While lighting control technology has proven to be a great means for reducing energy consumption, saving energy costs, and enhancing user satisfaction within a lighted space, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing. Compatibility issues between lighting controls and dimming circuitry, particularly relative to newer light sources—such as compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) and light-emitting diodes (LEDs)—have created such field problems as flicker, hum, interference, and lamp failure, leading to maintenance concerns and costly call-backs for some contractors. The good news is that control compatibility has improved thanks to technological advances, lighting guidelines and troubleshooting procedures.


A great opportunity


“Without question, lighting controls are not only a great technology for contractors but an essential technology to understand and market to customers,” said Rita Renner, LEED GA and director of marketing for Santa Clara, Calif.-based WattStopper. “Energy codes are driving greater controls use; and, in fact, ASHRAE 90.1 2010—the national reference standard—and California Title 24 2013 have mandatory control requirements applying to even modest lighting alterations in existing buildings. In New York City, Local Law 88 is mandating lighting and controls upgrades before 2025 for a wide category of existing buildings, so controls are not just for new construction anymore. In addition to these new code drivers, numerous financial incentives are available to customers and can reduce the first cost of investment, such as utility-driven rebate programs that offer subsidies for upgrades involving lighting and controls.”


Ethan Biery, LED engineering leader for Lutron Electronics Co. in Coopersburg, Pa., agreed that progressive building codes nationwide are increasingly mandating the use of lighting controls. He said that the technology will continue to grow and become an essential part of customer installations in the future for a variety of other reasons, too.


“First, lighting control systems help save on energy costs. From our experience, the addition of lighting control systems can save up to 70 percent of the energy used compared to just switching lights on and off manually,” Biery said. “And, while many factors can influence this number, the addition of even a low-cost, simple dimmer switch or occupancy sensor can save energy. In addition, customers are continuously demanding more sophistication from their lighting and want their lighting systems to fit their needs, whether this means having bright light for detail work and lower light levels for more computer-based tasks or reduced light levels in unused spaces of a building.”


“From helping to achieve energy savings to controlling the ambience of a room, lighting controls are essential for any new or retrofit residential or commercial project,” said Mike Neary, product manager of residential lighting controls for Melville, N.Y.-based Leviton. “Their benefits far outweigh any issues, many of which can be overcome with simple education.”


At issue


Experts agree that the most significant issues related to lighting control compatibility today involve the greater use of dimming as a control strategy, which is a response to evolving energy codes that increasingly require more light level control and the potential for additional energy savings.


“What we’re seeing in the marketplace is less expertise about dimming principles, which can result in incompatibility between the controls selected and the lamp type selected,” Renner said. “An additional issue that has arisen is the result of the high inrush current inherent in today’s LED technology—e.g., a control device rated to a specific wattage may not perform reliably with an LED light source depending on the inrush current—and many contractors may not be aware of this.


“The influx of LED light sources in the marketplace and the lack of industry standards surrounding dimming performance have accelerated issues like these. Currently, for example, there are only nascent industry standards for LEDs [NEMA SSL-7A, introduced in April 2013, is a dimming standard directly addressing LED control compatibility], so every manufacturer’s controls may work differently with specific LED drivers and lamps,” Renner said.


Neary agreed that the lack of mature LED dimming standards has driven compatibility issues in the field.


“With dimming devices, in particular, the limited definitions of compatibility within the lamp industry have led to additional complications between lamps and dimming devices,” he said. “Without standardization, characteristics of lamps vary not only between manufacturers but also by product within the same manufacturers’ product lines. So, while one lamp may be able to be dimmed by a particular dimming device, others can’t.”


Among the various lighting technologies, Neary said that LED replacement lamps continue to cause many compatibility issues.


“In general, there tends to be some confusion over the type of control that works with each type of fixture and lamp,” he said.


“Unlike conventional incandescent sources,” Biery said, “new high-efficiency sources like LEDs and CFLs contain special electronics, which are critical for their operation, but which are made a bit differently from manufacturer to manufacturer to optimize their product’s cost, performance and efficiency, and these differences cause variations in dimming performance.”


