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Top 5 Trends: Lighting & Home Automation

Way back before this whole broadband thing, it was all about automation. Before WiFi, before the Internet, there was X10, CEBus and LonWorks. Those were the prevailing protocols for home automation.

But the Internet and its associated technologies stole the limelight in the late 1990s and into the new millennium. Now, a whole batch of new technologies and industry initiatives are renewing interest in home automation, especially lighting control.

So what's the difference between automation protocols and broadband-oriented technologies like WiFi? The former must be low cost (low enough to support light switches and thermostats) and low power (how often do you want to change the battery in your security sensors?). Typically, the technology will add less than $5 or $10 to the cost of a device.

All of today's noteworthy new automation technologies are "two-way," meaning the sending and receiving of commands can be confirmed. For example, a keypad would send an "on" command to a dimmer until the dimmer confirms that the command is received and the light is in fact on. The keypad can display the real-time feedback, say, through a green LED that indicates the outside light is on. Previous one-way protocols could not deliver truthful information as to a device's on/off status.

New Batch of Protocols

Over the past two years a variety of protocols have emerged from standards bodies and private technology providers. The new protocols not only provide excellent tools for the development of lighting-control and other automation products, but they signify excitement in the category that we haven't seen since the X10 craze of the 1980s.

Zigbee and Z-Wave are new wireless solutions that implement mesh networking technology--each node is both a receiver and transmitter, relaying signals in the most efficient manner from node-to-node throughout the premises. The more nodes in the home, the more robust the network.

Zigbee emerged from a group of technology providers for commercial/industrial controls, namely Invensys, Motorola, Mitsubishi and Philips. The technology is now an industry standard, IEEE 802.15.4.

Z-Wave is a product of Zensys, a Copenhagen-based company that set out in 1999 to create an RF solution specifically for the residential automation market.

While both technologies came to market at roughly the same time, Z-Wave has always catered to the home controls market, so it has a stronger foothold in that category. In particular, Z-Wave has attracted well-known mass-market brands such as Intermatic (lighting controls), Sylvania (lighting controls) Wayne Dalton (garage door openers) and most recently Leviton (lighting controls).

Zigbee's big following is still in the commercial/industrial domain but some of the most visible, highly regarded technology companies in the home systems business have aligned with the technology. They include AMX, Control4, Crestron and Vantage.

Those are the pure-wireless standards, but not to be ignored are powerline carrier (PLC) technologies that use the home's existing AC wiring to send messages to and fro. The most prominent newcomer is Universal Powerline Bus (UPB), developed by Powerline Control Systems. PCS is known in automation circles as the lighting-control company that took X10 from a feeble PLC technology to a fairly decent solution with two-way communications and a fair degree of reliability.

PCS parlayed those experiences into the development of UPB, which works by transmitting and deciphering short but intense bursts of noise on the powerline. It is so robust that MD Manufacturing uses the technology in its central vacuum systems, which can communicate with UPB devices even while injecting enormous amounts of noise onto the powerline.

Several niche manufacturers have adopted UPB, mostly for lighting-control applications. The technology got a boost in late 2005 when HAI, possibly the most popular security/automation system for the mass market, began supporting the technology in its control panels, and shipping UPB-enabled light switches, dimmers and accessories.

Finally, Insteon, the newest protocol in the home-controls space, provides a hybrid RF/PLC solution, such that wireless and powerline devices in a home can communicate with each other, without the need for a bunch of bridges and adapters. The technology was created by SmartHome, a longtime distributor and manufacturer in the "smart home" business.

The first name-brand adopter of the technology is First Alert, whose Insteon-enabled smoke detectors will communicate with each other, as well as with compatible light switches. A smoke alarm could trigger the indoor lights to turn on, for example, and the outdoor lights to flash.

These are only the technologies that have momentum in the U.S. residential marketplace. Echelon's PLC-based LonWorks technology has been hugely successful in commercial/industrial environments in the U.S., and in consumer applications in Europe and Asia. The company recently lowered the cost of its technology and developed new features that it hopes will appeal to the U.S. residential markets.

And an Israeli company called Yitran is behind home-control technology deployed by LG Electronics, and hopes to bring that technology stateside.

Finally, the HomePlug Consortium, best known for its powerline solutions for broadband networking, launched an initiative in late 2005 to create a PLC standard--called HomePlug Command & Control, or HPCC--for low-rate, low-cost home control.

Going Up

All of these technologies should not obscure the achievements of other wireless solutions providers, especially in lighting control. Lutron and Vantage, for example, have been very successful with their proprietary RF technologies and Watt Stopper is coming on strong with its own elegant solution as well.

But the new technologies have the potential to reduce dramatically the cost of wireless lighting controls, from their perch of $150 - $250 per dimmer (retail) to little more than $29 apiece. That's SmartHome's target price for a basic Insteon-enabled PLC dimmer.

On the RF side, Intermatic's Z-Wave-enabled dimmers retail for about $45. As for products sold through the pro channel, Control4 broke the $100 barrier with the industry's first Zigbee-based dimmers. That price leaves plenty of margin, by the way, for professional integrators who install the products.

Falling prices are not the only impetus for lighting control in 2006. Virtually all of the key lighting-control vendors are working together to help boost the category. About 20 of them gathered together for the first time during the Electronic House Expo Fall in November 2005, to develop strategies for increasing penetration of lighting controls, currently estimated to be less than 2 percent.

Meanwhile, Lutron has begun selling its wares on QVC, and advertising lighting control products in 60-second commercials airing during popular home-improvement shows.

Also spurring adoption of lighting controls is a California regulation that took affect in October 2005. Title 24, Part 6 of California's Energy Efficiency Standards for Residential and Nonresidential Buildings mandates the use of high-efficacy light fixtures in certain areas, or controls such as dimmers and vacancy sensors.

Apparently, California's Title 24 is an influential code nationwide, and other states are likely to examine the initiative for possible adoption in their own jurisdictions.

Oddly, the rapid adoption of multiroom audio and video systems should also stimulate the adoption of lighting controls. Control4, Crestron and others are building automation capabilities into their lowest-cost A/V systems, ready to exploit when customers say the word.

Finally, there is no place to go but up. According to the Consumer Electronics Association, builders install lighting controls in roughly 2.5 percent of new homes--roughly half the rate of energy management systems (4.6 percent) and way below multiroom audio (12 percent) and security (27.6 percent).

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About the Author

Julie Jacobson, Co-Founder, EH Publishing / Editor-at-large, CE Pro
Julie Jacobson, recipient of the 2014 CEA TechHome Leadership Award, is co-founder of EH Publishing, producer of CE Pro, Electronic House, Commercial Integrator, Security Sales and other leading technology publications. She currently spends most of her time writing for CE Pro in the areas of home automation, security, networked A/V and the business of home systems integration. Julie majored in Economics at the University of Michigan, spent a year abroad at Cambridge University, earned an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin, and has never taken a journalism class in her life. She's a washed-up Ultimate Frisbee player currently residing in Carlsbad, Calif. Follow her on Twitter @juliejacobson. [More by Julie Jacobson]


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