De-code Electronics In Your Home

Created by on Oct 05, 2021

The term “Smart House” has become a bit dated in recent years.  Today, every home now enjoys the benefits of electronic tools that were once only available to an exclusive group of homeowners, and at a much higher price point.  The proliferation of connected devices in our homes has created a new standard for internet wiring and has created new challenges that come with a phone full of apps and an array of potential conflicts. 

Many of our clients who embark on a new home project approach this subject with caution. They all know someone who spent over $100K on a now obsolete system or have been guests in a home where they could not figure out how to turn on the lights or television. With proper planning and clear goals, these problems can be avoided. These clients will often proclaim in a meeting that they want to keep it simple, they don’t want any unnecessary technology, and do not want to spend time tutoring their family.  However, when we drill down to the individual functions, they still want most of the features. 

As with any design, simplicity is the most complex of achievements and this is even more so with electronics.

BBA has a successful history of guiding our clients through this process.  Back in 1998, we called it “electronic future proofing” and we are proud to report that one of our clients from that time is still utilizing the backbone structured wiring and the lighting control system we installed at that time. Later clients however, who insisted on a recessed IPOD port, now have the equivalent of an 8-track player plastered into the wall. Maybe that was the risk of being edgy back in 2003. 

In this article, we want to explain what we mean by “low voltage scope” in your home and the basic decisions you should make on the front end, so you can be ready for technology and be ready for the inevitable technology changes.

First, let’s break down the individual low voltage disciplines in a home:

1. Local Computer Networking:

a. Hard wire computer networks
b. WiFi transmitters and routers

2. Audio & Visual Systems:

a. Whole house music, speakers, and control
b. Whole house video distribution
c. Individual room based surround sound systems
d. Home theaters / Golf simulators / interactive gym equipment.
e. Lighting control
f. Whole house or individual room systems
g. Roller shades and window treatment automation

3. Security Systems:

a. Door, window and motion sensors
b. Smoke and CO detectors
c. Security cameras
d. Access entry devices

4. HVAC Controls:

a. Proprietary system control
b. Integrated controls for radiant, forced air, and humidity systems

5. Integration and app control for all of the above 

 

The good news is that there are so many high quality consumer products on the market today, that anyone can enjoy functions like lighting control, doorbell cameras, and access entry systems for hundreds, instead of tens of thousands, of dollars. Most of these products, like Ring cameras and Nest thermostats are easy to install and configure. The problems typically occur when these systems are expanded beyond a typical consumer scale. For instance, Nest thermostats are wonderful for single-zone radiant systems. When deployed to control multi-zones, they tend to go haywire. Similarly, popular home security systems sold online are easy to set up with your home WiFi, but if you buy multiple kits to cover a very large home, or multiple structures, you will often encounter configuration errors and a lifetime chase of dead contact batteries. If you enjoy being on hours-long tech support calls, many of these issues can be resolved with diligence. A more confident approach, however, is to meet with a technology integrator and decide the right scale and price point to meet your needs and feel free to get multiple opinions. Below is a list of considerations you should think about relative to the list of technologies above.

Local Area Computer Networking

In-Wall Cabling. It’s still a good idea.

Twenty-five years ago, we utilized a cabling strategy that laced the home in a bundled group of cables that looked like garden hose.  Inside this tube were multiple coax, Cat-5, and component video distribution cables. In most of these homes, the processing equipment, computers and TV’s have changed over a few times, but the basic wiring is still doing its job. We no longer employ the garden hose, as Cat-5e wiring has become ubiquitous and, in many instances, replaced by WiFi signals. Still however, we recommend a small network of Cat 5e cables through any home, which is always more reliable than the best WiFi and capable of business speed if you are producing or consuming any type of memory heavy media products, including online gaming. At a minimum, you should run Cat-5e cable to large screen or fixed workstation areas in your home, as well as WiFi transmission points. Your security vendor also may want similar cable at fixed control points. 

WiFi Transmitters. You can do better than what you get at Best Buy. 

Consumer level WiFi transmitters, or the units that you rent from ISP’s like Comcast, often do a pretty good job, but if you entertain regularly with multiple guests using your WiFi, or have more than a dozen WiFi connected devices in your home, you should consider a more robust system like those used in offices and hotels. These units are capable of managing more simultaneous traffic and require fewer re-boots. Integrators will often link several units together at points on your property to provide smooth transitions (electronic handshake) between transmission points with fewer dead zones. 

AV Systems

Screens

TV is rapidly changing and in some homes cable TV is simply no longer considered in lieu of all computer systems or the very popular Apple TV box. In any event, you need to decide if you want to have a space for local equipment, such as a cable box, if you want to access your TV from a traditional remote, use a phone, or also use the TV for onscreen controls for other systems, viewing security cameras, etc.  It’s all possible, but the more functions, the higher the price. Size is also no longer much of a limitation; 72” screens are common as are larger scale projection systems.

Higher-end AV systems, that are remote all of the equipment, amplifiers, wire hubs, and cable boxes, are typically arranged in a free standing or retractable rack that can be placed in a closet or basement space. The bundle of house wiring is then home-run to this area. Be sure to ventilate this space, as the equipment stack can generate some heat if closed off in a small room. 

