Show home doubles as smart getaway

Home to the owners of integration company, Alpha Touch Limited, this property in rural Carmarthenshire, Wales is packed with automation to show potential clients the possibilities of what they can have in their own homes. More than that, the ground floor of the show home doubles as a holiday apartment, giving potential clients as well as the general public a chance to live with the technology before they make any decisions. Amy Wallington enjoys a stay at the ‘try before you buy’ smart home.

Home automation is a big commitment, and often with such an expensive price tag attached, it’s important to know what you are getting for your money and, more crucially, is the technology actually going to benefit your every day life or is it just going to complicate it.

Situated in a small hamlet in Carmarthenshire, Wales, this modern three-storey property splits into two, the upper two floors being the family home while the bottom floor is a showroom/holiday apartment. Measuring 113.5 sqm and costing £150,000 to put together, the apartment acts as a ‘try before you buy’ for potential customers, allowing them to test the technology in real living situations.

The idea was sparked by Adrian Brown, technical director of Alpha Touch Limited, who recognised how difficult it is to convince homeowners to spend a large amount of money on a system they have not had sufficient experience using. It is even more challenging when the homeowner has no experience at all using smart home technology. Therefore, he came up with the idea to turn half of his home into a holiday apartment for potential customers to experience the technology before making a commitment, as well as a luxury getaway for members of the public.

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“We used to have a show panel in our Winchester office, but we realised it wasn’t a very effective marketing tool to win new projects. We had to think outside the box and come up with a better way of how we could show customers what we offer. Many potential customers have not been involved with home technology before and are often nervous about the idea of smart homes. We therefore thought the best thing to do is to allow people to have a fully immersive experience by living in a real smart home for a few days which is why we decided to build the holiday apartment. Potential customers can then decide what they want and what they don’t want in their own homes.”

As well as catering for potential customers who specifically want to try out the technology, the holiday apartment also has the potential to spark interest in people who have not thought about smart homes before.  A family might rent the apartment and find that the technology has a great benefit to their everyday life, which could lead to them enquiring about having it installed into their own home. 

This format carries many benefits, but arguably the main attraction is having the integrator permanently on site to assist with issues or answer any queries that might arise during the visitor’s stay. This allows guests to really get to grips with the technology, and ensures the customer is not put off by any complications. 

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Accessing the property
The entire property contains a mix of different control systems working together in a seamless way. These can be accessed by both the homeowner as well as the guests. However, Brown limited control in the apartment so that guests cannot access the main house controls or change any settings. He has also disabled access to function such as heating and hot water controls as well as alarm settings.

The first experience of home automation for the visitor is the access control at the front gate where a Control4 DS2 Door Station is fitted. Guests staying in the apartment are given a unique access code that will allow them entry at the front gates and the apartment front door.  

The external lighting is fully automated bringing on garden and car park lighting at dusk then turning them off at 11pm. This is great for presence simulation and one of those automated tasks keeping the apartment exterior well lit. Demonstrating integration between the access control system and the lighting is a great feature for someone arriving at the property after 11pm. Entering an access code at the Control4 DS2 automatically switches the car park and driveway lights on for half an hour providing enough time to unload cars and enter the apartment safely. The lights automatically switch off again after half an hour.

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For added security, the homeowner can communicate with visitors through the door station on the front gate, as Brown explains: “The electric gates can be operated directly from the Control4 touch screen within the property or from one of the wall mounted Clipsal keypads when a visitor presses the call button. We can answer the call from the touch screen with a video preview to see who is there prior to speaking with the visitor. A button on the screen then allows the homeowner to open the gates.

“We also have the added facility to answer the call when away from the property with the ability to open the gates, for example, when there is a delivery without needing to be there. External CCTV cameras allow us to monitor the delivery and then close the gates afterwards.”

Brown explains other methods of integration demonstrated in the show home for access control: “Integration of Control4 with third party IP phones provide similar functionality, where we can answer the gate intercom from the phone, speak to the visitor, then press a pre-programmed button that will open the gates.”

