Consultant Making better connections for integrating whole-house automation

Mention whole-house automation and a lot of eyes glaze over. It can be a world of mystery to homeowners, real estate agents, builders and even electricians.

Light loads and relays. Interfaces and modules. Low-voltage and high-voltage lines, Programming remotes and computer systems. It can be a full-time job just to make sure that the people designing, installing and programming an automation system speak the same language (let alone make sure that the machinery speaks a common language).

Gary Bower is trying to make things a little simpler. After several years as a home theater and automation integration consultant working primarily for home-owners and builders, Bower is bringing advice and training to the people who do the work -- the electricians and the electrical contractors -- with SMART Systems and Service, which opened a new training facility in Richfield last week.

When someone building a new home wants an automation system, the homeowner or builder usually hires a company specializing in integrating lights, security, audio-video, computer and telephone systems. That company then works with the electrical contractors to install whatever gear is needed. The integrators might call a telephone specialist, a computer network specialist and an audio-video specialist to work with the electrical contractor who is doing the lights.

Bower would like to see that pattern change. In the future, he said, homeowners or builders should go directly to their electrical contractor for that expertise. The electrical contractors would get the expertise from SMART Systems, which would train the contractor's electricians and provide technical support, such as creating wiring diagrams and ordering the automation equipment.

"Ultimately, I believe that the electrical contractors will be doing all this work,"Bower said. "Electrical contractors are not going to allow other people to steal business from them."

By cutting out one or two layers of subcontracting, automation installations ultimately will be less expensive; in addition, the systems will be installed by people who are more familiar with how things work.

"Hopefully, we will both make money and the customer will get a better system," he said.

The support team for electricians isn't out there now, said Bower. Supply houses don't know how to market each new advance in automation to electricians, let alone homeowners.

"We're making it easy for them," Bower said. "We're their office in the back that does all the techie stuff for them."

Installing systems in new homes is only part of the market for automation. Bower estimates that 75 percent of his company's business volume could come from retrofitting existing homes -- from 100 years old to half a dozen.

"Maybe it is a budget consideration when they built the home five or six years ago and they didn't have the money," he said. "Now they're able to go in and exchange switches and have home automation."

SMART Systems specializes in automation systems under the Vantage brand. Sticking to one manufacturer simplifies some of the programming and compatibility problems often faced in automated homes. Vantage also can integrate hard-wired and wireless devices.

"If you get into some of these century homes and have to start peeling off lath and plaster or drywall, that can put an end to the project right there," Bower said.

"What makes this system so great is that you can program a switch to do anything," he said. "You can pull out a light switch and put in a wireless switch that can do whatever you want it to do."

Bower said he hopes to serve about 50 electrical contractors out of Richfield training center. But he doesn't expect that SMART Systems will put current system integrators out of business.

"No matter how great the products get, there will always be compatibility issues," he said.

The distinction between SMART Systems and current system integrators is not so much who is doing the selling but who is doing the buying.

"They're trying to market to the end-user," Bower said."We're doing it in a mass market approach. If we have 50 or 60 electrical contractors using us, we have that many salesmen out there selling these systems. I could see that this could be the most profitable segment of an electrical contractor's business."

If that sounds like an ambitious agenda for the future, maybe it is appropriate for the ambitious nature of home automation itself. Bower's description of the systems his company designs might also describe his business plan.

"This is a stepping stone between the Flintstones and the Jetsons," Bower said. "It's somewhere in between."

The Plain Dealer
August 1, 2002
By: Bill Lammers