Elan and other special wiring systems, in development for years, are starting to show up in the market as the housing industry attempts to pull out of a long recession. Buyers who pick wrong could end up something like those who chose Betamax videocassette recorders, which have been plowed under by the rival VHS system. So far, however, there are few clear guidelines for making the best choice.
Entertainment and convenience functions on the level of magic-show stunts are often emphasized by promoters, but automation systems at their best can provide high-tech security against intruders and fires, permit monitoring and close control of energy-using systems such as heating and air conditioning to ensure the most-efficient fuel use, and provide extensive room-to-room communications and remote control of functions by telephone.
Central control of automated systems is often by a video touch screen, which displays menus of functions and lets the user select those to be put into action.
Square D Co., of Lexington, Ky., which manufactures Elan, calls it the Advanced Home Network and describes it as "a single, open-wiring format for coordinating all telephone, video, audio and electrical services in the home."
Elan uses conventional electrical-wiring products, but "reorganizes the way a house is wired," Koren said. The various types of wires for electrical service, telephone, audio and video are coordinated by running them all to a special central panel, or hub. The reorganization permits interaction and communication of appliances and services.
An example used in Elan sales pitches: Homeowner is watching television in family room when doorbell rings. Homeowner pushes a button on a remote TV control and an image of the person who rang the bell appears on the TV screen.
Also due for introduction in the area is an automation system called Smart Redi, which should not be confused with Bright House.
Smart House is a whole new automation technology, requiring not only special Smart Redi wiring, but special compatible appliances and fixtures. The technology was developed by Smart House L.P., a limited partnership and spinoff of the National Association of Home Builders, working with a consortium of appliance and electronics manufacturers, utility companies and trade groups.
Leon Weiner, chief executive officer of Smart House L.P., of Upper Marlboro, Md., said that products for Smart House technology were "on the shelf as of Aug. 1" and that construction of demonstration houses would start soon in the Washington and Philadelphia areas.
Smart House has yet to release names of area builders who will use the system, however, and some leading builders have expressed reservations about the system's complexity and cost. Smart Redi is expected to be used mostly in upscale housing at first. And, according to an informed estimate, the wiring and basic hardware will add $6,000 to $8,000 to the price of a 2,500-square- foot house. One area building executive, a technology buff, estimated the cost of a full system at $30,000.
However, Weiner says that Smart House wiring is the wiring of the future for housing in general.
"If a house ain't Smart it will be dumb," he said in an interview earlier this year. "When you go to sell a house three or four years from now, if it doesn't have home automation, it will be like the days when builders didn't
put in air conditioning."
Smart House uses what it calls "bundled cables" of wiring to distribute power, telephone, video and control communications signals throughout a home. The integrated wiring permits all of the home's systems, appliances and products to be linked and centrally controlled.
An example sometimes used in Smart House promotion: Homeowner is watching a videotape on television in the family room. Homeowner's daughter can watch the same tape on a set in her bedroom, thanks to the integrated wiring.
While Smart House has received the most media attention, Elan is the first to be demonstrated in the Philadelphia area and is likely to be the first to go into a for-sale home in this area.
Bright House Inc. recently set up an Elan exhibit at its offices in the Idea Home at Franklin Mills Mall in Northeast Philadelphia. Koren and Edward D. Carpp, Bright House president, moved their company into the Idea Home in April after the home was acquired by the Philadelphia Home & Design Center
from A.P. Orleans Inc. Orleans built the home and used it for several years to interest visitors in its housing developments.
Orleans will apparently be the first in the area to equip a home with Elan wiring and, coincidentally, also beat out the introduction of Smart House in the area.
Del Purscell, executive vice president for Orleans, said an Elan-wired sample home would be built at Bridlewood, a new development of detached homes in Mount Laurel. Elan will be an optional feature for the homes, the base prices of which are about $220,000.
"We intend to include it, and we'll fast-track it," said Purscell. "It's the wiring required for the advanced automated home. We should have an Elan house up in three or four months."
The current Elan exhibit, in the design center near the Idea Home, shows a central panel or box of the type used to coordinate and distribute Elan wiring. Visitors to the exhibit can also perform or see a variety of electronic functions in action: a motion detector turns on lights, glass can be changed from opaque to clear by pushing a button, a cat door won't open unless the cat (a stuffed Garfield, in this case) carries an electronic key, and so forth.
One of Elan's important characteristics is that it fits CEBus (consumer electronics bus) standards set up by the Electronic Industries Association, a trade group. CEBus is designed to form a common communication standard for consumer electronic devices used in American homes. ("Bus" is a term for a process used to link some computer systems.)
Elan backers say CEBus, with its conventional but coordinated wiring, is a cheaper and possibly wiser approach than Smart House to advanced automation of new homes.
"It seems like Smart House is always talking, talking, talking, and nothing is getting done," said Joseph Kennedy, of Square D's district office in Media. "We have our product and are ready to go with it." Square D and Bright House plan a series of area seminars for builders, architects, contractors and others to push Elan.
"People will want to buy Elan because it is cost-effective," said Carpp. ''Elan can be installed at not much extra cost." He estimated the additional cost of basic Elan wiring at less than $4,000. As with Smart Redi, additional features can be added as they are developed.
Carpp and Koren concede that any homeowner or renter can achieve some automation without special wiring, using devices that cost from $25 to several hundred dollars. These devices include remote controls for lights and appliances and wireless security systems. A line of relatively inexpensive controls and devices by X-10 Inc. and other manufacturers is available at the Idea Home, and devices by various manufacturers are sold at some home centers and electronic-supply dealers.
"To date, we've looked at 68 manufacturers of automation products," said Koren. "You can spend $25 to $60,000 to automate."
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Bright House, 215-281-2922. Smart House L.P. is at 400 Prince George Blvd., Upper Marlboro, Md. 20772.