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Similar to the gate access, entry to the property itself is also keyless. “From entering the gate to entering the show home, the same unique code is also assigned to the Yale keyless lock on the front door of the apartment,” Brown points out. “Through the integration with Control4, the lock can be remotely operated in case a visitor has any difficulties with entry and therefore we can grant entry via our mobile device.”

Integrated lighting
Smart lighting is used throughout the main property as well as the apartment.  As Brown states: “The lighting system incorporated into the show home is based on Clipsal lighting with easy to use and easy to read keypads, leaving no confusion as to what each button does.” 

A range of Clipsal DLT keypads are used around the apartment to demonstrate a choice of styles to suit individual tastes and how they can fit in with different interior décor styles. The newer eDLT keypads incorporate a proximity sensor making it light up when the user’s finger comes close to it, which is a handy feature in dark rooms at night for example. 

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A range of lighting is demonstrated from ceiling down lights, bedside lamps, kitchen pendant lights, exterior lighting and RGBW strip lighting in coffered ceilings and kitchen plinths. Lighting scenes can also be created and programmed to suit different moods within the apartment. Brown says: “We demonstrate to visitors the use of lighting to create moods, incorporating RGBW LED tapes in the kitchen for example. Colour is a great way to add that wow factor to a lighting system and helps create the perfect scene in any room.” 

Brown has demonstrated how home automation can make lighting interesting by using and programming lights in different ways throughout the apartment. Unlike traditional lighting, the amount of cabling is cut right down while adding the flexibility to re-program keypads without any physical changes required. The show apartment is a great way to demonstrate some of the possibilities to guests and potential customers. 

As an example, in the en-suite bathrooms attached to each bedroom, the lights are activated through a ceiling mounted PIR which switches the lights on when someone enters the room and will switch off again after 10 minutes. They are programmed to be brighter through the day but will only come on at 10 per cent after 11pm so it does not shock the eyes in the middle of the night. Similarly, the proximity sensor automatically activates the fan during the day time, but it will not come on after 11pm to avoid disturbing anyone sleeping. 

A bathroom mirror has also been incorporated with a proximity sensor. To avoid users trying to switch the mirror lights on with wet hands, they can wave across the bottom left hand corner to activate the light. The user does the same to turn the light off again. 

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Alpha Touch are able to demonstrate several control options for the Clipsal lighting. Brown indicates: “You can control the lighting through Control4 but using a Clipsal Wiser 2 provides an interface to Clipsal’s own mobile/tablet app. The Wiser is a link between Clipsal C-Bus and the network, linking the wireless devices to the Clipsal C-Bus app.”

He continues: “The app also allows remote access so homeowners can view and control their lighting from anywhere should they wish. From an installation point of view, it also means I can walk around the property wire free with a laptop to flash the lighting circuits for testing rather than being tied with a piece of cable in a cupboard and then running around the building.”

Getting smart
To show potential customers how they can incorporate audio into their smart home, Alpha Touch has installed in-ceiling speakers connected to a Control4 8-zone multi-channel amplifier, allowing guests to stream music directly from their wireless devices. 

The apartment features QMotion blinds integrated with Control4. “In our show room, the blinds automatically close at dusk and reopen again at dawn,” illustrates Brown. “Using QMotion with Control4 provides two-way control between the control system and the blinds. This facilitates accurate positioning of the blind rather than relying on timed operations, as is the case with a number of other blind systems.”

Voice control is becoming more and more popular in homes and integration with Control4 is demonstrated nicely here, with Alexa making it possible to control items such as blinds, lights and audio. This type of integration is particularly beneficial for customers with disabilities.  

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A good security system is crucial in a smart home.  Alpha Touch ensures a good coverage of the property and is a good demonstration platform to show customers as well as for their own peace of mind when the property is unoccupied. There are currently three Dahua cameras fitted to the outside of the property, but a fourth camera view is provided using the built-in camera on the Control4 DS2 Door Station monitoring the entrance. 

