While firmly an option in the luxury home market, residential lighting controls are expanding into a broader home-owner landscape. With lighting packages designed to fit small and large installations, and technologies streamlined to assist owner and installer, now is the time for electrical contractors to tackle this market.

“Lighting control has seen significant growth due to growing interest,” said Gary Meshberg, chair of the Home Lighting Control Alliance. The Dallas-based group formed two years ago and includes manufacturers, retailers, industry organizations and installers, including electrical contractors.

A centralized lighting control system programs and manages lighting for an entire house or select rooms. Lighting can be automated based on homeowner need and/or desire.

“Consumers can explore this technology by applying lighting controls to one room, and then expanding as needs change,” Meshberg said. “Also, system components are fewer, and cost has come down. A complete system was once $10,000. Today, systems have dropped to $6,000–8,000, depending on the types of features selected.”

The market for residential lighting control systems looks promising. According the “6th Annual State of the Builder Technology Market” released by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), the consumer electronics market remains strong despite a projected 22 percent decline in new housing starts. Electronic factory sales expect to reach $172 billion in 2008, a 6.1 percent gain from 2007. Though automated lighting is not the first-considered technology by consumers, it is popular in home entertainment installations, alarm systems and security surveillance.

What is especially encouraging is the importance builders place on home technology in these economic times. Nine in 10 builders (89 percent) say adding home technologies has either increased (31 percent) or maintained (61 percent) their revenues despite the slowing housing market. They add that home technologies are important for marketing purposes. Moreover, they are turning to electrical contractors (ECs). The number of builders who hire electricians for home technology installation rose sharply from 2007, suggesting ECs may be offering more services of value to builders. A key takeaway in the report’s conclusions is, “Clearly consumers want technology in the home, but many might be unaware of the available options.” Here is a door ECs are now opening.

“Homeowners are starting to realize home automation is an investment,” said Dan Loncar, Western area sales manager installation systems and control, for Schneider Electric/Square D, Palatine, Ill. “The desire to save energy has also added to the growing demand for sensors, timers, dimmers and relays. As lighting control systems become more affordable, they may become a standard feature in our homes.”

Loncar said that despite the depressed housing market, contractors are finding opportunities to get into homes that otherwise might have been out of reach. In addition, the market has forced builders to include options that differentiate their models from others. He sees lighting controls as an example and adds that retrofits can be one of the largest revenue streams for ECs.

Aiding the electrical contractor

In the early days of home lighting automation, an EC had to “assemble” a multicomponent control system and then install and program it. Today’s systems are simpler, compact and more intuitive.

“You don’t need to be a computer technician to program today’s lighting control systems, and you don’t need a computer to keep it running,” Meshberg said. “That’s good news for ECs. In addition, more components or add-ons are compatible with other companies lighting systems.”

Meshberg also serves as controls business development manager for the Dallas-based Lightolier Controls, a Philips group brand. The firm has developed a radio frequency lighting system—wireless being the latest offering in the increasingly competitive world of lighting control systems. The Compose PLC system actually works off existing wiring in a home.

“Simplicity is the goal for the installer and end-user,” Meshberg said.

Schneider Electric is planning to introduce its own wireless systems in the coming months under its Square D Clipsal line.

Both men agree the sale of a lighting control system is something you lead into. They suggest asking questions that move a discussion toward automated lighting. Start with ways the homeowner can conserve energy, add security or bring convenience into the home.

“The key is to engage homeowners early in the process and understand their needs, lifestyle and expectations,” Loncar said. “Have the customer discover how a lighting control system could be designed for their home. A wall keypad, a multifunction wall switch or a key fob that can control their lights is intriguing. Having remote capability from a home computer is attractive as well.”

Meshberg firmly believes a lighting control system helps an EC sell more lights.

Finding success

Residential business represents half of Northside Electric Inc.’s work. The Salem, Ore., firm has its own low-voltage division.

