According to leaders in home automation, the smart home is poised to become more accessible than ever before. As technology advances and major players like Apple and Google step into this market, more consumers are going to start demanding products that can integrate and function in a smart home system. And as consumers start to expect more from their HVAC equipment, they’ll also expect more from their contractor.

An Evolving Market

According to Bill Alderson, director of marketing, Rheem Mfg. Co.: “Home automation has been around a long time, but now you have mega players stepping in like Google, Apple, AT&T, and Comcast. In the past, you needed to be a real computer nerd to set up home automation, but now it’s becoming very simple for anybody to do. So that barrier of entry for the consumer is much lower than it used to be, but it creates a much broader level of complexity for the HVAC contractor.”

Part of the reason for that complexity is that there are multiple ways smart home products communicate and function. Current wireless communication options include Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, ZigBee, Z-Wave, and other proprietary protocols — and more are on the way. In June, Apple announced its intent to enter this market with a new home automation framework for its iOS 8 operating system. And, in July, an industry consortium called the Thread Group announced it is developing a new wireless protocol to connect products in the home.

While some are concerned the quantity of protocols is hampering the emergence of the smart home, others believe the market is progressing in spite of — or even because of — the multitude of technologies.

“Without a clear wireless technology leader, manufacturers of home automation products end up either betting on one horse or placing bets on all contenders,” said Craig Johnson, president of residential retail at Emerson Climate Technologies Inc. “Without an application standard, interoperability between devices in the same market segments is still on the distant horizon. As a result, the market is still very fragmented with the ‘see how many manufacturers we have on our network’ approach to home automation.”

Yet, this has not prevented the home automation market from making great advances, according to Matt McGovren, head of marketing, Wink Inc.

“There’s been a ton of progress in the industry in the last decade, especially in the last couple of years,” McGovren said, explaining Wink’s philosophy is to work with leading brands that are launching home automation products, and then make their smart products accessible from a single app.

“We work with many leading brands around the home and bring them all together in one app so [the homeowner] can control everything in one place,” he explained, noting that in the category of HVAC equipment and thermostats, Wink has established relationships with Honeywell, Rheem, and Nest.

McGovren continued: “A core principle for us is choice. We want to work with multiple leading brands so users can pick the brands they’re comfortable with in a given category.”

McGovren also noted that different communication protocols serve different types of products well. Large products, such as HVAC appliances, can use high-powered Wi-Fi to communicate because they aren’t limited by batteries, he said. But other products require lower power technology to communicate, such as battery-powered door locks.

“These products are using ZigBee or Z-Wave, which were designed from the very beginning to use lower power and have strong range,” McGovren said.

Ron Goldberg, content director, Z-Wave Alliance, elaborated on how different protocols are good for different applications. For example, Goldberg said that Wi-Fi is good for streaming media while Bluetooth is good for streaming phone calls. Z-Wave, he explained, is good for home control applications since it has been specifically designed as an interoperable wireless technology that works on a 900-MHz frequency.

“Because it is on a different frequency band [than other technologies that work on a 2.4-GHz frequency], Z-Wave experiences no interference from other wireless devices, which is important to ensure reliability because it’s not affected by wireless traffic jams in the house,” he said.

New Players in Home Automation

As the home automation market continues to evolve, many are excited about what’s coming.

“The most exciting thing happening is the entrance of companies like Apple and Google,” Alderson said. “As Apple, Google, and others roll out these bigger platforms, it will simplify the communication process and allow things to be Internet-enabled.”

At an Apple developer conference in June, Craig Federighi, senior vice president of software engineering at Apple Inc., announced the company intends to roll out HomeKit, which is a framework in iOS 8 for communicating with and controlling connected accessories in a user’s home.

“In addition to being able to control your individual devices in your home, with HomeKit you can group devices into scenes, and then with Siri integration you can say, something like, ‘get ready for bed,’ and be assured that your garage door is closed, your door is locked, the thermostat is lowered, and your lights are dimmed,” Federighi said.

Although Apple has not yet announced a launch date for HomeKit, it has invited developers and manufacturers to begin creating apps and hardware for its application programming interface (API).

Goldberg said Apple’s development of HomeKit is “interesting in that it understands there are already a lot of wireless devices out there using numerous wireless protocols.” He added, “The Z-Wave Alliance welcomes Apple to the home control space,” he said.

