new lineup of  Smart TVs from most manufacturers have almost all HDMI inputs now.  Some have a single slot you can use for either composite or component and a few models have 1 of each.  This still only gives you 1 of each.  So, if you have your Wii (which only has composite video)  and an older DVD player/VCR whatever, that is composite as well, you’ve got to choose which one to plug into the TV.  A “pro” side of most of these TVs is they have built in WiFi or wired networking and thousands of “apps” already available from manufacturers like Samsung.   Simply get your TV connected to your internet and start watching Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Pandora and more.     However, you are limited to listening to this on the TV in the one room, which can tax your home network with only a single download stream, much less 2 or more TVs or BluRay’s downloading videos.  This also limits you somewhat, but there are solutions, as you will see below.

HDMI has limitations as mentioned above.  First, it ONLY works with HDMI compliant, digital signals from compatible devices (which will be anything produced pretty much from here on out).  Next, there is a 50 foot limitation on how far the signal can go.  This is 50 linear feet, not as the crow flies, so how far up the wall, along the floor, up the cabinet and to the source is the complete distance that needs to be measured.    Some cables are made longer and occasionally you can “get away with” pushing it a little longer, but most often not.   This limits where you can place the sources and how far from the display they can be.   Another things is the cables themselves.  They cannot be “field” made, so they must be purchased in select lengths, which limits where you can place them and when.   They are typically more costly than analog cables were, but are dropping in price, quickly.   It is not necessary to buy the most expensive HDMI cables, as the technology itself prevents most problems, but I would not purchase the cheapest cables either, as quality simply cannot be trusted then.   You must plan things more efficiently than with older analog cables.  Also, HDMI devices include a “key” feature, mentioned above, meaning you can’t simply plug it into any switcher and watch it on more than one TV, as this is implicitly deterred.  You can use video balluns (small devices that convert HDMI to transmit over Cat5) to push the distance, but this doesn’t solve the other problems and can produce something called “sparkling” where you lose pixels and basically see “sparkles” or spots all over your picture.  These are pixels that are missing data or information, as it was somehow dropped along the way.

For your basic do it yourself system, to start with, unless doing a distributed A/V system (more on that next time) place your sources close to your TV set.  Typically just below it is the best place (within 50′ again).  Most flat screens these days are hung on a wall or are on a low stand of some type.    You’ll need to plan on running a few cables.  Typically an HDMI  or two to the TV.    If you only have 1 source, say your cable or satellite box, then simply plug it in, and you are good to go, as both audio and video signals are sent to the TV on the one HDMI cable.  For more than 1 source (say a satellite box and a BluRay player), you’ll need to either run multiple HDMI cables to the TV and plug each source into one and switch the TV to each source via the built TV inputs (HMDI 1, HDMI 2, etc) or get an HDMI switcher or AV Surround processor to handle the source/input switching.  More on that below.

There is an oft overlook consideration here, though.  If you are getting the best picture you can get (1080p HD) don’t you also want the best sound you can get.   You aren’t going to get that with the TV speakers.  So now you have a few options.   First off, you can go with a simple sound bar speaker system.  These are LCR (left, center and right) speakers into a single speaker bar, about as wide as a 42″ flat screen.  They use the TV’s audio output and get the sound directly from the TV via an optical or digital coaxial connection (thin single wire).   The easiest thing is to plug your TV’s audio output directly into the speakers input and hang/place the speaker directly under your TV.  This provides pretty good sound and most of these include a wireless subwoofer for your bass sounds, which really makes your system sing.

A quality 3 channel (actual left, center and right speakers) sound bar will run from $500-750 (Dec 2012) and up at present, but there are cheaper solutions available.    These are typically powered/amplified/switching sound bar speakers.  These provide a little more oomph to the sound, allow for switching inputs on the speaker itself and also have a subwoofer.  These require 110 power typically, in addition to an audio feed from the TV (optical or coaxial, usually).

The final and best sounding, most expandable, yet more complex method, is to install a surround AV processor.   This gives you an actual 5.1 (5 speakers, front left, center and right and rear right and left,  and a subwoofer) or 7.2 (add 2 mid surround speakers and another sub-woofer) and multiple audio settings from equalization to various sound technologies such as Dobly, DD, THX and more.   This significantly enhances your audio and video experience.   You then plug all of your sources, video (cable, satellite, BluRay, etc) and audio (Sono’s, iPod, etc) into the surround system and then a single HDMI cables goes from there to your TV/display and handles all the switching internally.  This also splits the audio out of the HDMI and out into the appropriate speakers to produce that true surround experience of the plane flying around your head and the crash shaking your viewing room.

