Let's talk about shades


#1

Quick summary:

  • I am a professional designer of motors for shades
  • I would like to develop a motorized shade drive to integrate perfectly with ST
  • If approved, I will have manufacturer backing at the company I work for
  • Current thinking is to start with motorized roller shades, other types to follow
  • System will be professional-grade quality, think Lutron and Somfy
  • Can lift shades up to 100 sq. ft. in size
  • Battery integrated (hidden), rechargeable via USB or solar
  • Projected battery life per charge approx. 1 year
  • Modular control architecture, support both Z-wave and ZigBee, and others if needed
  • Need ideas as to how to make it suitable for DIY
  • Target pricing: $<100 per set (excluding shade)
  • Any input or comments greatly appreciated!

OK, this is my first post. In fact I only found this community a couple of days ago, and must say that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading many threads and basking in the overall vibrancy. This might turn out to be a long post, in which case, thanks in advance for your patience.

So after reading about people’s experiences with motorized shades for home automation, I came to the realization that there is a lack of quality options available. It appears difficult to find shades that work great with ST out of the box. When people do buy shades, there seems to be a lot of hacking involved just to get shades to work, and, even then, reliability tends to not be great. It simply should not be that hard to get a properly working shade integrated with your home automation system. And it should not cost an arm and a leg.

Then it hit me. Why not develop the perfect motor for ST together with the ST community? A bit of background: I manage a small-medium scale ODM of shade motors and work as the lead designer. We supply motors to high-end shade manufacturers and have products installed in several high profile commercial projects. Even President Obama himself has used our motors (albeit for a one night stay at one of our hotel projects)! That last bit was a shameless grab for credibility, but the point stands - we know this stuff.

Here’s my product proposition: An affordable, professional-grade motorized shade system with Z-Wave integrated into each unit. We will naturally then build any apps necessary to ensure perfect compatibility with ST. Beyond this, I will be fully receptive to any input that you guys may have on features that you would want. So any comments will be greatly appreciated! Note that at this stage, the primary consideration is roller shades as that is what we have most experience with. However, if there is greater demand for a different type of shade, we can consider that as well.

Now, we are not starting from a blank canvas. We have an underlying hardware platform that I think is ideal for this scenario. With this platform, we can lift shade sizes up to 100 sq. ft. yet operate quietly and smoothly. For installation flexibility, the shades are cordless, rechargeable and can last for about 1 year per charge. They are rechargeable via any USB socket and can optionally also be recharged via solar panels if sun exposure is good. Frankly I have seen some of the Kickstarter projects being talked about and those things are nothing more than toys in my opinion.

Development costs aside, the biggest challenge I foresee is how to get this thing into your shades. As a motor manufacturer, we don’t make the finished shades. If we were to supply a kit, there is an overwhelming likelihood that it will not be compatible with your existing shade system. My current thinking is we will support popular hardware systems like RollEase and Louvolite and you will just have to make sure your shades are made on those systems. Of course I’m open to any suggestions here as to what you guys feel is the ideal method of product delivery. The last part is product pricing. Can only be an estimate right now, but just doing some sums in my head, the end-user price would be in the range of $150-180 per motor. Feel free to let me know if this is an acceptable price or not. If it’s too high, we’ll try to figure out on where costs can be saved.

Lastly, this is not a small project and could take the better part of a year before the product is ready for the market. If we proceed with it, I intend to keep the community updated on any progress we make. A Kickstarter campaign might become a possibility down the line if we need some way to fund costs. Any way, thanks for reading and hope I didn’t break any forum rules with my first post! Look forward to receiving your comments.


Integrating window shades with SmartThings (Axis Gear)
#2

Welcome to the community! Sounds like a great idea.

Unattended Operation

If you’ve seen any of my reply posts on the other shade topics, you’ll notice that I have the same reaction to many of the kickstarter projects. They’re basically people who figured out that you can push a button and start an actuator. No real engineering, and no safety features.

When you get into zwave support, you’re talking about unattended operation. Somebody who might be in their office starts for the way home, and starts a routine that runs when they are not there. This makes safety features really important, particularly for the safety of pets in the home, but also for children.

