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The Home Automation Question: To Upgrade or Not to Upgrade?

     

No builder wants the new house he just built and sold to be outdated before the buyer even moves in. Unfortunately, this scenario is happening often because standard wiring is no longer sufficient to meet the electronic information needs of many home buyers today, let alone their needs in the future.

In order to keep up with consumer demand, builders need to know about one of the latest trends in new home construction: upgraded wiring to meet homeowner needs in the information age. That upgraded wiring does not mean the cable television wire many builders have had a subcontractor install in their houses for a long time.

Whether or not a home builder wants to offer a home automation system, prewiring a house for phones, television, computers, and intercoms may make good sense. Builders have estimated costs anywhere from $500 to more than $1,000 for this type of upgrade, depending on the size of the house and the number of rooms in which the wiring is used.

A number of manufacturers sell systems that will meet standards for these types of electrical capabilities. The companies also provide central wiring boxes -- sometimes called "service centers" -- for interconnection of the wires and for connecting to external cable TV and telephone lines. These types of products are called structured wiring systems. Whether or not the wiring is structured, the minimum system should include:

  • FOR TELECOMMUNICATIONS: Category 5 telephone cables containing four twisted pairs each. Category 5 is a special type of telephone cable that can be used for higher speed communications than normal telephone cables. This cable should be run to any room in the house where a home buyer may want a phone, fax machine, or computer.
  • FOR VIDEO CAPABILITIES: Residential quality coaxial cable (RG-6) run to all locations in the house where home buyers may want a television set. Also consider cabling to exterior doors, nurseries, or any other places where the buyers might want "upstream" capability for TV monitoring cameras, or where they may want to run a VCR output from one room to another.
  • FOR AUDIO CAPABILITIES: Twisted pairs of intercom and high-quality shielded audio cable if the home buyers want to pipe stereo throughout their house.

This type of wiring prepares a house for several options in home automation, which is defined in many ways depending on whom you ask. The term is often used to describe the application of electronic control to functions, products, or systems in a house. If a system, controller, or function is called "home automation," it usually ties two or more products or functions together. For example, a security system may be able to turn on all the lights in the house when an alarm is triggered.

Based on various informal Research Center surveys, many home builders say they have not taken the first step toward home automation, installing Category 5 telephone cables and RG-6 coaxial cable, because home buyers usually do not request this amenity. Many home buyers do not know they need the upgraded wiring and are not aware these types of products are available.

When home buyers find out what is available, the situation can change dramatically. Consider what happened in a portion of the Washington, DC market when Bell Atlantic, a telephone company, took its upgraded wiring message to consumers after hearing from builders that home buyers were not asking for upgraded wiring.

Bell Atlantic used a million-dollar advertising campaign to make consumers aware of the need for upgraded wiring. An ad said, "Any Other New Home Is Now Obsolete. Your new home is wired for the future if you see this sign. Bell Atlantic Ready." After ads like this one, home buyers began asking builders more often about upgraded wiring. Subsequently, some builders in that market started installing the upgraded wiring.

Even if the current home buyer does not need or want upgraded wiring, the next buyer may. When resale value of the house enters the equation, even homeowners who do not use a computer at home should consider integrating this type of wiring to increase the appeal of their house to future buyers. Putting upgraded wiring in an existing house is usually too expensive for most homeowners, but remodelers have other alternatives for their customers.