There's Gold in Them There Walls
Savvy installers and integrators are leveraging the communications bonanza that residential structured wiring provides.
By Brian Ploskina&000;&000;
For more than a decade, builders have contracted with integrators to wire homes with next-generation cabling capable of delivering high-speed internet, high-definition television, whole home audio and more.
According to the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), nearly one million homes were built with structured wiring inside them last year. But most of the structured cabling cans that hold the components for home entertainment and security are half-empty, says Mark Cerasuolo, director of brand development for Leviton Integrated Networking and Controls. In the basement, he says, you'll find "large enclosures with fairly basic systems like voice, data and sometimes video, which leaves a lot of space to go back and equip those homes with next-generation technology."
Out of all the technologies home builders offer their customers, structured wiring is tops at 82 percent, and more than half of builders offer it as a standard option, regardless of the size of the home, according to CEA. Of course, the higher-end the home, the more likely the owner will be offered structured wiring.
"Structured wiring is closer to being the norm today than not," observes Dave Hanchette, vice president of marketing for On-Q/Legrand. "It has a lot to do with the expectations of the home." It's quite a departure when one considers structured wiring was only going into five percent of new homes just over a decade ago, he added.
WHAT IS STRUCTURED WIRING?
In that time, structured wiring as a category has changed some. However, most installers either comply with or draw their expertise from the Telecommunications Industry Association standard known as TIA-570A. "Grade 1" of the spec is the most popular configuration. It calls for:
- a centralized communications center—usually an enclosed box
- two Category 5 (or Category 6) cables, and
- two RG-6 coaxial cables.
The cables are run to one wall in each main room of the house. "Grade 2" of the standard calls for running the cables to two walls in each main room of the house.
These standards obviously provide enough bandwidth to handle any application an installer can throw at them.
However, is today's structured wiring future-proof? Can you guarantee your customers it will stand the test of time?
Absolutely, says Hanchette. Not only does today's structured wiring standard far exceed current needs, he says, but "today's technology is being built around what we're putting into homes." Even when the day comes eons from now when all the bandwidth has been used, manufacturers will likely develop technologies that take advantage of the infrastructure already in the wall.
"There's more capacity than people realize," agrees Tim Troutman, senior product manager for Honeywell Security Electronics. "People seldom, if ever, reach saturation because they're going to be more limited from the bandwidth being handed to them." In other words, the bandwidth available inside the home far exceeds what's coming to it from service providers like cable, phone and data.
One structured wiring expert, however, recommends installing an additional Cat 5, making it three Cat 5s and two RG-6s in each wall. Chuck Stevens, vice president of marketing for OpenHouse, says a media server demands its own hub, so you're likely wise to give that component its own Cat 5. "It just makes sense to have the rest of your data on a separate line," he says.
While it's true that service providers are moving to next-generation infrastructure, structured wiring will likely keep pace. As service providers implement fiber runs to more neighborhoods and homes, expect to see more structured wiring with fiber included as well.
Interestingly, 2005 was the first time in the four-year history of the CEA State of the Builder Technology Market Study that structured wiring installations declined, dropping by more than 18 percent from the year before. This could be the result of several factors, one of which is the fact that builders are less frequently offering their customers "structured wiring." Instead, they are increasingly offering the applications that structured wiring provides. They just require structured wiring to finish the job.
In fact, the two most common installations next to structured wiring—monitored security and multi-room audio—both increased over the last two years in the study. Monitored security rose by 17 percent, while multi-room audio installations increased by more than 25 percent.
"In many cases, structured wiring is necessary to do the other things," On-Q's Hanchette says. "You could do it without it, but it would make things more difficult (in the future)."
Other applications offered include home theater, automated lighting controls, home automation and energy management.
IT'S ALL ABOUT THE MAGIC
In the end, applications are what sell structured wiring anyway, not the idea of having high-speed cables stretching throughout your house. It's like selling a picture tube or an automobile engine or a motherboard; only the most savvy of consumers would want such underlying components. Most people want the finished TV or car or Windows PC—the applications.
Simply put, as we've heard more than once before, consumers want the magic, not the trick.
"When I talk to someone about building a new home and talk to them about a digital distributed audio system that runs over Cat 5 and RG-6, that's pretty scary," Hanchette says. "But if I ask them if they think it's cool to listen to their music from anywhere in the home, they start to think about something they really want."
Of course, to sell to the homeowner, you often have to get in good with the builder. If you don't already have a relationship with a builder, it can be difficult to get started. A catch-22: For 83 percent of home builders, the most important factor in selecting a home technology installer is experience working with them, according to the CEA study. Reputation and price are the other top factors.
But there is good news for custom retailers and installers. The number-one application that builders want to install but don't because of their unfamiliarity with the technology involved is home theater. That's an opportunity C-tailers should be exploiting.
In fact, contractors are turning to custom installers more than ever and say they are more satisfied with the work performed by them, according to CEA. In luxury homes, custom installers were called on to install home technologies 75 percent of the time, more than any other installation contractor. And in overall home building, the custom installer was called on 51 percent of the time—up from 34 percent in 2004.
There are several popular methods for selling structured wiring applications. Honeywell's Troutman prefers the "good, better, best scenario." The most successful installers put together "cookie cutter" options and limit those options to make installations easy, Troutman says.
One rumor that's spread through the industry is that wireless technologies will eventually remove the need for so much structured wiring in homes. Many vendors say that's utter nonsense. While Wi-Fi can add a layer of convenience for the homeowner, it rarely can replace the speed, efficiency and versatility of Cat 5, they say.
"[Wireless] further enhances the convenience of whatever system you've chosen your structured wiring system for," Hanchette says. "Some people think [wireless and structured wiring] are pitted against each other, and it's quite the opposite."
Besides, Wi-Fi isn't completely wireless. You still need to supply it with power and you still need to connect it to the internet. Companies like On-Q are actually improving the situation by removing the need for a power cord. That way, you can put the wireless access point in places where outlets are hard to find. The device works by supplying power over ethernet.
Another enhancement coming to structured wiring is consumer electronics built for placement inside the enclosed communications center. For instance, Leviton is selling a media server called LE&AP (Leviton Entertainment & Applications Platform) that serves as a digital distribution center for transmitting video and music throughout the home. "That's the direction in which the electronics industry is going to have to head," says Leviton's Cerasuolo. "The CE industry is going to have to adapt to the built-in infrastructure in homes," and design components that complement integrated home entertainment installations.
Cerasuolo opines that it's getting to the point when consumers will no longer tolerate black boxes littering their family rooms. Instead, they'll want the equipment stored in the structured wiring cabinet in the basement or closet.
A world without visible components! That is likely bad news for your media furniture suppliers, but it's great news for your installation business. &000;&000;&000;&000;