Energy crisis? Get creative

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Friday, August 1, 2008

When’s the last time you turned down the thermostat when you left home for the day? Checked to make sure each and every light in the house was off (even the one in the basement workshop)? Dropped your water heater temperature down a few degrees?

But you made a point to stop by the control panel and arm your security system, didn’t you?

With today’s energy costs hitting all-time highs, a one-touch solution to manage energy consumption (and security, to boot) may be growing in popularity.

Opportunity exists for companies who develop and make the panels that control security and home systems such as lights and furnaces-and for the integrators who design their layout, install and program them.

“The whole subject of home automation up until very recently has been one of those things that’s really nice but I don’t really need it-a gimmick, toy thing-the normal person may not benefit from it,” said Tim Trautman, senior product manager for Honeywell Security. “I think right now, certainly the focus is managing energy from a cost perspective.

“The whole idea of now taking automation to the level where it has a direct correlation to the expense that occurs at the home is now changing the game. The integrators who are a little bit sharper than most will immediately understand that this is what people will spend money on. They will make investments on things that will help them save money.”

Honeywell has a modular approach for automation, in which builders or integrators connect various proprietary subsystems onto a common IP infrastructure where the command and control activities occur. Those families of modules allow you to automate HVAC, entertainment, lighting and security-the homeowner can pick or choose whatever pieces, explained Trautman. They all link through standard Ethernet connection and can be wireless, though Honeywell suggests a wired system for latency issues.

Boiled down, integrators tap into the system with a device that has a Web browser. A Honeywell-provided “sniffer” program finds the modules, and the integrator can type in parameters for each subsystem. Then the commands can be linked into macros, i.e., an “away from home” macro might arm the security, turn off every light but the one over the kitchen sink, drop the house temp by 10 degrees and keep the hot water heater idling.

Trautman said Honeywell has tried to produce something that any integrator “with a fair amount of experience” can work with.

“We’ve had these devices in the market supporting the different subsystems for maybe three years now,” said Trautman. “As the market has evolved and guys are looking for ways to increase their business opportunities, these [modules] really provide an excellent value.”

The automation modules with their energy focus play well into new home construction, but also with homeowners looking to upgrade.

“Integrators now have a great story to go back to their embedded customer base with,” said Trautman.

GE Security has embraced control panels as an energy-saving tool with its SmartCommand offering. The latest version, GE SmartCommand Enviro Monitor, was on the verge of being released into the mass market in early July, according to Jerry Switzer GE Security’s Structured Wiring Product Manager.

While SmartCommand provides options for homeowners to control audio entertainment, heating, air conditioning, security, and lighting through one system, the Enviro Monitor goes a step further.

It graphically shows homeowners how much they are saving in energy costs on a yearly basis. And it converts that into how many tons of carbon they didn’t put into the air through that savings. And it equates those figures into other, easily approachable metrics-such as, it’s the same as not having driven an average vehicle XYZ miles.

The hope is that homeowners will be struck by what they can do individually, and strive for even more in energy savings, said Switzer.

“To alter behavior in the home … when you have a homeowner that can see where energy consumption is transpiring, or just showcase how much they’re saving in dollars and other metrics, it’s very powerful,” said Switzer.

According to Switzer, using SmartCommand to manage energy usage in a home provides an average 20 percent savings.

Don Childers, director of technical training at Security Central, said the energy savings potential of home automation has been noticed.

“Especially right now with things going on with the economy, it’s definitely piqued the interest of consumers,” said Childers.

But the confluence of security, A/V, home energy use and other systems has raised a question in his mind, said Childers. The programming involved in setting up lengthy macros may be beyond many installers, he said.

“From my past experience, for the typical security installer, they can’t do it—it’s above what they do,” said Childers. “Normally, they have A/V guys come in. If you’re a security company-which is what my background is-if you’re not on board to do A/V, you may not be around in five years.”

But not everyone is convinced that the automation market is being shifted by energy costs.

Mark Hillenburg, product architect at Digital Monitoring Products, said he hasn’t seen any pull for security control panel products that also handle energy.

“This is my second or third time talking about this concept with a magazine, and I have never, ever heard any request like that from a dealer or from an end user,” said Hillenburg. “I don’t know that people automatically think about their alarm system and their home [energy costs].”

He added, “There’s definitely not a huge call for integration. In my experience, there’s virtually none ... I think that the people sho are sort of interested in pushing solutions to save energy [are] looking for something that’s a bit more ubiquitous,” he said. “I’m not sure alarm panels are the fit.”

He said DMP does have commercial customers, especially in the Southwest, who will use the control panel in such a way that when an area is armed, the air conditioning is turned off.

And, he said, DMP may look at the idea of integrating energy monitoring and control into panels down the road, but they’re just not seeing the demand.

David Nevett, president of Lionsafe Security Pro out of Alberta, Canada, said his firm doesn’t probe customers’ motives when they switch to automation. The odd customer brings up energy efficiency, he said, but “to say that people are adopting it purely for reasons of economy in burning energy, I think would be overstating the case ... Just as it would be overstating the case to say that they’re doing it for convenience only,” he added. “I think there’s a balance, certainly.”