Residential Controls / Thermostats / Building Automation Systems

Leading Lessons for Aspiring Home Automation Contractors

Industry Partnerships, Marketing, and Training Necessary for Success

In today’s competitive marketplace, many heating and cooling contracting businesses are performing work outside of the typical HVAC umbrella. Many companies have embraced plumbing and electrical trades, while others are branching out to include solar energy system installations. Another group of contractors are considering the whole house as a system as they delve into home-performance contracting.

And, yet another trending sector might trump all others in growth potential: home automation.

Where to Start

Leading Lessons for Aspiring Home Automation Contractors
Climatic Heating & Cooling, Inc., Middleburg, Va., completed a large residential project in which four Carrier Infinity systems (19 SEER, two-stage heat pumps integrated with 98 percent modulating furnaces, forming hybrid systems) were tied into a complete home automation system through network inteface modules. This connection allows the homeowner to control all 12 zones of heating and cooling in his home from one place.

For HVAC contractors looking to dip their toes into the home automation pool, most naturally start with wireless thermostats. Sonny Swann, vice president, Climatic Heating and Cooling Inc., Middleburg, Va., said his company made its first steps into home automation by installing Internet-integrated thermostats by Honeywell, Carrier, Nest, and Trane.

“We found that these products set us a level above many of our competitors with higher-end clients,” remarked Swann. “With the addition of Trane’s ComfortLink ™ II control, we also started offering other products to our clients like automated door locks and lighting.”

Other contracting companies have done well selling thermostats that can be controlled remotely, too. Tom Beaulieu, president, Bay Area Services Inc., Green Bay, Wis., said “We sell and install remote-capable thermostats on well over half of our replacement furnace and/or a/c replacement sales.” Bay Area Services Inc. also offers remote-capable door locks, cameras, motion detectors, lighting, and appliance control modules.

Beyond Thermostats and Lighting

While some home automation projects may be small and involve only automating one or two systems in the house, others involve mechanizing a number of systems. In the latter cases, HVAC contractors may choose not to tackle the entire job.

Bill Baker, president, Baker & Sons Air Conditioning Inc., Sarasota, Fla., advised HVAC contractors who are considering home automation to stick to the basics.

“Look for projects that include other systems tied into home automation, and don’t be afraid to team with other companies,” he said. “In my experience, I’ve found that it is too expensive to get into the other areas of home automation alone.

“I first started looking at home automation due to one customer’s request. I partnered with a company that does entire home automation (lights, stereo, TV cameras, drapes, door locks, etc.). As it turns out, this turned into a $20,000 job. I took a lot of time researching the costs to get into pure home automation and decided that it was better to form a partnership with this company than invest the thousands of dollars that would be required to bring it in-house.”

Swann agreed, cautioning HVAC contractors that it’s sometimes best to pump the brakes when necessary. “When home automation goes beyond [automated door locks and lighting] I find that usually audio and video aspects are a massive part of it and make up the majority of the expense. In those cases, we help the homeowner and the audio-video contractor on the mechanical side and let them take the overall project lead, since a huge part of the expense and expertise is tied into their specialty.”

He also said that another reason his company has decided not to pursue pure home automation work is the rapid technology changes, which make it difficult to keep up with the latest and greatest in home automation.

Ample Opportunities

Even if a contractor chooses to perform only the mechanical side of a home automation installation, ample opportunities do exist.

John White, owner of Rockwall Controls Co. Inc., Rockwall, Texas, said his company has installed sophisticated control systems for large-sized homes, particularly with geothermal HVAC applications. They’ve found some success in “scaling down our commercial variable-volume control systems to make them somewhat more cost effective for our [residential] customers.” One of Rockwall’s current projects is for a tech-savvy resident who is building a new home. White said everything in the house, which has been under construction for seven years, is green. “We manage HVAC in three buildings, providing numerous control features consistent with the property,” he said. “Our automation system also manages a rainwater cistern, part of the irrigation, and swimming pool temperature control. One building features a hot-yoga studio.