For this reason, I am particularly concerned about the kickstarter projects which are designed for the retrofit of corded shades.

Market Position

Anyway, I think the idea of picking a couple of popular models makes a lot of sense. Your price point sounds valid, although you will get a lot of pushback from people who think they should be able to outfit a whole house for under a thousand dollars. That’s just A market reality.

Competitors don’t have to be zwave if they offer IFTTT integration

By the way there is one option for shades now which I think is always worth considering: Serena from Lutron. Although there’s no direct integration with SmartThings, they both have IFTTT channels, which means you get quite good indirect integration. You cannot use a pico remote and have SmartThings know what you did but you can use an Aeon Minimote as a handheld controller for both the shades and SmartThings devices through the indirect integration.

So I think you would have to look first at how you compete with the Serena option. But it’s always good to have choices. :sunglasses:


#3

Wow, thanks for the incredibly quick and thorough reply. Regarding Z-Wave, I just figured it would be easier than having to develop our own RF networking protocol. Currently we have a unidirectional protocol, similar to Somfy, but my feeling is bidirectional would be much preferred for the smart home crowd. It also negates the need of having to develop a bridge device.

Regarding Lutron, I’d say we’re aiming for a more mainstream crowd. Admittedly I don’t actually know how much the Serena system costs but I assume it is significantly higher than what I’m proposing. Otherwise we’d be in a bit of trouble because Lutron is the clear industry leader.


(Ash (www.smart-dots.com) / Ashutosh Jaiswal) #4

I do like the idea. However, a good place to start may be to read some of the posts in the community and understand what people are already doing now. May be some of those lessons can be leveraged. There are posts where people have played around with Somfy motors. How different are your motors from the Somfy ones?

As for power, that’s going to be a challenge. If you go battery powered, then there is a hassle of changing the batteries out and to ensure that the battery pack is hidden (which means the blinds or shades would have to be removed every time battery has to be changed). I have seen another product where the battery would charge using a mini solar panel faced towards the window - But that may not work all the time.

If you can design a system that can be latched on to the strings that hang from the blinds - It should be compact and easily accessible to swap battery - highly power efficient (micro motors with great gear assembly perhaps) - May be buttons to open/close the blinds if someone wants to do it manually - While keeping the final price of that under $100, then I can see it being something that people may want to try. Another thing to consider will be to report the state of the blind - open or close or what % open vs close … If all this can be achieved, then you have something that may be very attractive, according to me.

As for the wireless protocol - I think Zigbee may be a better option because its easier and cheaper to develop Zigbee products + The frequency is standard across the world.

Iif you are thinking of a motorized system which would require to uninstall the blind + costs a lot, then the interest soon dies.

Plug and play is what everyone wants :smile:


#5

Serena is their low end DIY line. 3 fabric group choices, battery operated or hardwired. Honeycomb or roller shade.

http://www.serenashades.com/design-your-shade/

To work with IFTTT, you also need to buy the Lutron bridge.


#6

I agree Zigbee is definitely worth looking at. But there are existing Z wave commandsets that support window covering controls, so it might be easier to develop for zwave. Pros and cons with both.

Back to the physical controls, I really don’t want to see a remote operated actuator connected to cords for unattended operation. Your manufacturer’s liability in the US and Europe would be off the charts. I know there are a lot of people who want that because they have existing blinds of that type, but from a producer’s standpoint it just looks like a bad business decision. JMO.


#7

Hi ashutosh, thanks for your comments. Basically from what I can gather, Somfy doesn’t not have a native Z-wave motor. You can get an adapter to translate Z-wave to their RTS protocol but it’s 1) expensive and 2) not ideal. You lose all status feedback because RTS is unidirectional. So this is one area that I hope can advantage us.