Next time we’ll consider how an integrated,  distributed Audio and digital video system will significantly improve your experience and availability to use sources on more TVs and much easier control,  as technology companies pump out even more sources of digital entertainment and 4k/Ultra HD content and sources.

Be sure and checkout our daily technology newsletter, the FulTech Wire here…

http://paper.li/fultech/1353560380

 

HDMI and the future of your home theater

By Dan Fulmer, CEO, FulTech Solutions, Inc.

 

We often get customers looking to add the newest BluRay or Smart TV to their home theater or home automation/smart home system.   With the holidays and shopping season well under way, whether installing a new system or upgrading an older system, there are some details to consider here.

To start, lets do a brief review of analog and digital signals.    Next week we’ll look into the how to of setting it up.

Analog signals are what most of our TVs have received for the past 50+ years.   Whether via rabbit ears, a cable plugged into the back or via the satellite box plugged into the back of your TV via the Coaxial input.   Then you also have composite video (the yellow cable) which gives a complete video signal over 1 wire, at 480p resolution.    Next up in quality is Component video inputs (Green, Red, Blue) that take the 3 main color signals over 3 wires.   This gets you up to a 1080i analog picture, depending on the source and scaling.    There is also S-video, but is rarely used in the residential “world” and is pretty much relegated to some existing commercial installations at this point.  On the audio side, you have your good ole analog audio L+R (white and red) pre-amp outputs.    Those are all analog signals, regardless of what the source is, they are going away.    Though the DirecTV receiver is completely digital, if you are using the ANALOG (composite or component) outputs from that receiver, you are sending analog video to your television.  At this point, the only true, completely legal, compatible DIGITAL signal on the market is via HDMI.  HDMI delivers 1080P video and can also deliver 3D, Deep Color (which is being used now) and 4K now known officially as Ultra HD (more on this advancement in a future blog), over a single cable (made up of many little wires actually, around 19 or so).  On the audio side of the digital realm, which can be done over the HDMI as well, you also have optical or Tosslink audio and Digital coaxial audio.  Both single cable and digital capable formats.

HDMI is a fairly complex technology, but simple to use when applied according to its specifications.  It isn’t just a single cable that sends audio and video.  It does much more than we can discuss in this blog, but suffice to say it handles not only video and audio, but also CEC (control), EDID (display/resolution information),  HDCP (security and encryption), and much more.  One of the main functions is to insure that an HDMI compliant device is not connected to a non-compliant or recording device, so you are unable to distribute this to others.  Another function is to insure “keys” are managed so viewing on multiple displays is limited. Keys are something (not physical, but logical – think software) that are allocated to a source (cable box, satellite box, DVD player, etc).   If a device has 1 key, it can only be viewed on 1 single display.  if the HDMI senses you have more than 1 TV or display, it will turn off the HDMI output and you will no longer get a picture.    Device keys are “loaded” by manufacturers at this time and is something that needs to be checked when purchasing equipment for a distributed system, too few keys means your source can’t distribute.   In addition, HDMI distribution is quite difficult at this time due to compliance issues.  As the above example illustrates, even if I have a large HDMI switch, with multiple sources and displays, if the source only has 1 key, it will still only be viewable on a single display, or the HDMI output will stop working.

Another new limitation on HDMI is its attenuation on the cable.  It basically loses signal power along the wire and starts to have issues at around 50 linear feet (not very far at all for a cable).  Finally, there is an inherent lag between devices “showing up” on the screen when switching between them.   For Analog devices this was on the order of milliseconds, now it is 5-15 seconds or more from the time you switch the TV or receiver to a different source, before it will show up on the display.   So, you can see, this technology creates some real limitations to doing what we’ve all done for years with our video and audio, distribute them around our homes.  Less than a handful of companies have conquered, and still remain fully legal and compliant with HDMI.   One of them is Crestron’s Digital Media or DM system, which manages and handles all aspects of HDMI, from EDID to key management, and in full compliance of the laws and regulations.  Extron and others are also coming out with similar systems, but check to see that some of the lesser known brands are fully compliant, or your system might just stop working with the next HDMI upgrade or device you buy.

This was all written into law, heavily lobbied by the MPAA and RIAA (same folks that sued you when you download songs from Napster).   Thus, after 2013, basically you cannot buy or install any analog sources.   At that time, manufacturers also have the right to turn off the analog outputs on equipment you already own.   This can be done via various methods, software updates via the internet, updates via a rented DVD or other disc, software updates via downloading or renting a movie.   Not saying this will happen, but it’s available to them.    So, after 2013, basically you will need to update most of your system.  The sunset may be extended somewhat and you may get a couple more years out of older equipment using converters and such, but the end of analog is nigh.

Next time we’ll consider how to setup your HDMI system with single source, multiple sources, TV sound vs  surround sound options.   Be sure to check back.

 

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