Many in the industry have also been buzzing about Google’s entrance into this market since its purchase of Nest earlier this year. And the buzz has been building since Nest and several other large companies announced their plan to develop a new wireless networking protocol for home automation called Thread.

Gene LaNois, general manager of Nest Professional, provided some insight into Nest’s involvement with the Thread Group.

“In discussions with other companies, we realized many of them shared our thoughts about the need for a new and better way to connect products in the home,” he said. Other founding members of the Thread Group include Samsung and Big Ass Fans.

“Unlike many existing technologies or IoT [Internet of Things] approaches, Thread is not an application protocol or a connectivity platform for many types of disparate networks,” LaNois said. “Thread is an IPv6 networking protocol built on open standards and designed for low-power 802.15.4 mesh networks. Existing popular application protocols and IoT platforms can run over Thread networks.”

LaNois added that the Thread protocol is already being used successfully in Nest products today.

Opportunities, Training for Contractors

As consumer awareness of home automation grows, HVAC contractors should find ample opportunities in this market. But there’s a lot for contractors to take in.

“It used to be you just had to go into the house and figure out what HVAC system they had before. Now, you have to go into a house and figure out what home automation system you’re integrating with, so it adds a whole level of knowledge contractors have to gain,” Alderson said. “I really feel like it’s the responsibility of the industry, specifically the manufacturers, to help prepare contractors for this. We’re at the beginning of a major shift, and now’s the time to begin working with them to get ready for that.”

Alderson noted Rheem will be rolling out classes on home automation in spring 2015 to ease the learning curve for contractors, and added that other organizations such as ACCA and RSES are also developing training on this topic.

And, he pointed out, contractors need to seek out hands-on opportunities with home automation products.

“Get out there and play with the products,” he said. “Don’t put that off. The more experience you actually have with the products, the less intimidating they’re going be.”

LaNois also noted that Nest is focused on helping contractors learn about its products.
“We understand how critical being comfortable with the technology is for the business owner and his or her workforce,” he said, which is why the company launched its Nest Pro Tour. “We are visiting major areas from coast to coast in North America, doing live product presentations. The attendance has been incredible, which tells us about the interest and understanding of the trade on just how big the connected home — or ‘thoughtful home,’ as we like to call it — is for them.”

According to Johnson, Emerson Climate Technologies rolled out a new home automation-related business, ComfortGuard, earlier this year, and the company is actively seeking contractors who want to partner in offering this new service to customers. ComfortGuard is a monitoring service that analyzes HVAC system performance and alerts homeowners and contractors of problems. Johnson said Emerson is looking for contractors who are early adopters of technology and are committed to customer service.

Overall, Johnson noted, “Probably the coolest development for the HVAC community in the home automation market is the surge of awareness this has brought to our industry. We have been proclaiming the value of energy savings with respect to HVAC and water heating equipment for more than a decade, but the emergence of the connected home has finally made this something everyone can see, measure, and easily control.”

SIDEBAR: An Experience from the Field

Not long ago, the promise of the smart home seemed unable to deliver a simple, seamless, user-friendly experience. According to Scott Polley, president of Personal Comfort Air Systems in Canton, Georgia, consumers who were interested in home automation in the mid-1990s and early 2000s did not always have the best experiences.

“At the time, customers [in high-end new construction] seemed to want all the latest so-called cutting-edge electronic tech built into the home that they could afford,” he said. Yet, when Polley would get called in to troubleshoot, it was obvious that homeowners were getting burned by systems that weren’t properly integrating all of the home’s components.

“A lot has changed since then, as more and more HVAC OEMs have come out with system controls that can do so much more than before at a fraction of the cost being charged back in the early days of home automation,” he said.

Polley recently started installing products from Rheem’s new EcoNet lineup of furnaces and water heaters, which can be networked to provide homeowners with complete control of their air and water systems. During installation, Polley sets up a hard-wired network within the home between the furnace, water heater, and EcoNet Control Center (which replaces a traditional thermostat).

“The advantage to the customer is having one sleek, attractive control for the HVAC, humidification, dehumidification, and water heating systems,” Polley said, adding that a Wi-Fi option makes it possible for homeowners to access their equipment remotely.

“The apps for smart devices, the Wi-Fi connectivity, and the ability to control tiny motors with the touch of a finger is all exciting,” he said. “We, as contractors, need to keep up with all this new technology and embrace it because all of our future customers — and some of our existing ones — are living the change as it happens day to day.”

Publication date: 12/15/2014

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