ATLANTA,Ga. — Many builders are now calling on electrical contractors to install structured wiring in custom homes and high-rise condos to network computers, offer enhanced security and improve entertainment.

The National Association of Home Builders launched the first annual techHOMExpo Feb. 9-12 to educate builders and subcontractors on the new technologies and opportunities in the structured wiring and home automation industry. The 57th annual International Builders' Show, which spanned 560,000 square feet, featured the new 85,000 square foot TecHOMExpo pavilion. By following the black carpet around one of the gargantuan exhibit halls at Atlanta's Georgia World Congress Center, the more than 72,000 Builders' Show attendees could learn firsthand about the world of home networking.

“This is the first year they've had the TecHOMExpo and I think what you're seeing here is just the beginning,” said Herman Cardenas, president of Smart LLC, a Las Cruces, N.M. company that has partnered with General Electric Industrial Systems to provide products and solutions for the home automation industry. “It's a good opportunity for the builder to be able to go into a section of the show which displays all the technological products available for them.”

Dozens of educational seminars and product demonstrations kept the construction professionals updated on the latest technology. To discover the home networking products in action, attendees could tour an Energy Star — Green Build home, which was built by Genesis Homes of Detroit, right on the exhibit floor. The construction professionals lined up to enter the single-story/loft, 2,000-square-foot home featuring network wiring for audio, video, telephone and computer throughout, in addition to three bedrooms, two baths, a two-car garage and vaulted ceilings.

Jeff Hunt, a Norcross, Ga. builder for Pete Witalis Homes Inc., said he and his team were interested in touring the wired home at the TecHOMExpo.

“We've seen exhibits like this in smaller shows, but nothing to the extent of this,” Hunt said. “I think the fact that they brought a house in and fabricated it on site was pretty amazing.”

Hunt, like many other builders across the U.S., has become interested in learning more about structured wiring. Cardenas of Smart said home automation systems have gotten easier to install and program, making them more attractive to builders, subcontractors and consumers.

“A lot of these home automation systems have been around since the 1970s when they were very difficult to install, very unreliable and required practically a combination of an electrician, a computer technician and a programmer to install them,” Cardenas said. “What we've done is taken all the complexity out of the system by removing the central controller, putting all the intelligence inside the devices and designing them for the electrical contractor and the consumer.”

Smart, which distributes its structured wiring and home control products through the electrical distribution channel, is looking to work with builders as well as electrical contractors.

“We believe that some of the biggest opportunities for the connected home product lines are in the hands of the electrical contractor,” Cardenas said. “He already has a relationship with the builder, is already working in the home and knows about wiring. We have found that the top 10 electrical contractors around the country have already set up their own divisions or departments that do everything from structured wiring to home controls and home automation.” Another exhibitor at the Builders' Show, USTec, Victor, N.Y., is also working with electrical contractors to install its home automation systems.

“It's been a smaller part of our market but it's something that is growing for us,” said Patrick Dwyer, regional sales manager for USTec. “The reason why electrical contractors have not gotten into this business is because this requires interfacing with the customers, some upselling and a little more flexibility.”

Contractors who are getting into the market either open up a low-voltage division or form an alliance with another low-voltage company.

“One of our electrical contractors does installation work and has an alliance with one of our integrators which does home theater,” Dwyer said. “The contractor goes in and does the rough-in and other components and then they'd bring in the integrator to come in afterwards to do the sound. They work together.”

All of UsTec's dealers go through a one-day certification training course designed to familiarize the installers with their product and the low-voltage market. Dwyer said about 5% of USTec's installers are currently electrical contractors.

“This is the first year that we're really looking to go to the national electrical contractors,” Dwyer said. “We view that as something that a future part of the market that hasn't been emphasized in the past.”

Electrical contractors can now effectively compete against security companies and other home automation businesses to capture their share of the structured wiring market, Cardenas said.

“We've lowered the skill level to be able to install,” Cardenas said. “There is a great opportunity for electrical contractor to regain the business taken away by specialty contractors.”