Connecting the Home

Connected homes create convenience for homeowners and additional profits for installers

NEARLY 44 years, ago a futuristic cartoon called "The Jetsons" premiered, featuring a family living in a space-age apartment with a robot to perform housework, a nuclear-powered knitting machine, a video phone on a big-screen television, a voice-operated washing machine and a seeing-eye vacuum cleaner, among other advanced amenities.

Today, the vision of an automated home with centralized and truly remote control is a reality. While we may never have a nuclear-powered knitting machine, much of the other technology dreamt up in "The Jetsons" is either here or just around the corner.

Consider these facts: Of the starter homes built in 2005, nearly 50 percent contained structured wiring, meaning they have a network-ready infrastructure -- the backbone of the connected home. For move-up homes, that number grew to nearly 60 percent, and for luxury homes, it exceeded 65 percent. What's more, U.S. households with networks are expected to grow from about 13 million in 2003 to more than 30 million in 2009.

The so-called connected home ties together appliances, heating, air conditioning, computers, security systems, smoke detectors, lighting, home entertainment devices and more. It allows users to control them all via remote control from a phone, over the Internet or at home through wall-mounted keypads or touchscreens, or even portable touchscreens that can be carried throughout the house. A connected home allows all the electronics and systems in a home to work together and gives homeowners access to their house from anywhere on the planet.


A connected home also can be an intelligent home -- one that is wired to take care of itself and alert you to any problems, rather than the other way around. Improving safety and security is a prime concern in a connected home.

A connected home also can be an intelligent home -- one that is wired to take care of itself and alert you to any problems, rather than the other way around. Improving safety and security is a prime concern in a connected home.

Imagine a situation where there is a fire. An intelligent house can shut off the HVAC unit to avoid feeding the flames with oxygen. It also might shut off certain large appliances in the house or even main valves such as the natural gas.

Another more subtle application would be to monitor the presence of devices within the home. Homeowners would certainly like to know if their expensive plasma TV were in the process of being stolen. A connected home could easily generate an alarm the instant a television is unplugged, even if the power is turned off. With appliance theft in the home construction market reaching epidemic proportions, such a system would create a high demand among homebuilders.

The benefits of a connected home to both homeowners and builders are practically limitless. With the right wiring, compatible devices and a little imagination, homes can offer everything from remote security and appliance control, to energy cost savings and plug-and-play computer network and home entertainment functionality.

The return on investment also can be substantial. Intelligent lighting, heating and cooling systems can pay for themselves in just a few years. Experts predict that such smart homes will soon be in high demand and will sell faster than homes without connected technology. What's more, insurance rates may even be reduced with a smart home.

Structured Wiring Opens the Door
The structured wiring system is truly the nerve center of a connected home. It intelligently distributes the communication paths for home video, data, networking, telephone and distributed audio. With a structured wiring system, it's possible to work from home, easily networking printers, scanners and computers. The system even supports multiple incoming phone lines that can be accessed from any room in the house.

What About Wireless?

By now, you may be asking yourself, "What about wireless?" Isn't it only a matter of time before wireless technology replaces the need for this wired infrastructure?

802.11 in any flavor is a great technology, but anyone who has a wireless network knows that the convenience of mobility comes at a price. Reliability, speed, peripheral support, security and cost of connection are some of the prices you pay for mobility. A laptop is the perfect application for wireless and the primary driver for the growth of this technology.

But if you have a home office with a desktop computer, a shared printer or a TIVO system in your entertainment center, you will really benefit from dedicated wires in the wall. In addition, remember that wireless does not mean that there are no wires anywhere. You need to connect that wireless access point to something; sometimes you need more than one.

Having network connections at the right place in the home is one of the keys to creating a good wireless network. Wireless is the perfect complement to a structured wiring network, but it isn't a replacement.

The primary benefit of a wired network using the Ethernet protocol developed for computer networks is bandwidth. Ethernet cable can carry as much data as most households will ever need. There is no question that more and more digital data is becoming available for consumer electronics in the home. HDTV may be leading the revolution, but products like VoIP telephones, TIVO and IPod are just the tip of the iceberg. The key to being able to make the most of these emerging technologies is the high-speed backbone that connects digital content with the products that display it, such as home theater systems, distributed audio systems, the television in the den, and family computers.

So what is the story of the connected home? Structured wiring enables the applications that people want and the services that are delivered to the home. It gives people options.

