There is a new type of subcontractor called an “integrator” these days. Smart-home integrators are tasked with creating a smart-home system that can match a homeowner’s expectations for technology that functions dependably without the need for constant adjusting. You may pay an integrator to design and install smart-home systems, just as you would an electrician to wire your home or an HVAC specialist to design and install heating and cooling systems.
4 Things to Know Before Selecting A Best Smart Home Integrators
As automation technologies grow more ubiquitous in our houses, it is critical that designers, architects, builders, and others in related industries stay current. This necessitates the installation of automation systems, which necessitates the hiring of an integrator to manage that aspect of your project.
However, not all integrators are made equal. It’s critical that you recruit the ideal team for your project, but how should you go about doing so?
- EXPERIENCE WITH PROJECTS OF DIFFERENT SCOPES
Installing an automation system in a home, even a large home, is different from setting up a smart system in a business or multi-unit development (MUD). Different systems are better suited for different spaces, and commercial or MUD projects require different considerations than residential ones.
- BE PREPARED
One way to determine the quality of an integrator is the thoroughness of their discovery and design process. As we wrote before, home automation projects require careful planning and placement of multiple devices throughout a home.
Whoever you choose to work with should have a detailed, organized process for figuring out your needs. They should also have contingency plans, as failure to plan for the worse leads to cost overruns, delays, and other hassles.
- CLEAR COMMUNICATION
If you’re going to make the investment to install an automation system, you want an integrator who will pick up the phone at all hours to answer your questions. You also want to know they’ll be there for you once the project is complete.
The key here is a proactive, honest approach to client communication. You’re trusting the integrator with major resources, and they should keep you informed about how the project is going at every step along the way.
- LOCAL KNOWLEDGE
No matter how big your business is or where you’re located, there are certain local quirks to any project. These include everything from geography to building codes. You want an integrator with an extensive history in your area.
The Three Big Vendors
The smart-home industry is a dynamic market where a lot of technology companies come and go. But there is a stable side to the industry. Right now, at least three established companies are known as reliable vendors and partners in the home automation space: Control4, Crestron, and Savant.
All three of these big players are capable of providing a well-functioning smart-home system, but there are some differences among them. Savant has a slick, easy-to-use user interface. Control4’s system is compatible with a wide range of third-party products. Crestron, which has a big presence in commercial and institutional markets, is known for its performance on the high end, serving large and expensive custom homes.
But the three big players are each working to beef up their capabilities in areas that are known as their competitors’ strengths. So, for example, Crestron has developed Crestron Home, a simplified, scalable product line aimed at the residential market that features an easy-to-use interface. And Savant is developing interoperability with a wider range of third-party devices. Savant has also staked its own claim to the ultra–high end: In partnership with Las Vegas luxury-home builder Blue Heron, the company recently opened a marketing “experience center” that incorporates a million dollars’ worth of automation technology into a $25,000,000 model home
The Role of an Integrator
So where does the integrator fit in? The big vendors don’t tend to deal directly with homeowners, or even with builders. Instead, they refer inquiries to their networks of integrators. The integrators like to get involved in the job early on. There’s no law that says an integrator can’t work with multiple vendors. In practice, however, most integrators pick one company’s systems to represent.
Scott Newnam runs Audio Advice, which in addition to operating two brick-and-mortar hi-fi and video stores in North Carolina is also the largest integrator in the Carolinas. “If it’s a really high-end home that’s being custom designed, usually the architect will bring the integrator in,” says Newnam. “And usually they have an expert integrator that they know is really good in their area that they’ll go to.”
“Custom builders also usually will have an integrator that they typically go to,” Newnam continues, “and they get them involved as soon as they can. The number one error that we see is when the integrator gets brought in too late.”
Builders should cultivate relationships with reputable integrators and bring the integrator into a project “as soon as it’s real,” says Newnam. “The builders that we work with throughout the Carolinas often call us before they’ve even won a job with a customer. They’ll come to us and say, ‘How would you think about lighting control for this house? Where will we put it? And where will we put a rack with some equipment in it? And are we going to hide all of the television equipment like Rokus and Apple TVs?’ We can have a conversation that will help them close the job, and we’ll work with them in mapping out adjustments to the home.”