“There are two Dahua dome cameras at present but experience shows that bullet cameras work best outside so we will be replacing these soon,” explains Brown. “Our Dahua PTZ demonstrates a 270-degree coverage area and with it’s impressive 100m infrared ability at night and high definition picture, it makes a great camera for both day and night time security.”

Private Cinema
One of the most desirable features of the apartment is the private cinema. Complete with a 4K JVC projector onto an acoustically transparent fixed-frame screen with a Dolby Atmos 7.2.2 surround sound system, the cinema facility gives budding clients a good idea of what they could have in their own homes. It also provides a great space for regular guests to relax and enjoy films in full cinema quality. 

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With a Clipsal keypad in the cinema, guests can set up the room quickly and easily by pressing a button to select an appropriate lighting scene. Using the Control4 remote to watch any of the video sources first sets the ‘Interval Scene’ for the lighting, closes the curtain if it is daylight and turns on the media sources. Pressing ‘Play’ on the remote changes the lighting scene to ‘Watch Film’ while ‘Pause’ or ‘Stop’ returns the lights to the ‘Interval Scene’. Such features save time and makes the experience even more special.  

‘All On’ and ‘All Off’ buttons for the lighting are handy to quickly turn off all the room lights with one press of a button. Performing a ‘Room Off’ on the Control4 remote turns off all media sources and re-opens the curtain if it is daylight outside. 

Brown adds: “The private cinema demonstrates the use of Control4 as an easy to use AV system for anyone with a single remote control rather than a cluster of remotes.”

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Added control
This project establishes the strength of a variety of control systems. As well as Control4, Loxone has been installed for all automation tasks such as the hot water, heating and alarm to name a few. Generally, guests do not need to make any adjustments to the Loxone system as it maintains set temperatures for each room but is easily demonstrated should the guests wish to know more. 

“Every room in the property is zoned and consists of Loxone temperature and humidity sensors with Loxone valve actuators fitted to the radiators,” clarifies Brown. “Towel rails and underfloor electric heating are also controlled by the Loxone system. We use a combination of wired and wireless devices to show customers that retrofit as well as new builds are possible with Loxone.”

Apart from having the ability to demonstrate the systems to customers, the company is also able to get a better insight into how people are using the flat. This then enables Brown to experiment with the system and make adjustments accordingly. The project is continually evolving as new technology comes to market. 

He adds: “My next development is to use the hot water more efficiently based on demand rather than timed operations. Currently, the hot water heats up between set times in the morning, and because it is a large property, a circulation pump ensures hot water is available quickly at the taps. Whenever the flat is occupied, we switch on the ‘Flat Occupied’ mode which alters the circulation schedule to be more frequent.

“However, an improvement is to detect when hot water is flowing out of the hot water tank. If it’s flowing for a specific amount of time, for example more than 10 seconds, then someone is probably using the shower or having a wash. By putting a flow detector on the hot water tank, we can see when hot water is in demand. This means we don’t have to circulate every hour when there is no demand and thus cut down on energy use while ensuring the guests always have hot water when they need it.”

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A ‘Vacation’ mode has been programmed into the Loxone system. Selecting this mode quickly sets the property services into ‘Set Back’. Brown explains: “When we are here, it follows the normal schedules. But when we select ‘Vacation’ mode, it turns the hot water off and sets each heating zone to a set back temperature of five degrees Celsius. Therefore, unless the temperature drops below five degrees Celsius in a room, the heating will not come on.” 

The security alarm for the show room is also part of the Loxone system and is split into two zones that can be armed or disarmed individually or both together. The system can be armed immediately with the arm button or can be scheduled to arm at a certain time. Should the alarm be triggered, the Loxone system sends a notification message to the owner’s mobile device, which they can then use to check on the property.

The security system as part of Loxone uses motion sensors in each room and door sensors on the doors. Brown states: “These are wireless sensors so we can demonstrate to customers that the system is perfect for both retrofit and new build projects alike. The batteries last a long time too.”