Today, consumers have choices they never had in the past. In terms of video, they can choose from cable or satellite and easily integrate security cameras, whether they are at the front door or in the nursery. Telephone services also rely on good distribution throughout the house. But the real driver is digital content delivered via broadband Internet services. People want alternate services like VoIP telephones, digital music services, digital photo services and digital content on command. The structured wiring system provides the ultimate vehicle to distribute these services in the home.

Homebuilders have certainly taken note and responded to these new trends, realizing that offering structured wiring generates revenue and sets them apart from their true competition -- existing homes that do not have such technology. As research in the Consumer Electronics Association Builder Study 2005 shows, entertainment applications, such as distributed audio and home theater, are growing dramatically in the new home market, particularly in the move-up and luxury markets.

In terms of profitability, structured wiring provides the opportunity to change the sunk costs of telephones and cable runs into a profit center. All builders must support basic connectivity in a home with a few phone jacks and coax runs to connect video in the house. That is a given, and the builder can't charge extra for them. But builders can generate a profit by selling homeowners the connectivity they desire that isn't available in an existing home.

As builders' awareness and understanding of structured wiring grows, the way product are sold is changing, as well. Most builders rely on low-voltage contractors to install these products, and many have found that these experts are the best people to promote and explain these technologies to the homebuyer.

Many homebuyers are thinking about home offices, home theaters and distributed audio systems, but they plan to purchase them after they move in. Unfortunately, that's too late to put the right wires in the wall. The advantage of wiring up front is that the low-voltage contractors can offer complete solutions to the homebuyers, and in the process of educating the homebuyers, they increase the sales of their products.

At the same time, the homebuyer gets the benefit of a complete solution. Everybody wins.

HomePlug Products Expand Possibilities
So, what if you have an existing home, but want to take advantage of connected convenience? Structured wiring certainly makes sense for brand-new homes coming on the market, but retrofitting existing homes with such wiring is cost-prohibitive. If wireless isn't the answer, what is?

There are numerous technologies in the space between wired and wireless. Home Phoneline Networking Alliance (www.homePNA.org) products use phone lines to network computers in the home, and the Multimedia Over Coax Alliance (www.mocalliance.org) is developing standards to transmit audio/video data over a home's existing coaxial cables.

The HomePlug Powerline Alliance (www.homeplug.org) has a bigger vision to help unify all networking over the powerline. The alliance started with computer networking, but with the addition of HomePlug AV, it has expanded to include distribution of digital media to consumer electronics devices in the home. The technology has been modified to allow the distribution of broadband Internet services over the power line -- HomePlug BPL. The group is in the process of creating a device communication network for low-cost devices in the home. The result will be a complete home network that rivals the performance of dedicated wiring networks.

The wiring that homeowners -- and even renters -- need in order to take advantage of HomePlug products is already in the home. All they need to do is plug in. The first HomePlug 1.0 products were introduced into the market about three years ago. These products initially focused on computer networking applications within the home.

Safety and security products can be simply and economically installed in existing homes to protect families from fire and theft. Energy management solutions will save consumers money, while at the same time protect the environment. Healthcare monitoring solutions will allow an aging population to live comfortably and securely in their homes for a longer period of time. These types of solutions will drive the adoption of this technology to the point of ubiquity, thereby enabling a host of convenience and home automation solutions.

It is the applications, not the technology, that consumers want, and interoperability will be the focus of market solutions to consumers.

Back to the Future
Anyone shopping for a computer in the mid-1990s may recall being told their new computer should have something called a USB port. Most people knew about serial and parallel ports, but they had never seen or heard of USB ports. Basically, a knowledgeable sales person would warn customers that they would be left behind in the silicon dust if their computers didn't have at least one USB port. And they were right.

Within a short time, pretty much every computer accessory, from printers and scanners, to keyboards and mice, came with a USB connection with the convenience of plug-and-play connectivity.

And so it is with connected homes. Consumers and builders who are aware of this technology are able to take advantage of everything that is available now or will be offered down the line, from easy computer networking to distributed home entertainment, intelligent security and energy systems that can be controlled and monitored remotely.

With the infrastructure in place -- a high-speed connection to the home and the ability to remotely monitor and manage systems within the home -- the possibilities for additional services grow dramatically. As our population ages, one can predict the ability for home health monitoring, intelligent appliance networks with predictive diagnostics. It is only a small jump to include customized and interactive content.

There's really no limit to where connected home technology may take us. All we have to do is be willing to plug in.

This article originally appeared in the December 2005 issue of Security Products, pgs. 36-40.

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