Get your geek on! Motors, apps, remote controls, Alexa… here we are living in the world of high-tech curtains and blinds.
I have a bit of a strange relationship with tech. I love useful technology that I feel helps me – I call these ‘tools’, but tech for the sake of it, such as most apps and iWatches, seem to be to be ‘gadgets’, and I have a firm dislike of gadgets. They steal my time, sanity and make life ever so complicated and less under my own control.
So, why do people want motorisation? For some people I liken it to cars. Nobody needs alloy wheels as far as I know, but most people buy them. It’s the same for many curtain and blind tracks – why not seems to be a good enough reason. They are fun as you can scare the babysitter by opening them from the restaurant (I’ve heard of this more than once!). The best ‘excuse’ I ever heard was the lady of the house explaining to her husband why she was investing in powered blinds. “Well, you bought Sonos for the entire house, so now when the kids ignore me screaming up the stairs to get up for school, I can not only turn on Radio 2 (loudly), but also open their blinds too, all from the comfort of the kitchen.” And that sounded fair enough to me.
For some people it is seen as much more essential. If clients live away a lot or maybe travel regularly there is a good security argument for automating the opening and closing of window treatments. For others, with south facing picture windows, they can use the latest tech to automatically close the curtains when the room reaches a certain temperature. So, when they arrive home from work, the bedroom isn’t feeling like the Sahara.
You probably know all that already, so I apologise for my getting that off my chest. But I do feel better.
As makers, designers and installers what must we be aware of when considering automation?
Firstly, the sooner you have the client decide on what needs automating the better. Chasing in wiring after the decorating has been done never goes down well. Some systems benefit from being hard wired. If the tracks are inaccessible this is a good idea and if the curtains are super heavy this removes the need for regular recharging of batteries. Some of the best automated systems are fitted up into discreet reveals or flush to the ceiling and installing these after the ceiling is in can be a nightmare – far better done by the constructor as they go. Adding wooden batons above any ceiling or reveal also helps get a solid fixing.
Most blind systems now offer a battery powered option and these are great if the decision is made late or if the budget isn’t there for the mains powered systems. Some of these have batteries that can be manually inserted, either replaceable or rechargeable, while others have internal batteries that are recharged via a power cord just like a phone. A word of caution - if you have too many of these, please remember most need to fully charge overnight, and if you have 5 or 6 (or more) that can become a right old pain.
For curtains, most systems are hard wired but there are a few battery-operated ones out there. Personally, I’d always go for mains powered where possible. Once installed it’s done and dusted, you never lose power and you don’t have to recharge anything.
These work on tracks or tracked poles (see the last Journal insight for more on these), with the motor fitting snugly into the rail. Usually this requires a minimum of a 50mm pole and you can’t always put them in bay windows. Each motor will be rated for a certain weight of curtain, but be careful with this. If the curtains break onto the floor, or are more puddled, and if they are on bays, the friction that results markedly reduces the weight the motor can move as you are effectively dragging a lot more around. The technical specs won't always make this clear, but your frustrated client might!
In terms of controls, there are a few options. Remote control is great – especially if fixed to the wall as they don’t then go missing. A remote works instantly, so I think it is a good starting point. The best tracks can now be operated by hand, and as you pull the curtain about 150mm it will sense this and start to move under its own power. There are a few of the more legacy tracks that don’t do this and trying to pull them can damage the system - so not a great option for guest bedrooms or high-end rentals where people aren’t used to them.
The development of apps catches everyone’s attention and these have huge advantages but one major flaw. On the plus side, you can use the app to set up a whole lot of automated routines, such as opening at daybreak or closing when the temperature rises. Most people have their phone on them at all times, unlike that wandering remote. But, you need to open your phone, locate the app and open it, find the setting and then operate it – for me that’s a pain and too slow, so even if I have an app I would always team that with a remote for general day-to-day use. You also need a decent setup for the app system to work.
Typically you communicate with the ‘hub’ that controls everything via Wifi, but many systems then use Radio waves to send the messages. In a large house, or architectural masterpieces of concrete, this can prove problematic. Like everything it’s solvable but often adds a significant cost and sometimes the services of those AV professionals with their extra kit. An unreliable system is really, really annoying so I recommend ensuring this isn’t going to be a factor before embarking on the automation journey.
The apps can work with a whole range of other automation systems such as Alexa, Apple Home and IFTT (a generic tool you can do most things with via a series of logic statements – definitely for the geekier clients). With the help of an AV team you can also interface these with home control systems, and that’s the main solution for large properties and hotels.
One last word on behalf of curtain makers. Be sure to decide on the tracks/system before ordering the curtains. Different tracks require different make up solutions to account for the motor position, and this isn’t something anyone wants to sort out later.
If you’ve found this helpful, please share.
Next time… Installation