A bit more elaboration on the battery solution. Our motors typically house the rechargeable battery inside the actual motor body, so the battery pack is hidden. Nothing needs to be removed for charging because a micro-USB port is accessible for that purpose. Of course, you may need to find a long USB cable if you don’t have a power socket close to the window. And yes, we do have solar as an option. In fact we are the industry leader in solar powered shades, but you are absolutely correct that it is not suitable for all conditions. We try to avoid disposable batteries so that you don’t have to keep swapping them out every couple of years. If you only have one shade that might be fine, but imagine swapping batteries for 10 shades in your home, each shade using 8 battery cells!

Point taken regarding ZigBee. I do like the radio of Z-Wave more - lower frequency = better range.

And I agree with JDRoberts. When I say a professional motorized system, that means a clean install without any remnants of the manual mechanism. Aesthetically it is just much nicer, and the overall system is also much more reliable. I can’t imagine an add-on type device working well over time.


#8

There’s no real practical difference in range in a residential setting, both will operate best up to about 10 to 15 m.for one “hop” on the relay.

Zwave is limited to a total of four hops, and zigbee is not, and the zwave caps the total number of devices on the network at around 230, which is why Zigbee is utilized for things like lighting systems in office buildings and extensive monitoring systems in hospitals.

However, from a manufacturer’s point of view, the biggest advantage of Z wave for do it yourself projects is that you don’t get interference from Wi-Fi. Professional installers have tools to appropriately locate devices and avoid interference. DIY customers usually do not.

While the odds of interference continue to go down as various engineering improvements are made, they are still much higher with zigbee than with zwave and that tends to lead to higher customer support costs.

In addition, while it’s pretty simple to move a motion sensor a few feet left to right, windows, like wall switches, typically have a fixed placement in the home. So solving interference issues becomes more challenging. I don’t know for sure, but it’s my belief that this is why most wall switches in the low-end market have been zwave.

The trickiest thing is the question of whether thread is really going to take off. That’s using what will eventually be a protocol that plays well with zig be, not with Z wave. And there will be integrations coming from multiple sides. The new Xfinity home automation extensions are based on a zig be controller that you already have in your cable box. Works with Nest is using a thread variant. Even the smartthings V2 hub is thread capable, although it isn’t turned on yet.

So it’s a really hard choice for manufacturers right now. Historically, zwave has made sense for low cost DIY residential offerings. Going forward, though, zigbee may offer more integration opportunities. I don’t think there’s one clear path yet.


(Ash (www.smart-dots.com) / Ashutosh Jaiswal) #9

Those are valid points and I have to agree that it may not be best of solutions. But i was trying to think of it from an average consumer’s perspective.

The fact that the motors are built in with rechargeable batteries with option to charge using a USB cable … May be a good one. But then I will have to track battery on my blinds and charge them every few months or weeks… Not sure how long they last. It may be something that one would consider as a hassle… Or most may prefer it to be always powered, which means additional wiring etc.

While I do see that there is additional value when compared to Somfy, I definitely dont see a solution that can be achieved by an average DIY person. With some professional help a lot of value can be added, but that comes with a cost. So striking a balance may be the key.

But i do think we need a solid blind solution here.


#10

The batteries will last about a year per charge, but obviously depends on the size of the shade and how often you use it. DIY-ability is definitely the main concern for me. If it’s not possible to DIY, then we’d be forced to set up dealer channels which will be a hassle. But you are right, this is something that is not easy to come up with a DIY solution for.


#11

Since we are in the conceptual phase, we can be flexible on many things. If people have different preferences for radio, we may just make the radio portion modular and make modules for Z-Wave, Zigbee, Insteon, Bluetooth, etc. So you are free to choose the protocol you want. Also I’ve been thinking about pricing. A direct sales model can significantly reduce prices, probably to under $100, but it might mean reduced customer support (at least initially).


#12

Several of the lock companies, such as Yale, do exactly that. You can buy the lock housing, and then putting in the network module you want. There are obviously development and support costs if you have multiple protocols, but the distribution channel is pretty simple. Zigbee and Z wave have very similar Power requirements, so you can usually run them off the same power housing.


#13

Yes the radio modules work on the same voltages and similar power draw. Will definitely add a design challenge but that’s what we’re here for. It wouldn’t significantly affect end product pricing though - probably a $3-5 delta.