Speakers

Built-in TV speakers are often not acceptable and can easily be replaced with a local sound bar or a surface mounted speaker system. This is the lowest cost option. Built-in wall or ceiling speakers are often preferred by designers.  The more expensive “invisible” in-wall speakers, that are indistinguishable from finished drywall, are increasingly popular.  Real audiophiles however, may still prefer stand-alone speakers that can be tuned to perfection to hear every nuance of the vinyl collection. Wireless Sonos speaker systems are increasingly user friendly and can be configured for multiple room locations. 

If you want whole-house audio distribution, your system needs to be more robust than standalone room systems and could be integrated.

Home Theaters 

Home theaters have always been popular in the upper level home market and are now enjoying a resurgence after a lull a few years ago. You should consider if your room will be a pure theater or part of a more dynamic space. To enhance the theater experience, integrators often add special lighting and shade controls and designers add tiered floor systems with oversized seating. A home theater generally requires a higher level installation, can include special acoustic fabrics, and complex speaker systems. 

Lighting Control Systems

Lighting control systems have great benefits at any scale. The first question to ask yourself is how much of the house do you want to control with a system. If it is only a few key rooms on your main living level, then you may be better served with a consumer level product such as Lutron Caseta. Main rooms plus corridors and exteriors? Perhaps a Radio Ra system is a better product for you. If the whole house will be on a system, then there are a number of well designed products to serve your needs. From a functional standpoint, a system allows you to pre-program different configurations of lighting for different types of activities or time of year. These are typically called “scenes” and allow you to maximize the visual possibilities of your lighting design.

From a designer’s standpoint, we love systems as they remove the need for large banks of light switches and always add controlled drama to the home.  
 

Shading

Just like lights, roller shades and window curtains can be fully automated and tied into a lighting control system or work on stand alone controls. In rooms full of windows, all shades can operate together, which is a big convenience. Most window controls now also run on low voltage power, so the days of large electric boxes in the window heads are over. We love a great window design, where the roller shade or curtain appears seamlessly out of a ceiling or wall pocket. When married with automation, the house has more magic. 

Security Systems

Your first step in the security system design should be to check with your insurance company if they have any requirements to achieve discounts. Certain high-end insurance carriers have very specific requirements. 

The next thing to know about security systems, is that the systems and the installation, can be decoupled from the contract to monitor your home. Today, all of the major systems rely on a similar internet protocol, so you can hire a company such as Brinks, ADT, or Keyth to monitor the system that was installed and tested by another vendor. Note that all of these systems rely on an internet connection. If you feel you need a backup to your ISP, you can also install a cellular backup system. This will only be available from higher end security contractors. 

Security systems can include remote signals to open locks as well as operate cameras when you are not available.  These devices have become ubiquitous with companies like Ring, Nest, Simply Safe, and others.  They can also be directed to a dedicated interior fixed screen, or to a TV screen, depending on the vendor or the integration system you select. 

Today, most consumer security system devices are wireless and leverage your home WiFi for functionality. In a new home, hardwiring the major devices has the advantage of never having a dead battery or lack of transmission due to a WiFi problem.
 

HVAC

Automated HVAC controls have been around for a long time, from the early “programmable thermostats,” to the more sophisticated control systems developed for institutional buildings by companies like Johnson Controls.  Honeywell, a legacy leader in the thermostat market, has long produced an interface panel that allowed third party products to control systems from a variety of home control integration products such as Elan, Crestron, Savant, Control4, and others.  The price point of all of these systems was substantial and the control was only as good as the HVAC engineer who configured it, which was always capable of horrendous errors. 

Some years back, Nest changed the industry by mimicking the shape and feel of an old-school Honeywell wall thermostat, but also providing the sophisticated functions previously available to only higher cost products, and put it all on your Smartphone. Unfortunately, Nest has never been robust enough for more complex systems, but the HVAC industry has taken notice, and now produces a host of far better HVAC control products including apps that control multi-zone systems. Unfortunately, these apps are largely proprietary. You can still control your systems through all the major smartphone apps, but there are a couple of risk factors that should be considered before making the investment.

1. Mixing radiant and forced air systems can cause inefficiencies if done improperly. Any control app can prioritize one system over another, often overworking the forced air element to satisfy the thermostat, while ignoring the benefits of the radiant system which takes far longer to come up to its design temperature. You need to ask your HVAC vendor to make sure they have a strategy to avoid this issue. 


2. Does your smart home system recognize all the same features available in the proprietary HVAC apps? Control of outside air intake and supplemental CFM loss through bath and kitchen fans can help keep a home well-balanced and healthy. Ignoring these factors can produce negative air pressure and pull air through fireplace flues or backwards through fan ducts. Some systems keep your whole home in balance, while others only turn the heating and cooling on or off, you should know the difference. 

We recommend using the control app recommended by the HVAC equipment manufacturer. This is sometimes less portable to outside platforms, but will often result in the best quality air in your home. 

Tying It All Together

Every one of the technologies above can be achieved as stand alone systems or with some integrated features. Products like Nest, Google Home, Xfinity Home, Overhead Door, Simply Safe, and others all provide consumer-level apps and can be a great option at this scale. There can be frustration, however, in dealing with the equivalent of “the cable guy” for each discipline, or spending hours on support calls.  Electronic Integrators can provide you with a more concierge level of service, wrapping up these various technologies into a unified system with a single app. Integrators can install and configure systems such as Lutron Homeworks, Elan, Crestron, Savant, Control4 and others to bring seamless control to all of the above systems. 

As with any design, simplicity is the most complex of achievements and even more so with electronics.