Biery said that, to get the best possible dimming performance, the lamp must be used with the proper control, and he acknowledged that compatibility challenges involved in controlling LEDs have affected their widespread use.


“Many contractors can share horror stories about an installation that didn’t go as planned because the dimming performance or compatibility of the LEDs didn’t meet expectations or just didn’t work at all,” he said. “However, CFLs caused compatibility issues long before LEDs, and few CFL lamps today are dimmable at all. Compatibility problems with CFLs can prevent proper operation of the control or early failure of the lamp, and many CFLs can even cause problems with ‘intelligent’ switches, such as occupancy sensors.”


The good news? While a growing number of global LED providers have potentially introduced a wider range of concerns, the market has been successful in getting compatibility issues under control.


“Overall, compatibility issues have improved over the past few years, primarily due to heightened awareness,” Biery said. “Manufacturers realize that it’s not sufficient to just say ‘dimmable’ on a package anymore and that they must be more explicit in describing their dimming performance—e.g., dimming down to 10 percent low-end light level (or 1 percent)—as well as the type of controls it works with by brand and model. Customers are also learning to demand this information and avoid manufacturers or products that don’t provide explicit information,” he said, adding that it’s because the stakes are high. “Having customers guess what controls work best with a particular lamp or test a particular combination at the job site can lead to expensive changes after installation.”


Tips for taking control


The following are some tips to ensure control compatibility and minimize the risk of technical issues and field failures.


• Do your homework—“One of the most important things a contractor can do is take advantage of existing resources, such as the detailed compatibility information that many manufacturers provide as part of their product literature,” Renner said.


• Tap other resources—“A wide range of other resources is available to contractors, from manufacturer-specific training and online programs to industry initiatives,” Renner said. 


Such programs include the California Advanced Lighting Controls Program (CALCTP, www.calctp.org), the National Advanced Lighting Controls Program (NALCTP, www.nalctp.org), and the Lighting Controls Association (www.lightingcontrolsassociation.org). 


“Distributors can also be a great source of information, as many distributors now offer energy specialists who have extensive knowledge about energy-efficiency topics, including lighting,” Renner said.


• Know what to look for—“Not all LEDs or controls are created equal,” said Brian Donlon, vice president of sales, North America, for Lutron. “And, while there are hundreds of different LED manufacturers, not all of them hold products to the same standard when it comes to control compatibility. Statements like ‘works on most dimmers’ aren’t very helpful and should cause a contractor to pursue alternate solutions. From the control perspective, contractors should look for controls that are expressly listed as compatible with LEDs and CFLs as a future-proof rule, even if LEDs and CFLs are not yet used on the job. In general, contractors should look for explicit guidance on products that have been tested together, either by the lamp or control manufacturer. You also want to ensure that the manufacturers providing the advice can support their claims.”


• Stick with trusted brands—“The key with LEDs is that most major lamp or fixture manufacturer’s products perform better in terms of control compatibility,” Neary said. “There are many new entrants in the market with limited history, placing the burden of research on installers, designers and users to identify acceptability for the application.”


Donlon said that it’s important to work with a manufacturer you know and trust will stand by its products.


“Based on the higher price of LED products, many buyers may steer toward lower cost products from lesser known brands,” Donlon said. “While the upfront cost savings are tempting, a call-back to a job site due to a control compatibility problem can quickly erode any savings that were obtained.”


• Tried and true—Donlon advises contractors to arrange mock-up or test installations involving the actual control and lamps desired with the maximum number of lamps on a single zone as required by the installation.


“This is the only way to ensure that there will be no surprises on the finished job,” he said. 


Several trusted manufacturers regularly conduct extensive testing on the compatibility between that device and a wide range of lamps and make the results available on their websites.


“The U.S. Department of Energy has done some quality research to assist in educating contractors. From simple starting points like reviewing the compatibility charts on lamp and control manufacturers’ websites to setting up an independent testing lab at their own facility, a contractor’s ability to become well-versed in these types of compatibility issues is a key way for them to differentiate themselves from their competitors,” Neary said.