By Ted McIntyre

Clearing up the complicated world of home integration technology

The conversation goes like this: “Siri, can you call Alexa?

“Sorry, I don’t communicate with Alexa. And Alexa doesn’t talk to me.”

We get that a lot these days. As new smart-home products flood into the market in biblical proportions, getting Apple, Google and the rest of our Internet-of-Things devices to work together is like trying to converse with a fish.

And this, of course, is not a fad. According to Delaware-based Verified Market Research, the global smart-home market is expected to swell to $495.15 billion US by 2028, with a staggering compound annual growth rate of 23.59%.

Continually delayed but hoping to launch later this year, one platform seeking to integrate many of those varying IoT devices under its own cloud-based solution is called Matter. Overseeing the Matter standard is the Connectivity Standards Alliance (or CSA, formerly the Zigbee Alliance). “Manufacturers will comply to the Matter standard to ensure their devices are compatible with smart-home and voice services,” Wired magazine advises. “For folks building a smart home, Matter should enable (homeowners) to buy any device and use the voice assistant or platform they prefer to control it. While it will support various platforms, they will have to choose the voice assistants and apps they want to use. There is no central Matter app or assistant.

“What sets it apart is the breadth of its membership, the willingness to adopt and merge disparate technologies, and that it is an open-source project,” with interested companies able to incorporate their devices into the Matter ecosystem for free, Wired indicates. 

But this isn’t blanket coverage. “Some devices will work with Matter after a firmware update. Others won’t ever be compatible,” Wired cautions. “Matter 1.0 will, for example, only cover certain categories of smart devices, including light bulbs and switches, plugs, locks, blinds, shades, thermostats and HVAC controllers.”

In the interim, one company that truly matters on the connected front is Schneider Electric. With energy conservation among the leading attractions in the home IoT category, Schneider is not surprisingly a frontrunner. The company’s focus is “to provide a 100% protected and connected residential ecosystem using both the grid and distributed energy resources such as solar and battery,” says Schneider’s Arti Yellewar.

Schneider combines the electrical panel, inverter and switching and protection hardware into an AI-powered monitor called Wiser Energy. The monitor deciphers the electrical signature of each load in the house and feeds data to the homeowner via an app, providing a detailed energy report, the capability for setting goals, budgets and alarms, and more. 

“Studies have also shown that homeowners provided with energy data do make changes to reduce consumption,” says Yellewar. “It’s time to transform our thinking from smart to smart and sustainable.”

Schneider’s line of connected wiring devices, which operate within its Wiser Home app, “gives homeowners peace of mind, allows them insight into their energy usage and enables them to manage their energy usage. And it also gives their home a modern look,” Yellewar notes.

Regarding the product’s clean aesthetic, Schneider’s Square D wiring devices are available in two looks. The XD Series (a range of modern, sophisticated cover plates) easily mounts on X Series switches and receptacles. The cover plates simply snap onto the device, allowing homeowners to easily and safely update their look and colour without changing the device or exposing the wiring. The wiring devices, meanwhile, are available in multiple matte finish colour options, providing flexibility to adapt to any interior decor.

BUILDING ON RELATIONSHIPS

Two companies with longtime builder relationships that have made forays into the smart-home world are Reliance and Enercare.

The Enercare Smarter Home is a turnkey offering that takes the service responsibility off the builder’s shoulders. “We looked at what would be innovative that could help make homeownership easier,” explains Tim Myers, Enercare’s Director of Business Development & Relations. “We called it Smarter Home, because not only are we bringing in an array of products to identify a problem, but to provide a solution as well, such turning off the water to stop a leak, or turning off the thermostat from heat/cool mode if we detect CO2 to avoid spreading more gas in the home.

Far beyond monitoring HVAC performance, Enercare Smarter Home hooks into smart devices ranging from smart water leak sensors and thermostats to light switches and outlets, and from interior and exterior cameras to door and window contact alerts. Built around an integrated system of sensors and locks that can be automated and controlled from the homeowner’s phone, the system collects and analyzes data and makes it available through a mobile app that scans 24/7 for unusual performance, energy use and other anomalies, while prompting the Enercare team to act when issues occur. 

