Jay Bakaler was very severe with me. “Don’t call it home automation!” he said. “Home automation got a bad name in the 80s and 90s, and now when people hear that word, they all run for the hills. What we do is systems integration, also called whole-house control systems. It’s more about choosing the right standalone systems and carefully and thoughtfully putting them together.”
[Update: Bakaler, who was working with Ultimate Control at the time that this article was written, has since left to found his own company, Metro Eighteen.]
I asked Jay what home systems integration was really all about. “We start out each new project by serving as guides and educators, to help the entire project team understand the possibilities. We don’t talk about brands right away. We talk about what works and what doesn’t work,” Jay emphasized. “If you start out by taking a strong stand almost immediately, you’ll turn people off around 50% of the time… even if you’re right. After we gain their trust through education and support, then it’s OK to start making strong recommendations.”
For many clients seeking luxury homes, energy savings are almost an afterthought. However… a well-designed and well-integrated collection of home systems can offer much better visibility and control regarding energy consumption, and there are additional benefits from combining systems under a single master controller.
“There are two market opportunities – new construction and significant renovation,” clarifed Jay. “I don’t like to use the term ‘high-end’ because it’s overplayed, and these systems are getting more accessible nowadays. It’s not just for homes costing $10M and up anymore. Because it’s the Bay Area, even $2-3M homes are not uncommon. A significant renovation of half a million or more is also a good candidate for home systems integration.”
When I asked for a representative project that demonstrated proven energy savings, Jay pointed to the renovation that he did on his own 4,000-SF Edwardian home. This included insulation, flooring, a high efficiency furnace, new lighting systems, a home control overlay system, and an energy management system, saving an estimated 25-35% in energy usage.
Advanced facilities-management and control systems have been around for decades, of course, and are constantly evolving. Usually we think of them as applying only to commercial and industrial applications, though – corporate campuses, government buildings, hotel/retail complexes, embassies, manufacturing facilities, and such. At a sensitive nuclear research facility, for example, the stakes and risks are so high that they can’t afford not to stay on top of things.
Jay Bakaler applies that same meticulous approach to private residences. These are sizeable places that may have dedicated home theaters, pools, advanced surveillance and communications, whole-house audio/video distribution, and user-definable lighting and shading. These homes also integrate environmental systems such as heating, cooling, security and life safety alarms, and energy management.
“More and more of our revenue is coming from electrical services rather than purely home entertainment consulting. This trend is partly due to the economic downturn, but it is also driven by increased consolidation of these home systems. With our 15-year background in overlay control systems, we are actively working to legitimize the home systems management industry.”
According to Jay, advanced home control offers energy savings from three main areas:
- Preset lighting and dimming systems with low-voltage wiring reduces power bleed-off inside the home
- Integrated sub-system controls allows for optimal operation and efficiency when system components communicate with one another
- Energy management dashboards providing instant visibility and historical review of home energy consumption, which in turn allows for lifestyle adjustments and system fine-tuning.
“When the homeowners can see what’s going on, they have a tool to make adjustments. It’s similar to a cell phone – when your bill is double what it should be, you check your usage and change your usage patterns or switch plans. Energy dashboards can show your power consumption by time of day, what rate used, and sometimes even which appliance. For example, you left your A/C running all day because you forgot to turn set points down, or you discover that using natural gas during the day for a dryer is a 200% premium, so you set the appliance to run at night when rates are cheaper. Better visibility enables people to change their lifestyle habits.”
Once I got him going, Jay elaborated on why this visibility is so important.
“Just as important as using reclaimed and sustainable materials, lifestyle awareness and adjustments have a huge potential for impacting the greening of our environment. It’s like dieting… it’s not just frequency, quantity, and time of consumption, but it’s also the QUALITY of what you are putting into your body. This could be applied to how we consume in the world.”
“Homes are like human bodies, which have standalone systems for things like respiration, circulation, temperature control, air filtering, etc. All the systems within the human body have to operate in balance in order for the body to be a fine-tuned and healthy machine. A home is also a conglomeration of separate systems which have to operate harmoniously and efficiently, or else the occupant will not be comfortable.”
Cumulative Benefits of Home Integration
Integrated control platforms such as Crestron, AMX, or Savant can serve as an overall manager or “butler” to coordinate all the other systems inside the home. These can include spas, gas-operated fireplaces, security and fire warning systems, motorized shades, lighting, audio/video and television equipment, and thermostats. They can also integrate with alternative energy production systems such as solar or hybrid fuel technologies.
The best systems in each category have a lot of built-in intelligence, including sensors and even astronomical time clocks. “You can set your thermostat to kick on the heat when the indoor temperature goes below, say, 60. But with a master overlay like Crestron or AMX, you could also open all the shades to let in solar heat gain, or conversely to lower them if it’s too hot. You can program the shades to raise or lower to specific positions based on the time of day and time of year. And, instead of leaving all your audio/video idling all the time, you can switch all entertainment equipment on or off with one button, or power down the equipment by a timer.”
Of course, timed lights have been around ever since suburban homeowners realized that burglars know when you’re out of town. “Lutron‘s HomeWorks line of lighting control products let you record a history of activity and then replay it while you’re away,” added Jay. (Whether or not this would stop a determined professional is unclear, but I’m guessing you could switch on the TV or even pre-recorded animal sounds for a more convincing illusion.)