One big reason to plan ahead is that a complicated smart home requires a lot of electronic equipment, and all that gear needs somewhere to live. Typically there’s an equipment rack that needs a place; this could be in the basement near the electrical panel. If there’s no basement, the equipment rack will need to be located in a closet.
A System of Systems
At the heart of any full-on home automation system is a piece of electronics called a “processor.” (Savant calls its processor the “host.”) This is the brain of the system: a programmable box that is able to talk to all the other smart elements in the house.
So what systems can the processor control? The list is as long as the list of electronic technologies in the home. The most common application is control of lighting and motorized shades. Next may be security systems such as door locks, surveillance cameras, alarm systems, and security lights. But audio and video are also popular systems to control: Automated houses typically have room-by-room control of in-wall or in-ceiling speakers, as well as control of TVs in various locations throughout the house. Thermostat control is common. Smart video doorbells are popular. Outside, pools and spas, irrigation systems, landscape lighting, and outdoor music are commonly integrated into the home automation system.
The possibilities are virtually endless. Jerry Calder, head of builder sales for Control4’s parent company, Snap One, has seen a home automation system used to control giant fish tanks, a boat lift, a vineyard irrigation system, and a wine cellar (to keep track of which bottles had been removed and to order new bottles automatically). Michelle Guss, director of residential business development at Crestron, says, “Crestron really is only limited by a client’s imagination and budget.”
So what about that budget? Guss says, “The systems are very scalable. It can range from a few thousand dollars if you’re just doing some basic control in a small space. Or with the vast products that we manufacture, it can easily climb to the hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Control4 integrator Adam Zell runs Boston Automations in metropolitan Boston. Currently, Zell’s company is working in The Preserve at Mill Pond, a 94-unit development of million-dollar-plus custom homes in Wrentham, Mass. Zell works with homeowners to customize their systems for their needs and wants. A simple system with one smart remote, a TV, and a robust home network might cost $10,000 to $15,000 including installation and programming, says Zell. A more comprehensive system that includes televisions, speakers, amplifiers, remote controls, networking equipment, etc., might retail for $45,000 (that includes integration with door locks and security lights and cameras). Smart lighting can add another $3000 to $7000, including installation, for dimmers, switches, keypads, and programming, Zell says.
Once the backbone of the system is in, it could expand to include garage doors, irrigation, landscape lighting, or any other component that comes with communication capabilities.
Prewiring Sets Up the Infrastructure
Everything in a smart house might theoretically operate wirelessly. In practice, hardwiring the majority of the system is significantly superior. Category 6 or “Cat6” cable, sometimes known as “network cable,” is the workhorse of smart-home wiring.
According to Scott Newnam, “When one of my clients or a friend approaches me and says, ‘Hey, I have a $50,000 budget.’ ‘How should I proceed?’ The first thing I advise them is, ‘Get your infrastructure in order.’ Wire the home properly. ‘If you think you might need a wire somewhere, put it there right now.’
“And I know a lot of people say, ‘Oh, wireless is amazing; you can do everything wirelessly,'” Newnam adds. “However, when it comes to mission-critical aspects of a house, anything wired is far more reliable than wireless.” As a result, we were pretty much everything in a house.”
The in-home network is the highest priority for prewiring. While a wireless router from a big-box electronics store may suffice for an apartment or small home, a 3000 square-foot home requires many wireless access points, according to Zell.
These are Wi-Fi antennas that are hardwired back to the router and located at various places in the house to provide strong, seamless Wi-Fi coverage for laptops, tablets, or smartphones throughout the building. Ideally the access points should be placed in the ceiling, says Zell: “They give off their signal like an umbrella.” Access points aren’t buried behind the drywall or plaster, because that would degrade the signal, Zell adds, “so we do in-ceiling enclosures, which are plastic, and they have a plastic lid that goes over them. So if you look up on the ceiling, you see a white lid that might have a 1/8-in. reveal, if that.”
Televisions should be connected to the system as well. A Cat6 cable connects the TV to the network for streaming content, another Cat6 cable for control, and, in most cases, a coaxial (“coax”) cable connects to cable TV boxes.
