Securing The Future

Supposedly, if you throw a frog in a pot of hot water, it will jump out to save itself. However, if you put the same frog in a pot of cool water and slowly heat it to boiling, the frog will placidly float there until it cooks. With apologies to animal lovers, this story reminds me of what's happening with contracting and wireless. Wireless is heating up around us, and we may get "cooked" before we realize what's happening.

We've had wireless intrusion alarm sensors and wireless smoke alarms for some time. These are used mostly in residential installations to avoid the cost and mess of routing cable in an existing home. No big deal, right? These wireless devices don't threaten commercial systems contractors. They're cheap devices that run on batteries. They're not supervised. They have no agency listings (U.L. or otherwise). Local AHJs wouldn't approve them for public spaces, anyway.
But, what if they were supervised? What if the batteries had an extended lifetime? What if systems designed around these wireless devices could be as dependable as conventional wired systems? What if wireless technology could take over virtually every system we install? This is the wireless revolution we are facing, and the implications are wide-reaching.

Why will wireless revolutionize contracting? Because it has the potential to shift much of our work to other trades. I'll explore this side of the issue in a bit. But first let's look at some of the technology that underlies the revolution.

Start with improved battery technology and power-stingy electronics. These advancements allow a 5- to 7-year projected lifetime for the wafer battery in a wireless smoke alarm. A lot of systems get replaced in less time than that.

Next, consider supervision. Conventional wireless devices transmit to a central receiver, sometimes through a repeater. These devices can be supervised if they are designed to ping the receiver every so often-a kind of "E.T., phone home" system. If a device fails to call home on schedule, the receiver generates a trouble report.

But, this is existing wireless technology. The real revolution will come as wireless devices meet wireless networks. Now, communication can be 2-way, enabling far more sophisticated operation and supervision. These new wireless systems even have a dependability advantage. If one wireless device fails, the rest of the system can continue to operate normally. In comparison, a broken cable in a wired system stops every device past the break from operating. (Class A fire alarm wiring can prevent this kind of failure but at additional cost.)

Now, let's put all of this technology to work. Imagine a wireless, battery-operated access control system where the card reader is integrated with the lockset. Install this in a door, set up the wireless network and the central software and the system is done.
Compare this with a conventional, wired, access control system. Gone are 1980s-era Wiegand card readers with their complex wiring. Gone are the specialized hardware controllers needed to manage these card readers and control the locksets. Gone are the proprietary RS485 networks connecting multiple controllers to a central computer. Gone, in fact, are almost all of the reasons this system needs a "systems contractor."

Think about it. Once the wireless network is in place, a locksmith can install this system. Yeah, a locksmith. OK, someone has to configure the software, but that's getting easy enough a lot of end-users can do it for themselves. Oh, by the way, you can buy this system today from Recognition Source. It'll be sold under the Schlage brand. I'm sure other suppliers will follow (maybe they have).

A similar story is unfolding in CCTV. Program a wireless camera with an IP address, hang it on the wall, plug it into an AC outlet and it's ready to report back to a DVR and monitor. Yes, someone has to configure the DVR and adjust the cameras. But, can we really claim that only a low-voltage contractor has this expertise?

Or, consider how wireless will affect digital signage. Hang a display on the wall with a wireless network adapter and plug it into the AC. Except for content, this system is completed. Who needs a systems contractor?

How about nurse call? Wireless "emergency call" systems are already widely available, and many assisted living facilities have standardized on wireless. I know a supplier that makes an emergency call pendant that transmits directly to a pocket pager. An assisted living facility could order this system off the internet, ready to use. No contractor required.

The wireless revolution will even affect sound. Add wireless networking to amplified speakers, and you have a wireless speaker cluster. Separate a digital mixing console into a control surface and a specialized computer. With wireless technology, the control surface can go anywhere in the house. The computer section, with all of the audio signals, can stay safely at the stage. Even the patch bay will become just a digital matrix in the computer. This system needs expertise for its operation but, outside of rigging the speakers, the installation is much like setting up a portable system.
Even the data cabling people have reason to be worried. A new wireless technology called "Zig-Bee" allows wireless devices to set up their own, ad-hoc, peer-to-peer network. If that same wireless access control system incorporated Zig-Bee technology, even the network contractor would be out of a job! Just install the locksets and configure the software.

Agency listing may slow the adoption of wireless technology in life-safety systems like fire alarm and hospital nurse call. However, from what I'm seeing, wireless technology is ready (or nearly ready) for agency listing. How long can it be until we see agency listing stickers on wireless devices?

And yes, there are still some technical problems like bandwidth and interference. But, these issues will be solved just as surely as battery life and supervision. Wireless will revolutionize every system we sell. How, then, can contractors avoid being left behind and learn to benefit from the wireless revolution?

First, be ready with wireless expertise. Many contractors are already certified to install wired and wireless networks. The rest of us need to get on this bandwagon fast. As an alternate strategy, consider an alliance with a data cabling contractor.

Second, watch your suppliers. Some manufacturers may stick with older, wired technologies. This will allow upstarts to drive a wedge into their markets. You may want to sign on with some of these new suppliers. (Manufacturers, are you listening?)

Third, be prepared to be a "parts and smarts" supplier when it's appropriate. The access control and CCTV systems I used as examples would lend themselves to this approach. The systems contractor will sell the products but, often, someone else will install them. We will get to configure the software and adjust the devices if we add value in these processes. That value comes from understanding the customer's needs and customizing the systems, and our services, to fill those needs.

Above all, we cannot ignore wireless. This is arguably as big a revolution as digital, and it's already well under way.