Security and privacy are at the forefront of the set-up. “Wifi can be an area of concern,” Myers says. “Sometimes people leave their modems on the default password, which aren’t the hardest to hack. So when we looked at this solution, we looked at what technology would prevent that situation from occurring. We have to rely on wifi for our cameras because of the bandwidth, but we went with a bank encryption-level of security for everything else. And what we have packaged into our solution is professional installation, with those pro installers spending at least a half hour with the homeowner, teaching them about the system, setting up parameters, like a thermostat schedule, and educating them on how to use the system so that they can avoid security breaches.”

Interoperability among the array of products was also vital, Myers says. “This removes the need for multiple apps to control your home, as the Enercare Smarter Home app controls the entire ecosystem of products.”

Reliance Home Comfort is also active in this space. Taking the guesswork out of a connected home set-up, the company’s new Smart Home program is the latest addition to a Comfort Value Bundle that already included water heating, HVAC and water purification. Reliance has teamed up with Google Nest to provide builders with tailored solutions, no-cost smart-home equipment, professional installation and ongoing support. And once the homebuyer moves in, Reliance will guide them through the use of their smart-home products and connected app solutions. And as a Google Nest Pro Elite-certified company, Reliance’s technicians are specially trained to install and test new equipment.

“We’ve constructed the initial ideal starter bundle that includes the Nest thermostat, Nest doorbell and Nest Hub Max with the Google Assistant, allowing homeowners to control all their compatible connected home devices with their voice or on a single dashboard with Home View. That lets it all be part of the Google ecosystem,” says Shannon Bertuzzi, Reliance’s Director of Builder Markets.

Featuring low monthly fees, the program also allows homebuyers to choose from a selection of additional smart-home products, including equipment that works independently or with existing connected devices. 

All smart-home packages are customizable. And as Reliance customers, homebuyers take advantage of full equipment and in-home service warranties and repairs, no-charge repairs, free replacement of unrepairable equipment and ongoing live 24/7 customer support.

MASS APPEAL

On the multi-residential side, the partnership of Rogers Communications and 1Valet has provided Rogers Ignite Internet customers with exclusive access to a unique smart building ecosystem. The Rogers Smart Community leverages 1Valet’s software-based platform to offer a smartphone-centric living experience that includes hands-free digital building access, video guest verification and facial recognition access. For operations staff, the platform enables remote multi-building management, while also bringing together otherwise disconnected building systems such as cameras, access control, resident management and package delivery into one integrated management portal. 

Part of a five-year agreement between the two Canadian companies, who feature a joint sales force, it offers “the tools to help create a safer and smarter community,” says Michael Krstajic, SVP of Field Sales & Major Accounts at Rogers Communications. “This is a unique set of services that you cannot get anywhere else.” 

The Rogers Smart Community bundles high-speed connectivity with its Rogers for Business IoT products and consulting services, while 1VALET’s smart building platform and mobile resident application seamlessly tie it all together into a single user interface. 

Another Canadian company making lives a lot easier for multi-residential builders and occupants is Eddy Solutions. Protecting against water damage, the comprehensive system provides a real-time display of robust data by combining IoT technology with 24/7 monitoring, as well as LoRaWAN, a networking protocol that wirelessly connects devices to the internet and manages communication between end-node devices and network gateways. Smart sensors and remote and automatic shutoffs help protect all areas of a building, including risers, mechanical rooms, suites and common areas. The system learns and adjusts through sensory and flow data to automatically identify anomalies and mitigate threats.

From a residents’ standpoint, it helps buyers avoid potential displacement and common fund increases from damage, as well as providing insurance discounts. From a builder perspective, it’s added value for new buyers, many of whom are very environmentally sensitive and want to conserve water. Building owners, meanwhile, can expect a reduction of overall costs, protection and extended life of mechanical equipment, protection of finishes and reduced environmental damage.

In June, Eddy announced an $8 million agreement with The Daniels Corporation that will provide intelligent leak protection at 13 GTA projects—both during construction and afterward—for more than 5,000 residential units. 