(Larry) #14

I would definitely be interested in shade integration at 100 or below… 200 per shade is just too much to do what I want to do and I would wait till the price point comes down


(Paul) #15

I’ve actually been shocked at how inexpensive Lutron’s Serena line is. They do make more expensive systems as well, but Serena is available for around $500 for a 3’x4’ window. That price includes both the motor and the shade. It does not include the price of the required Lutron hub for IFTTT integration to ST.

If you are positioning yourself as a retrofit solution, it might not matter what Lutron’s pricing is. Lutron is a replacement-only solution. However, a certain segment of the market is going to add up the cost of new Serena shade, and compare it to the total cost of your motor + a shade from Rollease etc. You’re going to want to be competitive, I would imagine.

I will caution, however, that the retrofit market seems to be a bit of a quagmire, both from an engineering perspective, and from a customer-support perspective. There are simply too many variables when you’re trying to retrofit a motor into existing “dumb” shades. I think that this is why many of the existing solutions appear “hacky” to industry insiders. If your company has experience with this, your leadership would certainly be appreciated.

Is the system you have in mind integrated into the header of the shade? Or would this be some box that I’d have to bolt onto the outside of my shades? I think it would have to be integrated to get any real traction in the market.

1 year of battery life (based on two “ups” and two “downs” per day) with a z-wave radio is likely plenty. Lutron claims 3–5 years, but I think once you get into the 1 year range, you’re fine.

P.S. Roll shades are fine, but please consider honeycomb shades as well. Serena offers both. Honeycomb shades seem to have better r-values than roller shades, and honeycomb shades can operate either top-down or bottom-up. We have all bottom-up shades on our first floor windows.


#16

The retrofit/DIY aspect is currently the biggest obstacle in terms of the viability of the product and business model, but, if done well, I believe will also be the biggest selling point. Being battery powered and rechargeable takes some of the complexity out of it (no need to hire an electrician), although other issues remain. The main problem is a lack of true standard for shade hardware - everyone seems to do their own thing. So that makes it hard from a compatibility perspective. If we can’t figure out a smarter way to go about it, we’ll just have to include a heap of different hardware adapters inside the package.

The other option is to sell the motor through dealer channels, who will then integrate it into finished products for consumers. Unfortunately the amount of margin these guys put on motorized systems is usually pretty ridiculous and that will definitely limit the appeal of the system.

To answer your query about placement of the motor, it is hidden inside the roller tube / headrail ala Somfy. And I definitely see the popularity of honeycomb shades for the residential market. Admittedly I have limited first hand experience with these (they are rare in commercial applications), but the technology is all the same. The concern here, again, is whether there is a common standard for system hardware. If there is, then our job of developing a motor for retrofitting will be so much easier.


(Brandon) #17

For what it’s worth, at least in my neck of the woods, roller shades are far less common than honeycomb and metal or wood blinds.


#18

Since honeycomb shades keep getting mentioned, I did some investigation on the different types out there. I’ve since come to the conclusion that it’s way too much trouble for potential DIYers to manage. There are literally hundreds of possible combinations for various parts so the probability for error is too great. As such, as far as I can see, motorized honeycomb shades can only be realistically sold as a finished product solution.


(ActionTiles.com co-founder Terry @ActionTiles; GitHub: @cosmicpuppy) #19

Currently looking closely at http://FlipFlic.com for tilting blinds, which I guess is good for them to focus on for a Minimum Viable Product.

The physics of raising and lowering heavy blinds as well as the larger variety of mechanisms means that this is not likely on their short term roadmap, but if they or similar ventures are successful in the first use case, they will be in a good market position to extend into other window covering products.

Worth keeping an eye on them. They have some good funding and progress.


#20

Looks like a pretty nifty device there. However I would be a bit skeptical as to how the mechanism holds up for anything other than very narrow blind spans.

Edit: This project also deals with tilting. To me it looks like a more robust mechanism: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/551966671/automate-your-blinds-with-a-smart-control-kit-in-1/description