Jay brought up energy savings from low-voltage wiring when we were talking about dimming technologies and presets. “Actually, you have to wire a house differently for a Lutron HomeWorks lighting control system than you would for conventional lighting. Instead of running line voltage between a traditional wall switch and the light fixture, these computerized dimming systems establish a direct low-voltage connection between the light fixture and the modules in the dimming panel.”
Low-voltage wiring is used for computer networking, telephone cabling, built-in speakers, doorbells, smoke detectors, and the like. This is in contrast to the more familiar general-purpose alternating current (AC) household power that is delivered to homes by public utilities companies such as PG&E.
So why’s it more efficient? “There’s less bleed-off,” Jay explained. “Connecting the light fixtures directly to the modules is more efficient electrically, because there are fewer things in the path through which the current travels. I’d estimate that it’s 20 to 30% more efficient to eliminate components in the electrical transmission path, plus you get the benefits of sending low-voltage current over long distances of wiring, versus sending line-voltage current. It’s more efficient to send 12 volts of DC current 150 feet over low-voltage wiring to a low-voltage lighting fixture than it it is to send 110 volts of AC current 50 feet from a subpanel to wall switch, and from there another 15-20 feet to an incandescent ceiling fixture using Romex wire.”
But Are Home Systems User-Friendly?
We wandered far afield from simple energy savings, and touched upon why home automation had become such a dirty word. “A lot of early adopters had bad experiences,” said Jay, “because to be honest, the majority of people implementing those systems were not properly qualified. This has historically been a cottage industry, without much regulation, totally unlike the rest of the general-contracting world.”
Some of those early systems were “nightmares”. Lights suddenly switching on and off at 3am, or other scenarios reminiscent of HAL, the rogue computer from 2001: Space Odyssey. “Many of those early implementations were either over-designed or under-designed. But in a larger home, you can’t really do without it. A custom home without lighting controls would need banks of wall switches (which Jay affectionally calls “wall acne”). It’s much better to have a smaller, single-gang keypad switch with preset scenes for things like reading, entertaining or cooking.”
“Scenes are defined either by the lighting designer for the project, or if there isn’t one, we use some standard out-of-the-box programming that’s about 85% of the way there. The owners live with it for 4 months to get used to living in their new home first. Then we fine-tune the scenes and engrave identifying labels for all the buttons in each area’s control panel.”
At the same time, the scenes are fine-tunable on the fly, with split buttons at bottom of the keypad for manual dimming. Yes, even my gadget-phobic, 75-year-old dad could handle that.
Creatures of Habit
“Humans are creatures of habit,” continued Jay. “We do the same things every day – turn on lights in the morning, use the plumbing, and other rote behaviors. The right way to design home controls is to look at the client’s living patterns and then create an interface that is intuitive and helpful, to make it easier for them to live their lives.”
The One-Button Turn-Off
Another area of energy savings is simply making it easier to shut the whole house down. “In a big house, the lights tend to stay on, because people forget. Someone might forget that they’ve left the light on in their walk-in closet for weeks.” It can be impractical for a homeowner run up and down every floor and every room to turn off lights individually, every time he or she has to leave the house.
“It’s also a security feature,” Jay explained. “If you wake up in the middle of the night and hear a burglar, you can hit a one-button exterior blast that simultaneously turns on every light in the house and outside, and it also alerts the security system.” Yep, that might be a deterrent. (I didn’t ask him what to do if the burglar didn’t leave.)
Have you ever done an install for a client who was really radically green? “Yes, recently we worked on a home that was built from SIPs (structural insulated panels) with a lot of reclaimed materials and sustainable features. The thing with SIPs is you have to pre-design all the wiring patterns before the home is built, because you can’t do the wiring through the framing the way you can with a wood frame house,” says Jay.
“I really think hybrid fuels are where it’s at – people like ClearEdge Power are the wave of the future.” ClearEdge was the subject of a recent interview on Green Compliance Plus.
On Choosing The Right Consultants
When I asked him what words of wisdom he might have for architects and homeowners who are interested in creating an integrated home, Jay was emphatic.
“Don’t underestimate the importance of getting qualified people to advise you early on, as a guide and as an educator. You can’t rely on retail stores or vendor representatives. The first thing you have to do is educate yourself on the possibilities and impacts so that you can make informed choices. Then you can be proactive and actually put in the wiring infrastructure for all these systems. For this, you absolutely need qualified people to spec and recommend.”
So what does ” qualified” mean? “Our business comes from referrals from other professionals, such as architects, builders, and interior designers we’ve worked with previously,” said Jay. Creating a custom home is a complex and expensive undertaking. “We have to coordinate our work carefully with other consultants – energy consultants, MEP engineers, lighting designers, acoustical consultants, and more. Any home over 4,000 or 5,000 square feet should have home systems specifications and documentation written out to serve as a road map. Most home systems installers won’t bother to document much, they just go in there and do it, like a cabinet installer who just uses hand sketches instead of CAD and real shop drawings. That won’t fly for these larger projects or ensure a successful experience from conception through construction and move-in.”
Documentation Is Crucial for Home Systems Maintenance
One area that a good home systems integrator cannot neglect is documentation. “Without thorough documentation early on, there’s a huge potential for problems to develop from lack of coordination and a lack of understanding from the client’s perspective as to what they’re really getting,” cautioned Jay, “not to mention that a well-documented system enables much better long-term service and support.”
About the author
Rebecca Firestone has been working in the Bay Area since 1998 as a technical writer, business content developer, architectural filing lady, marketing director, and sorcerer’s apprentice.