Another priority is audio speaker prewiring. “We’re encouraging consumers to prewire for surround-sound speakers in a variety of spaces,” Zell explains. Even if the homeowner does not want to install the actual speaker right immediately, he suggests connecting the speaker cable to plausible speaker sites. He claims that returning later to run wire is too expensive, but the upfront expense of a few runs of wire just in case is feasible.
When it comes to security and surveillance, there are a lot of wireless solutions on the market. Security sensors on windows and doors are typically wireless, but the keypads that control the systems tend to be wired. So it’s a good idea to run Cat6 to the keypad locations. Many surveillance cameras are also wireless, but many use hardwiring, so it’s good insurance to run Cat6 to camera locations. And if you run extra Cat6 wires, the homeowners have the option to add more cameras later if they aren’t satisfied with the coverage.
Aside from these primary categories, there’s a smorgasbord of options that differ from home to home. You might want to consider prewiring a fireplace. A lot of video doorbells are hardwired. Battery-powered blinds with wireless controls are extremely prevalent, however hardwiring shades may be preferable, especially if they’re positioned high on a wall and need a ladder to change the batteries.
The Wireless Element
Although prewiring is crucial, most modern smart homes have at least some wireless functionality. Typically, integrators turn to wireless solutions where hardwired methods are impractical or costly. “An example is door locks,” says Michael Oh, a Savant integrator who runs TSP Smart Spaces in Cambridge, Mass. “They usually use some sort of wireless protocol because it’s impossible in most situations to run a wire to the lock. You have to use wireless and battery power.”
ZigBee and Z-Wave are two popular wireless technologies for home automation. ZigBee uses the same frequency spectrum as Wi-Fi, however, Z-Wave uses a lower frequency range. Both technologies function by building a “mesh network” in which devices connect with one another and route signals from the central processor to the targeted device depending on the device’s electronic address. Both ZigBee and Z-Wave have restrictions. Zigbee transmissions on a network may interfere with Wi-Fi signals (and vice versa), but the lower-frequency Z-Wave signal has limited capacity, limiting it to very short data instructions.
Lighting: “Panelized” Vs. “Wireless”
In a state-of-the-art smart home, lights are integrated into the home-control system. Using a smartphone, a wall keypad, or even a voice command, users can turn whole sets of lights on or off, dim or brighten the lights, or select from various preprogrammed lighting “scenes” that coordinate area lighting, task lighting, and accent lighting (more about scenes below).
There are two main ways to wire up the lights for this functionality. In “wireless” setups (which aren’t actually fully wireless), the lights are wired conventionally: Power goes from the source to the switch, and from the switch to the luminaire. But the conventional switch is replaced with a smart switch—usually a dimmer—that communicates wirelessly with the home’s processor. The processor takes input from the control source (the phone, keypad, etc.), and gives commands to the smart switches to adjust the lights.
“Panelized” lighting setups, which are more common in high-end homes with lots of lighting loads, are a little different. The lights are wired directly via home runs to a subpanel near the main electrical panel, bypassing the wall controls. In the lighting panel, the circuits connect to smart switches that are controlled by the main processor. As with the wireless setups, however, the home’s users control the lighting from a keypad, from a phone, or perhaps by using voice commands.
The User Interface
The whole point of a smart home is to give residents control over their living environment. To that end, smart-home systems entail a whole suite of control interfaces. Each of the big three vendors has a smartphone and tablet app that can control all of the home’s functionality. But the user is not limited to the phone: Typically, lights and audio are controllable from keypads on the wall. Besides that, touchscreens (which can be wall-mounted or freestanding) offer control of all of the home’s systems. And handheld remotes control not just the home’s TVs but all of the other functions of the smart home system.
Says Scott Newnam, “Using iPads and iPhones is generally not sufficient to control a luxury home that’s got true integration. You need universal remotes and some dedicated control panels.”
“Using a smartphone to control your TV is not a great experience,” says Newnam. “When we put in a Control4 system, there is a fixed remote control in someone’s house. You don’t have to swipe to turn on your phone, or look at it for Face ID, and open an app—and then while you’re in the app, if someone texts you, or the phone rings—see, it’s not working anymore, right? None of that has to happen. There’s a remote sitting there, you click ‘on,’ it turns on the audio, it turns on the television, and you control it from the fixed remote.”