“Special [project] features include energy measurement between the geothermal field, respective HVAC units, HVAC desuperheaters, domestic hot water, and pool heating equipment.”

The homeowner, who travels a lot, wants to be able to monitor the home’s performance and make adjustments before returning, so “the system includes a Web server that ports out a graphical user interface to desktop or portable computers, as well as a smartphone app,” said White.

Training and Marketing

Training technicians to do home automation work is very important for HVAC contractors, as is any level of HVAC training.

Swann said that when a contractor is weighing the decision of whether or not to add home automation, it should consider what its “team of technicians is able to implement and support.”

He said that while Climatic Heating and Cooling Inc. has higher-level technicians, the contractor still had its techs attend a number of classes taught by different HVAC manufacturers. The company also encouraged techs to use the products themselves, even in some cases providing employees with the products, so they could gain first-hand experience.

Baker said his company chose to offer the Honeywell line of thermostats and accessories partly due to their Honeywell rep’s willingness to provide in-house training for the company’s service technicians.

Marketing a new service is an important part to landing home automation projects. Beaulieu found it wasn’t as easy as he thought it would be to get home automation projects, and said it takes some time to establish yourself in that area. “It’s not something that people will come to you looking for. You need to let your customers know what it is and what is available,” he said.

Baker suggested that contractors create a flyer explaining its advantages for technicians to hand out to customers while they are on a service or maintenance call. One benefit that can come from getting home automation projects is it can help a contractor’s workload. Swann said his company utilizes home automation efforts to occupy unfulfilled time during the slower season.

Fixing the Problem

Whether or not an HVAC contractor elects to pursue home automation work, contractors may still encounter home automation issues. David D. Muñoz, president, Air Star Heating and A/C Inc., San Antonio, said that while he doesn’t do home automation work beyond HVAC equipment, he’s regularly seen HVAC-related home automation problems and predicts the industry will continue to confront problems concerning the compatibility of high-efficiency HVAC equipment with a thermostat offered by a non-HVAC home automation company.

“Some of these [compatibility issues] have to do with each of the [major HVAC equipment] manufacturers making their own specific equipment to communicate with each other. … And when you try to insert a generic communicating thermostat in there, it doesn’t work. A homeowner who’s purchased high-efficiency equipment is no longer getting that [high efficiency].”

He’s also responded to calls where home automation company representatives did not properly match the air conditioning automation with the homeowner’s HVAC equipment. As a result, Muñoz said, they’ve totally messed up brand-new high-efficient equipment.

He cited one incident where “a homeowner had a Carrier Infinity system, which is Carrier’s high-end communicating system, in his house. The homeowner received some literature in the mail from an alarm company that said they can automate everything. So he had them come in and the alarm company put in a new thermostat, along with other things.

“When they [the alarm company] put the new thermostat in there, they burnt out the control board on the outside, and ended up leaving the homeowner without air conditioning over the weekend. They [the alarm company] had no idea how to fix it.”

He said that the homeowner was one of his existing customers, so when he got the phone call he went and took care of it on Monday morning. “It was all because the alarm company attempted to put something on this type of sophisticated system that did not work, and the people that went out there to install it were not educated.”

Muñoz said he’s gained customers by cleaning up the messes created by such alarm companies. He’s also had alarm companies themselves call him to fix problems created after they’ve incorrectly attempted to install a thermostat.

He stressed that HVAC contractors should be the only ones performing home automation HVAC work. “If we, as an air conditioning industry, are trained and constantly educated, and there’s still things we don’t know when it comes to such sophisticated equipment, can you imagine somebody attempting to do our work without the proper training? What are they going to be doing to the equipment? It just doesn’t make sense to hire unqualified individuals to perform this line of work. It doesn’t make sense at all,” said Muñoz.

Publication date: 8/26/2013 

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