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Controllable awnings and exterior solar screens

Awnings & Canopies, Business, Feature | November 1, 2011 | By:

High-tech automation guides retractable exterior solar shading.

Custom retractable awnings and exterior solar screens have particular appeal for a high-end clientele—a savvy group of consumers who expect to be able to control the environment in their homes and work spaces with the touch of a button. It also tends to be a sustainability minded demographic. Manufacturers are responding with sophisticated technologies designed to allow consumers simplicity, efficiency and eco-friendly choices.

Home automation systems

The hottest trend is integrating retractable solar shading with home automation systems. “There is such a spectrum of what you can do with home automation,” says Margaret Cook, business development manager at Somfy Systems Inc., Dayton, N.J. “We noticed that for a lot of people in the home automation business, shades were an afterthought. So we wanted to get in and offer our customers a complete solution.”

In the past, many home automation systems were hardwired, but now many of them utilize radio control systems, with technologies such as Z-Wave (a wireless remote control system). “It’s a lot less expensive to work through radio control systems in the home than it is to have your whole house wired to a central point of automation and then have everything work off of that system,” says Dale Spuzzillo, manager at Nice Group USA Inc., San Antonio, Texas. “And if you put something new into the home, you could add that into the automation through the radio control system.”

Not only can home automation systems open and close awnings and shades on a schedule to save energy, they can also respond to input from controllers such as wind sensors. Nice Group USA is set to release a new sensor—a sun temperature control with a radio transmitter—that will be integrated into automation systems. The device can be attached to a window so it lowers blinds if a certain amount of heat builds up inside, and if it’s placed on furniture, it can sense when the sun’s rays move across the room. By sending a radio signal, it can close blinds before home furnishings are damaged by the sun.

Smartphone control

Somfy’s home automation control is available as an app for iPhones® and other smartphones or computers. If consumers want to turn the lights on and off while they’re on vacation or open their shades on the way home from work, they can.

Nice’s O-View units, available next year, will have a similar capability. Connected to a PDA, smartphone or PC, they’ll give users control over everything from garage doors to irrigation, awnings to lights. Anything integrated with the home automation system can be connected to O-View.

Cook prefers, however, that dealers market smartphone apps as something to use in or near the house. “Opening your awning when you are not home probably isn’t the best because there could be weather happening at home that might damage it in some way,” she says. “It still has the same benefit [of convenience] if you operate it at home.”

Solar power

Wind sensors for retractable awnings have been available for a while, but until recently they had to be hardwired into the home’s electrical system, and installers usually put them in a place that was convenient, rather than the place that got the most wind—with predictable results.

Solar-powered anemometers that can be installed in the best location for gathering data have changed the game. Motion Control Systems, Delray Beach, Fla., offers a solar-powered sensor that measures both sun and wind intensity. “It’s all one unit,” says company president Patrice Puissesseau. “The top part of the unit has a little solar panel that charges the system so it’s always operating. Just two screws to the wall and you can put it wherever you want. Then you program it so it activates the motor. It’s getting a better response all the time. When we sell one, people say, ‘Oh, now I get it!’”

Nice’s Nemo sun and wind sensor also works on solar power. Because it’s radio controlled, installation is as easy as connecting any transmitter to the motor. “You can set your wind level or you can set your sun level on it,” says Spuzzillo. “It makes it very simple to change your settings to be compatible with where you’re living, and with just one day of sun, it’s [charged] for 30 days.”

Many large manufacturers now offer solar-powered motors for retractable awnings with technology much like solar-powered highway lighting. The solar panel charges a battery that operates the electrical device reliably, whether or not the sun is still shining.

Smart motors

Over time, fabric on a retractable awning can “grow,” making the awning appear saggy or unkempt, but that could be a thing of the past. A precision motor from Nice is programmed with electronic limits that constantly monitor the position of the awning.

“It knows exactly where it stopped, and it knows exactly where it started,” says Spuzzillo. “It knows exactly how much fabric it has let out. Over a period of time, the fabric will start to get worn and it will droop and sag, but even though it might get longer because it’s stretched, the motor still lets out the same amount of fabric, which keeps it taut.”

Other electronic features protect the motor and the awning components. For example, if someone leans a ladder against a retractable and a customer presses the “open” button, a specialized sensor will keep the motor from burning itself out by repeatedly attempting to extend the awning. Similarly, the torque of some newer motors can be adjusted to put less strain on smaller lateral arms, extending product life.

The usability and quality of retractable awnings and controls is improving. Distributors and dealers who are knowledgeable about the new technology available for retractable products can guide their customers to the best choices in today’s market.

Jamie Swedberg is a freelance writer based in Georgia.

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