Who should you choose to design and install your smart home? The answer depends on your needs, expectations, and budget. A national service provider (like Comcast or AT&T) may meet your immediate needs at minimal up-front cost—if basic, non-custom solutions will do, and if you are comfortable with corporate-style customer service and a long contract with monthly fees. Big box stores and internet resellers focus on the retailing of goods, not the design and installation of smart home systems, so they typically don’t know much about home integration.
If you are looking for smart home products and services that are tailored to your individual needs or involve multi-system integration, you will probably want to talk to a specialist.
Specialists. The field of home integration was created largely within the audio/video industry—with technologies including multi-room music, home theater and automation systems. Allied sectors—security & surveillance, solar energy, information technology, lighting and shade control, and recently smart appliances—have expanded the range of smart home offerings now available, and have become an integral part of the smart home arena.
Until quite recently, showroom-based A/V Specialists, plus Home Integrators (some with concept showrooms), have accounted for most of the design and installation work in the smart home sector. Many of these specialists are highly skilled, and provide a wide range of products and services—typically on a fee-for-service basis. See Find an Expert to locate a smart home specialist near you.
Electronic Service Providers. Cable TV and telephone service providers and national security chains have begun to sell basic home automation services, using wireless technology to simplify installation. These providers typically offer promotional specials in which a limited range of equipment and services are bundled. Low installation prices are achieved by shifting most of the costs into recurring monthly fees.
These large service corporations typically have limited ability to assess the home and lifestyle patterns of clients, or to design and engineer systems to specific individual needs. Also, they lack expertise in the design and installation of home theaters, multi-room music systems, and many other elements that may be needed when tailoring smart home technologies to the particular needs of a client.
Big Box Stores. Many of the retail electronics chains have closed their doors recently, due largely to internet price competition. Of those that remain, most offer some level of installation service. But successful electronic home integration is much more than a retail transaction with delivery and hook-up. Few chains provide the design and engineering services and skilled installation that a smart home requires. Internet sellers provide even less—you must know what you want and how to install and configure it yourself.
The Big Box chains are not covered in the analysis below, because they lack the range and depth of services that are required for true home integration. Nor, for the same reasons, are the internet sellers.
Internet of Things. A fourth category of products has recently emerged to much fanfare. Dubbed the Internet of Things (IoT), it allows the do-it-yourselfer to install one or a few widgets in their house or apartment (plus the corresponding apps on their smartphone) to provide low-cost home automation features. Many of these devices are stand-alone products, while others can be combined using a dedicated mini-platform. So far, the available IoT technologies focus mostly on basic lighting control, heating and cooling thermostats, simple alarm systems, and surveillance cameras—all internet-enabled so they can be remotely monitored and controlled.
Today, the most widely-recognized IoT product is the Nest learning thermostat, which recently added an optional CO (carbon monoxide) detector and a table-top security camera into their mix. Apple’s Home-Kit offers its own branded products, as well as those developed by independent partners. And Samsung recently announced a major drive to internet-enable all of their consumer electronic products within the next few years. Numerous start-up companies have also entered the fray, and are developing stand-alone DIY automation widgets which are expected to flood the marketplace within the next few years.
This flurry of digital innovation and excitement has occurred in a matter of a few years. By contrast, most of the dedicated smart home products and systems available through automation Specialists (see above) have evolved and been perfected over a period of nearly four decades. Given the complexity of human behavior and taste, are the new IoT “systems” ready for prime time—after such a brief and frenzied cycle of development? Many apparently are not. Adoption rates for products in this new category have recently fallen far short of industry expectations, calling in to question the viability of this approach. Consumers report the following problems:
• Hacking. Many—if not most—of the devices in this category are easily hacked, due to inadequate security code protocols and other protections. These flaws offer the hacker an easy back door into everything connected to the owner’s home network, including security systems and financial information. Imagine a burglar gaining access to the family’s daily schedule that the thermostat has so cleverly learned and recorded! See Network-Based Smart Home Systems (coming soon); and Protect Your Network from Hackers (coming soon)
• Frustration. Although IoT widgets and apps are widely promoted as simple DIY projects, many non-digit-head purchasers have found them frustrating to install, configure, and use—and have either resorted to professional installation for the devices (taking away much of the price advantage of the IoT approach to smart home automation), returned them in favor of more established solutions (see above), or avoided the category altogether. See The Analog Brain in a Digital World.
• Limited Integration. As the smart home concept enters the mainstream of American life, and the IoT receives exhaustive attention in the press, savvy consumers have begun to realize that a handful of cookie-cutter automation widgets and smartphone apps may not meet their smart home needs and expectations. Though appealing in its promises of simple installation and low price, the one-size-fits-all IoT approach fails to deliver on the two key benefits of a truly smart home: the ability to scale and custom-tailor each technology to the specific physical characteristics of the home and the lifestyle needs of the household members; and the unlimited ability to integrate across technologies in order to solve unusual or even unique home-related problems. See Integrating Smart Home Devices; Lifestyles; Smart Home Planner, and Tailor the Technology to Your Lifestyle
Cost-Shifting. The giant service corporations are experts at marketing bundled services for a low initial price. They then shift most of the cost burden for installation labor and equipment into recurring monthly fees, under a binding multi-year contract—just like they do for their cable TV or cell phone services. Reduced initial costs appeal to some consumers, but the total cost over the term of the contract may be surprisingly high. Before signing a cost-shifting agreement, calculate the total cost to cover the full commitment period.
Price competition among these providers only intensifies this cost-shifting: even lower up-front fees requiring an even greater back-end burden. To make the numbers work, corporate providers may cut corners on design and installation to reduce their costs. Hopefully this doesn’t result in serious inadequacies, especially when family safety and security are at stake.
Customer Service. Corporate-style customer service often disappoints, especially in the electronics sector. Many electronic service providers get poor marks in consumer satisfaction surveys—for long waits on hold, billing complications, day-long windows for appointments, no shows, etc. If you miss a favorite TV show due to a connection problem, non-responsive customer service is just an annoyance. But when lighting control, security, or surveillance is involved, the risks can be very real.
Successful specialists build their businesses on careful design, solid execution, and responsive service, rather than on the heavy promotion of enticing initial fees. They recognize that customer satisfaction requires expert design and installation plus competent and timely customer service. And they are eager to provide it.
Equipment. The System Processor is the black box that coordinates all of the sub-systems in the home, and supports communication with the world beyond. Established brands include Crestron, Control4, Elan, Savant, AMX and URC Total Control. Most A/V Specialists are certified to design, install, and program at least one of these powerful and flexible systems. Most service corporations opt for their own proprietary systems, which may function well enough within the limited range of services they offer, but can be very limiting when it comes to special consumer needs.
Learning Curves. The design, installation and integration of electronic home systems is complex work, and takes years of training and experience to master. Service providers just entering the home integration field from the cable TV, alarm, or tele-communications sectors face the daunting challenges of training sales, engineering, and installation personnel to master multiple new technologies, each with a steep learning curve. Will these organizations be able to adapt their services and standardized technologies to individual lifestyle needs? Time will tell.
Many specialists have decades of residential integration experience– often having completed thousands of hours of training and hundreds of projects. The challenge ahead for them is to streamline their design and installation processes so they can offer advanced engineering and superior service to a wider range of clients.