Unlike traditional alarms systems however, Loxone sensors are multi-purpose. Coupled with the Loxone heating it will automatically turn off the heating in a room if a window has been opened in that room thus saving energy.

Alpha Touch are also able to demonstrate integration of Loxone with third party devices such as the garage doors. This is useful when for example, the homeowners are out and need to allow a delivery driver to leave a parcel in a secure place. 

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Going ECO
With so much in the news about climate change, Alpha Touch demonstrate in the show house how efficient use of renewables is helping to cut down on the use of fossil fuels.

A 5.28kW LG solar panel system has been installed along with Sonnen battery storage fitted by Solar Plants in Port Talbot. Through Loxone integration, the energy being generated by the solar panels is getting maximum use throughout the property. During the day when the sun is shining the battery is charged for use at night. However, it does not stop there; rather than export excess energy, Loxone diverts that extra power to the immersion heater of the hot water tank thus cutting down on the use of the oil-fired boiler to heat the water.

Brown points out: “This is not the only way micro-generated energy can be used to maximum efficiency. Should a homeowner with solar panels also own an electric car, that power can be diverted to charge up their car too. The Loxone system can be programmed to prioritise where the excess power is diverted to. As we have a hot tub at the holiday apartment the solar panels help enormously in cutting down our use of power from the National Grid.”

The integration of the solar panel system into Loxone gives the homeowner an immediate snapshot of how the system is performing. This quick view shows the state of charge on the battery storage, the current solar panel generation as well as import/export and consumption of power.

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Always improving
The benefit of having a show room as part of your house provides a platform for experimentation and improvements. Brown is constantly making adjustments and updating the equipment within the property to make it a better experience for potential customers. This enables the company to show customers different options to suit different budgets. 

Brown explains: “In terms of infrastructure, I’m really happy with what we have done. But I’m always looking to upgrade things. For example, we will shortly be updating the cinema projector to one of the latest JVC projector units. 

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“We are also considering the installation of a touch screen in the flat kitchen to enable guests to experiment with the control systems. There is a balance of course between providing enough control for guests to experiment with but with limits. However, this is very easy to achieve with Loxone through user level access. With Loxone we can provide a guest username and password so they will only have access to certain controls in certain rooms.” 

As well as looking out over the beautiful Welsh scenery and having recently added an outdoor jacuzzi for a nice relaxing summer’s evening, this holiday apartment is the perfect place to stay for anyone at all interested in how the technology works and how it can be incorporated into the home to save time, energy and enhance a homeowners everyday living experiences. The added benefit of having the installer living upstairs means that if a guest has any problems with the technology, they can get help immediately before becoming scared of it and being put off. 

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In conclusion it seems allowing potential customers to stay and utilise the technology in a real living situation is a very sensible way to win a contract. Spending time with the client to walk them through different options is key to having a successful and happy end result. 

Tech Spec
CCTV
Dahua 8-Channel NVR
Dahua PTZ and Dome Cameras

Cinema Room
4K Apple TV
JVC N5 Native 4K Projector
Oppo UHD-203 Blu-ray Player 
Projecta Ultra-Wide Acoustically Transparent Projection Screen
Sonance Cinema Series Speakers
Yamaha Aventage RX-A3080 A/V Amplifier

Control Systems
Alexa Voice Integration
Control4 EA-5 with OS 3.1
Loxone Home Automation and Security 

Home Communication
Control4 7-in In-Wall Touch Screen
Control4 DS2 Door Station
Snom IP Telephony

Lighting
C-Bus Lighting

Multiroom
Control4 Audio Matrix
Control4 Multichannel Amplifier
Pulse-Eight NEO 4K Video Matrix

Networking 
Draytek 2862 Router
Draytek P2261 Gigabit Managed Network Switch
Ruckus Wi-Fi

Power
LG Solar Panel System with Solaredge Inverter
Pakedge Power Distribution with IP Control
Sonnen Solar Battery Storage