Programming the System
The whole potential of the smart home extends much beyond simple management of single equipment, such as a television or a light. The true value of home automation lies in the capacity to create scenarios that orchestrate coordinated control of numerous components of a house at the same time. A “good morning” order, for example, might raise the blinds, switch on some lights, play morning music, crank up the heat, and even start the coffee maker when you get up in the morning. A “home from work” order might close the curtains, switch on the lights, and play soothing evening music. A “entertain” command may dim the lights to 50% and start playing party music. A “good night” command could shut the whole house down: lock doors, arm the security system, close garage doors, turn down the heat, and shut off all the lights. In large houses with lots of lights, the convenience of one-button control when you leave the house or go to bed can be significant.
To begin with, setting up these scenes in a new house is the job of the integrator. Michael Oh says, “We usually do the first pass at all of those scenes. We’ll make an educated guess that this is your evening scene, this is your daytime scene. Then as the homeowner moves in and we get their feedback, we’ll start making changes and adjust it. Usually, it takes a few weeks.
“Somebody might live in their new home and for the first couple of weeks they’ve got a little label next to the keypad that tells which button does what,” says Oh. “And they may change it around: ‘Let’s change this button to control the shades, and this button to control the lights.’ We can do all that via software, once we’ve got the basic setup. Then a few weeks later, we’ll order the keypad buttons that they want and install them, so it’s all nice and clean.
“But it’s all software-programmable,” Oh explains. “That’s the beauty of the real smart-home architecture: If somebody says ‘I have a party coming on Friday, and I’d love to do this new scene,’ I can come in remotely and create a new scene for them and put it on their phone or put it on a keypad. That’s sort of the magic of what we do.”
“If you’re buying this system, you’re paying for an integrator to make it right,” says Adam Zell. “Where people end up shooting themselves in the foot is they go a little overboard, and they’ve done so much custom programming that it becomes a nightmare. And then they’re calling and paying a ton of money every time to make changes. Really, the best thing is to create very simple scenes like ‘hello,’ ‘goodbye,’ ‘goodnight,’ ‘entertain,’ ‘relax,’ ‘watch a movie.’ Keep it to five or six simple scenes. And then you’re good.”
Increasingly, however, vendor software enables homeowners to modify scenes or even to create their own from scratch. Crestron Home’s Bryan Celli demonstrated his company’s software’s capability during a virtual tour of Crestron’s New York showroom in August. Running the software on an iPad, the homeowner can create and name a new scene; set lights, music, HVAC, security settings, or other elements; and save the scene with a single keystroke to phones and to handheld remotes, and touchscreens around the house.
The DIY Option
A professionally designed and built smart-home system comes with a hefty price tag: The processor alone will set you back around $1000. If you want the challenge, you can get into home automation for less: Buy a smart-home “hub” for a couple hundred dollars, invest in some smart components, and piece together a system on your own. You can start small and build up. Unlike a professionally installed system, a DIY smart home will rely exclusively on wireless connectivity.
Smart-home hubs come in many flavors, and a shopper’s guide for them is beyond the scope of this article. Here is just a sampling of the many hubs you can buy: Amazon’s Echo (4th Generation) is a smart speaker with a built-in hub that offers Zigbee integration and Alexa voice control; Aeotec’s Smart Home Hub works as a Zigbee and Z-Wave gateway; Hubitat’s Elevation Home Automation Hub also offers Zigbee and Z-Wave compatibility and works without a live internet connection.
Now you’ll need some smart devices—Lutron Serena motorized shades, Lutron or Hue smart lightbulbs, a Nest thermostat, a Ring video doorbell, or just some smart wall plugs. You’ll want to choose carefully: Your devices need to be compatible with your hub.
Once you’ve had your hub and some smart devices installed, the following step is to get the hub to detect and control the devices. The first step is to download and execute the device’s software and connect to your Wi-Fi. Then, using the software that came with the hub, you can identify your devices and connect them to the hub.
Voice control via Google Home or Amazon Alexa will be required to run your smart home. If you have a Google Hub or an Amazon Echo hub, voice control is already built in. For a third-party hub, such as the Hubitat Elevation, you must use the hub’s app to enable Google or Alexa.