Retrofit systems were the rallying cry at last fall's Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association (CEDIA) Expo, and as recently as last month's Electronic House Expo. Mining new business from existing homes is a relatively new tune for electronics integrators, who've been riding the new-construction train since home theaters and multiroom audio became popular amenities in the early 1990s. For integrators, it's been a lot easier to design, wire, and install systems before walls went up and the paint dried, and the once-thriving new-construction business offered more than enough opportunity.

With construction starts largely stalled, installers and electronics manufacturers are now turning their attention to the 99 percent of existing homes that make up the total housing market. The retrofit strategy is long overdue. Using wireless or no-new-wires approaches to technology, integrators can offer homeowners the benefits of advanced home electronics without tearing down walls and starting over. Providers reap the benefits of a system that's quick and easy to install.

Russound and NuVo Technologies are two multiroom audio companies readying no-new-wires systems for 2009. Both Russound's Collage and NuVo's Renovia systems use power lines as the carrier for the control and audio signals, adopting the HomePlug standard for home networking as the medium. The companies have shown prototypes of the new systems, and they see a benefit not only for existing homes, but for the builder market as well.

“Renovia presents a great opportunity for builders with existing inventory that isn't already prewired,” says David Rodarte, president of NuVo. “A lot of forward-thinking builders have done [structured wiring], but there are a lot of other properties where it hasn't been done. We can add technology to the home by taking a product like Renovia that does a quick connect to the power line where Romex wire already exists.”

According to manufacturers, a retrofit system can help builders build value into existing houses without an up-front investment. “A builder can tell a client, ‘I can give you the option of whole-house audio without disrupting the home and without the cost of additional wiring,'” Rodarte says.

Michael Stein, senior director of research and technology for Russound, says his company began developing Collage with an inkling of what was ahead in the housing market. “I don't think any of us guessed it would be as deep or as bad [as it's been], but we saw signs of the bubble starting to collapse,” he says. So Russound engineers began researching technologies that would offer the benefits of Internet Protocol-based networking without the need for additional wiring.

Russound came up with Collage, an a la carte product set that marries a book-size Media Manager controller to keypad receivers that distribute multiple audio sources to up to 10 zones in a home. Because sources connect to the system over the power-line network—rather than by a physical connection like that between a CD player and controller in a conventional multiroom system—any number of audio sources can be distributed through the system. “Wecame up with well over 40 sources, but since you can only listen in 10 rooms, it gets silly to count after a while,” Stein says.

The content available via Collage derives from the computer world and traditional audio sources. Each keypad has its own FM tuner for a built-in source, and homeowners can connect up to 10 iPods to the system. Out of the box, Russound offers Rhapsody's extensive online music collection and Internet radio stations from SHOUTcast. Consumers can tap into the digital music libraries stored on their PCs and access them from Collage keypads anywhere in the home. Guests can even bring their own music collections. A laptop that connects to the network can be part of the system, too, so that friends can share music over the whole-house network.

Despite the retrofit bent, the builder angle was part of product development, Russound's Stein says. “As a builder, you want to offer your customer every possible feature to make the home more competitive. But you don't want to pay for it.” Collage enables builders to offer multiroom audio as a profit center, since very little investment is required from builders other than running the optional wire for in-wall speakers. “If you were to take the traditional route of hard-wired systems, you might prewire for multi-room audio and intercom and maybe achieve a 20 percent conversion rate,” he says. “But you had to pay for the prewire for 100 percent of your homes.”

 
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