FulTECH SOLUTIONS

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.

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Fultech Solutions is performing the services as an independent contractor for JEA, and the performance of these services shall not be deemed to constitute a partnership, joint venture, agency, or fiduciary relationship between JEA and Fultech Solutions. Neither Fultech Solutions nor JEA will be or become liable or bound by any representation, act, or omission of the other.

 

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