“Resilient construction is a particular area of focus for us as a developer/builder,” says Sam Tassone, Partner, The Daniels Corporation. “Water damage can cause significant project delays and losses, and require major rework in an industry already under stress. Eddy’s intelligent system provides us with a holistic tool that not only allows us to mitigate and control water in our projects but offers insurance benefits as well.” 

TRULY INTEGRATED

Avoiding tomorrow’s problems today is a particular specialty of Control4Home OS3. Unlike Matter, which is a cloud-based automation platform, the Control4 smart-home operating system is programmed and operated via a local controller on the local network. This ensures privacy and security while allowing the homeowner to own the code of their system. And that means the homeowner can easily transfer devices from the Control4 ecosystem to a new owner when it comes time for selling their home.

Such infrastructure is not a luxury anymore; it’s an expectation from homebuyers, suggests Marcel Mukerjee, Senior Area Manager for SnapOne, Control4’s parent company. “The average home today has at least 33 electronic devices that don’t integrate with each other,” Mukerjee says, which is a reason why this is not a space builders should be dabbling in.

“I know of a builder who had a Tarion clause issue because he gave away some IoT devices, including an iPad as the control interface. The homeowner had certain expectations, but the builder quickly discovered that each homeowner had a different ISP provider, and each of those ISPs had to add those devices differently.” 

Mukerjee proceeds to work his way through five levels of integration. At Level 3 there’s up to 25 devices in the home, with each accessory, from the furnace to the thermostat, featuring a connected app. There is even some ‘scene setting,’ with, for example, home lighting or temperature changes based on the time of day. This is what most consumers consider “integrated.” But they’re not even close, Mukerjee says.

Moving on to Level 4, he introduces a robust, secure, built-in home infrastructure, able to integrate as many as 1,000+ devices across the entire home. And then there’s Level 5, where the technology is so heavily integrated that it’s invisible; where the home knows and learns your routines and proactively protects the home from potential intruders. Those last two levels are “the pro space, where builders want to live, where the margins are greater—where Control4 operates,” Mukerjee says. This is the home where, thanks to presets, when you unlock the door with your personal code, the alarm is disabled, your thermostat and lighting are adjusted depending upon the time of day and the season, and your favourite media begins to play.

“Everything is not going to exist in a wireless ecosystem. Certain things need to be hard-wired,” says Mukerjee—particularly when it comes to privacy. “Commercial-grade networks will be required, especially at a time when many people are now working from home. People are going to see how hacking can be almost as devastating as a nuclear bomb. I’m surprised insurance companies haven’t woken up to this, because you can go into a home and steal material without breaking into it physically. You can leave the back door open easily.”

The installation and care of such advanced technology requires specialists, Mukerjee stresses. “The home is the family nest and they want to space to be managed for them. So ultimately the pro becomes the tech concierge for your house. Whether you’re adding a new phone or putting in a new TV that needs to be hooked into the system, the pro handles it. This is a service and specialized trade, much like an electrician, except the home keeps changing and evolving.”

Mukerjee says step one is helping builders lay the foundation for their clients by providing an “integrative-ready” home, complete with his company’s OVRC platform, a remote network-managing tool that allows for real-time identification of a system problem. Step two for Mukerjee is introducing the builder/renovator client to Control4’s partner, FM Audio Video, where the clients can visit the Brantford dealership and Experience Centre to see how clean, uncluttered and intuitive their home could potentially be.

“When it comes to building a new home, you don’t know what you don’t know—what the real possibilities and the options are,” says FM Manager Geoff Forrest, who works with designer partners, offering an area where customers can choose their products and another that is integrated, allowing them to experience it as a homeowner—from intuitive lighting to automatic blinds. 

“With Control4, yes we do have an app and we can make it all work into one, but that’s not really the magic,” Mukerjee says. “It’s not automation; this is what we call control. The unified platform offers the power of multiple commands in one device. And you can also get feedback from all those devices on one platform. But the true opportunity is coordinating these connected devices to make them aware of one another. That creates a better personalized experience. That’s a key thing.”

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