“We have found one way to introduce lighting control is through other services,” said Mike Weaver, company vice president. “For instance, our low-voltage work covers home theater installations and security systems. Having lighting control is important to both. If you are showing homeowners how to automatically dim the lights in their theater room, you’ve already sold the idea of lighting control and have a hook to further sell in other parts of the house.”

Northside Electric has been involved in lighting controls for 10 years.

“We saw the automatic lighting system business start with technology savvy customers who were fluent in computers and were on the verge of jumping into home automation,” Weaver said. “Lighting control intrigued them. Customers really brought the idea to us.”

In the past five years, the market has started to win more mainstream attention.

“A wider variety of systems has helped us sell, as have better explanations of benefits, easier installation and the rise in wireless communication. The biggest draw for our customers has been security, followed by audiovisual applications. It starts with just a room. A year later that customer comes back for more.”

Weaver said Salem is a fiscally conservative region.

“The housing market isn’t bad. Homes are holding their value, but everything extra you put into a house is a tough sell. Therefore, we need to get in front of the customer to talk about lighting control. That involves painting a scenario for them in a five-minute meeting or a walk-through their under-construction home or remodel.”

Good relationships with area builders can also expand lighting control business.

“We may have an agreement to do the wiring on a number of builder homes,” Weaver said. “The builder tells their customers we are doing the wiring and recommends they have a sit-down with us. Builders may not be up to speed on lighting control, but if we are, they see it as a -[value-added] service for their customers.”

In New York City, defining what is or isn’t the luxury market is a matter of perspective. A comfortable condominium may run $4 million in Midtown Manhattan. A “luxury” condo may list in the tens of millions. Both types of homeowners, however, are asking for a lighting control system, according to Sam Pace, executive vice president and CEO of Zwicker Electric Co. Inc.

Zwicker Electric serves New York City’s five boroughs, with Midtown Manhattan representing 80 percent of its work. On the residential side, a single-family home is typically a high-rise condominium building, such as the AOL/Time-Warner building. The company installs lighting controls as an expected amenity in many big-name condo projects, and some new apartment projects.

“This market really grew as the real estate market exploded in the 1990s,” Pace said. “A 1994 New York state law and resulting code required lighting control in commercial buildings (ASHRAE 90.1-2004) [and] opened the door to the residential controls side as Lutron and others entered the market. New condo construction and conversions have really fueled the residential lighting control business for us. Its remote control ability, reduced power consumption and 21st century lighting approach all play into its attractiveness to our customers.”

Pace keeps up with this technology largely through manufacturing reps.

“Vendors come to our office with demos of their control products,” he said. “I will bring in engineers, purchasing agents and field representatives. We will ask vendors for sites where these systems are installed and go to see them in action. If a system helps address energy waste and meet state and local codes, we’re interested.”

The future

Residential lighting controls continue to evolve.

“We’re on the cusp of a dramatic transformation from halogen to compact fluorescence to LED lighting,” Meshberg said. “There’s a growing sophistication to lighting control as it begins to adapt ideas from lighting design and makes more room for lower price points.”

“This is a short-term opportunity for ECs,” he added. “Residential lighting control systems have yet to find themselves in the big box stores. In addition to manufacturing reps, trade shows, Web sites and associations are all great places to learn more.”

Loncar said lighting control technology is expanding into other functions.

“We have seen light level sensors, relays and logic controllers be used to control shades and blinds, control sprinkler systems and projection screens. Lighting control technology will grow to be any combination of anything electrical. In a sense, it will become home control.”

“Let your experience and expertise as an EC work for you with builders and homeowners,” Loncar said. “Also, recognize that your customers will be your best sales advocates. Once they have a residential lighting system, they won’t imagine living without it.”

GAVIN is the owner of Gavo Communications, a marketing services firm serving the construction, landscaping and related design industries. He can be reached at gavo7@comcast.net.