Home Systems Integration Offers Visibility and Control Over Energy Use

Home Systems Integration Offers Visibility and Control Over Energy Use

Posted on 24. Jul, 2009 by in Interviews

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.”

Flow valve device used by energy management system to monitor water consumption

Flow valve device used by energy management system to monitor water consumption

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.)

Low-Voltage Wiring

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.”

An example of "wall acne" - too many switches

An example of "wall acne" - too many switches

“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.)

Radically Green

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

What not to do for wire management for home integration systems!

What not to do for wire management for home integration systems!

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.”

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2 Responses to “Home Systems Integration Offers Visibility and Control Over Energy Use”

  1. alfredo

    17. Jul, 2010

    I have some observations on this article’s presentation of electrical theory and low voltage wiring for lighting.

    1. There is no such thing as electrical bleed off in an electrical system whether its line voltage (120VAC) or low voltage (12/24 AC/DC) If you did happen to have something remotely close to electrical bleed off, it would be considered seriously dangerous situation.

    A. either a loose connection- an impending short
    B. a direct short to ground

    Both conditions require immediate attention.

    2. When switching a local dimmer or a remote dimming module, there is nothing in the path of the electrical current to the light source, A switch leg by design is a dedicated path way so nothing but the light source being controlled is on that circuit. The efficiency concept is based on labor and material during the installation, but in terms of energy efficiency by using remote dimming modules you get: zero, zilch, nada! Think of it this way, if you spend a dollar here or you spend it away, you still spend the dollar.

    3. A knowledgeable electrician would never use network grade low voltage wiring to control a light source; in fact it’s strictly prohibited code.

    4. In the original article, the wiring topographies are confused. In a system like Lutrons’s Homeworks 8, there are two wiring systems. The low voltage network: which is the logic and communication part of the control system. This network allows keypads and peripheral devices to communicate with the lighting processor, and allows the processor to communicate with the dimming modules.

    Then there is the line voltage (120VAC) system, this is what powers up everything in the home including the lighting processor, dimming modules, switching relay modules as well as the light sources. These two systems never physically meet, In fact by code they can’t even be in the same box. unless they’re separated by a partition or the low voltage wiring has a specific heat rating.

    You don’t use one over the other, they’re used in conjunction to create the system.

    4. The premise that you can send 12VDC over a low voltage network wire from a 120VAC dimming module over 150 to control a low voltage light fixture is incorrect on two counts.

    A. A typical light source (incandescent, halogen, fluorescent, LED) cannot be directly controlled by 12DC circuit, because they’re entirely two different systems.

    B. The 12VDC circuit only communicates between the lighting processor and the dimming modules which are usually only a few feet away. Once a dimming module gets a command from the processor it sends 120V power to the light source, however far it is in the house.

    If by chance, and that’s a big IF, because there would have to be such a huge failure in the project administration process by: project manager, job foremen, lighting designer, and city inspector…but if you did manage to install network grade wiring to a 120V dimming module and tried to switch a low voltage light source 150′ away you wouldn’t have an 20-30% more energy efficient switch leg, you’d have a crisis.

    The fact is, as you lower voltage you increase resistance (Ohm’s law) so for example, you actually don’t want to run small size wire over a long distance to feed a low voltage light fixture because you’ll generate serious heat and voltage drop.

    There is a HUGE misconception by many in the low voltage industry that by using a modular based lighting control system you’ll automatically save on the electrical wiring, that’s not automatically true, you still have to feed 120V wiring to your ALL light fixtures, that has not changed and is not going to change for the foreseeable future. The distances will vary,some runs will be shorter but some may be much longer. The savings will depend on how skilled and knowledgeable your installers are.

  2. Rebecca Firestone

    19. Aug, 2010

    Timothy Smith of Metro Eighteen responds:

    After reviewing the original article, I wanted to take this opportunity to clarify a few specific details which may have been confused in translation. Although I was pleased to see that inaccuracies were noted by the respondent, it’s most unfortunate that system efficiencies and integrated technologies were disregarded as unnecessary options with “zero” return on investment. As an electrical and low-voltage systems integrator, I feel an obligation to provide accurate technical information to our clients and potential installers who may consult us for project design and implementation.

    My primary concern is to briefly address the actual wiring methods utilized during the rough installation of a Lutron Homeworks System. First, I will clearly define the precise wiring topographies in question. Secondly, I will provide additional data to support my interpretation of system efficiencies available through endless volumes of technical research established from senior lighting engineers.

    The original article referenced incorrect data regarding system voltages and actual conductors employed between the low-voltage devices, the line-voltage fixtures, and the remote dimming modules. Clearly stated, Lutron’s Homeworks system offers the unique benefit of software-controlled low-voltage keypads and traditional line voltage wiring between RPM’s ( Remote Power Modules) and various light sources throughout a residence. For the keypad wiring, we install a 4-conductor wire assembly manufactured by Lutron. To correct the respondent, these Homeworks keypads operate at 15VDC powered either directly from a processor link or, if necessary, connected to an additional power supply. From an efficiency standpoint, it is allowable to connect up to 32 keypads on one link. These devices can be connected in a daisy chain, star or t-tap topography. The clear benefit during the initial installation is the ability to avoid the endless switches commonly cluttering walls. An efficient technician can install entire floors of wiring in a matter of hours. The labor required during the connection of standard switches, 3-ways, and limited functionality, is clearly offset by installing local dimming panels with unlimited flexibility in programming options.

    Can you achieve energy efficiency with a Lutron Homeworks lighting system? Absolutely!!! Lutron product engineers have continued to enhance dimming technologies and product offerings. As we are becoming familiar with new installations utilizing incandescent, fluorescent, LED, line-voltage, low-voltage halogen, etc, it has become necessary for us to spend additional processing times with endless light sources and the required dimmers to achieve correct operation. Lutron has offered the Adaptive Dimming Module which automatically senses the load type. Regardless of light sources, we no longer have to concern our field technicians with endless dimmer compatibility issues. Additional energy savings come from the use of occupancy sensors, daylight sensors, time clocks and microprocessor-controlled dimming ballasts. These commonly drop electricity loads by a third or more over traditional switching systems by providing smooth , unobtrusive dimming.

    For even greater savings, we engage the microprocessor program benefits to control the user’s functionality. For example, we commonly set the limitations of output zones to a maximum of 75-90%. This automatically doubles and triples the lifespan of light bulbs and gives immediate energy savings respectively. These are real savings. Most Homeworks end users often wonder how they lived without the exciting benefits of their new system.

    In conclusion, it is with genuine concern for our industry that we work together to educate our clientele with precise product offerings and functionality. As the need for Green Systems and energy savings becomes more expansive, it is our responsibility to provide up-to-date user-information so end-users can make intelligent decisions based on their individual needs.

    [Note: this comment was written by written by Timothy Smith, Director of Field Operations at Metro Eighteen Inc. Tim is a 20-year Certified Electrical Journeyman and a licensed #C-10 Electrical Contractor – a qualification that enables him, and by CSLB qualification, Metro Eighteen Inc, to perform residential and commercial electrical work legally.]

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