Multifunctional sensors, networked wireless controls accessible from mobile devices, and, yes, light-emitting diodes (LEDs) are trends that picked up steam this year. These interconnected technologies will be transformational for the electrical contractor (EC). Most significantly, they bolster the need for high- and low-voltage expertise to meet the challenging demands of today’s customers who want to continuously improve energy efficiency while providing quality lighting. 


Approaches in lighting that include wireless and mobile control are poised to meet many of the 21st-century client’s needs. There were plenty of examples at Lightfair International 2015 this past May in New York.


Wireless and networked


“I think smart, energy-saving and wireless light control systems will open tremendous new market opportunities for electrical contractors,” said Nick Shkordoff, group vice president and general manager—Ideal Electrical, Ideal Industries Inc., Sycamore, Ill. “We are seeing a switchover to wireless, notably in renovation projects. The control systems are increasingly easy to install, commission and operate to help drive real energy savings. Their simplicity removes some IT wariness for ECs, allowing them to easily install and program these systems and teach them to operations managers.”


Shkordoff expects wireless-supported energy management systems to generate “tremendous global demand,” driving down installation and operating costs, notably across large-scale projects (250,000 to 1 million-plus square feet). 


“Changing building codes in California and New York are mandating large-scale energy management systems,” he said. “New ASHRAE 90.1 2013 code has been adopted by more than 11 states, and we believe all remaining states will need to adopt it within two years. By 2017, no U.S. building permits will be rewarded without 100 percent compliance with these ASHRAE requirements.”


Ideal’s Audacy wireless system has been delivering energy savings from 35 to 50 percent, Shkordoff said. It uses a 950-megahertz (Mhz) frequency.


“The spectrum allows us to communicate point to point at 300 feet, and then repeaters from greater distances,” said Nolan Bello, Ideal business unit manager. 


Other companies have targeted the same frequency range or lower so lighting controls don’t interfere with other wireless devices, while still enabling frequency communication through walls, floors and ceilings. It is a tremendous advantage for large-scale and multifloor installations, but it benefits smaller installations as well. 


Some examples: Lutron’s Clear Connect frequency band for commercial and residential is set at 434 Mhz. Enlighted Inc., a sensor and analytics provider based in Sunnyvale, Calif., likes the higher gigahertz Wi-Fi spectrum for its networked energy system, enabling heavy data communication with a system designed at low wattage to reduce energy use. 


For Ideal and others, the fact that their controls can be retrofitted to existing fixtures is key to their market penetration. For example, Ideal’s Audacy Smart Connector is embedded into the fixture to adjust to ambient lighting, motion and occupancy.


The question sometimes raised is whether wireless poses a threat to the EC. Brian Donlon, sales vice president, North America for Lutron, sees it as an opportunity.


“There will always be a load source requiring the EC,” he said. “The wireless components are merely building devices to control what’s electrified: a (0–10V) control signal to run the fixtures. In some cases, wireless control may have a slightly higher price than wired controls, but the reduced labor and wiring costs enable contractors to meet budget constraints, energy goals, and performance requirements and, in effect, capture more jobs that have previously been financially out of reach.”


Donlon finds wireless is also helping contractors improve design flexibility for their clients. 


“Commercially, that [installation] might be personal control over a workstation, scene control at a podium, in an auditorium or classroom, or daylight control in open office areas,” he said. “Residentially, the contractor can easily provide control from a bedside or end table, add an additional control location, or even facilitate control from a smart device. As wireless capability becomes even more robust, clients will be able to easily link wireless devices throughout their home or building.”


Precision sensors that read light and more


For Zach Gentry, vice president of business development for Enlighted, lighting’s near future looks to be “an industry of sensors and networked systems.” Growing 100 percent per year since its inception in 2009, the company is looking to achieve triple-digit revenue growth this year with an expected sales of 1 million advanced sensors. 


“In a short time, controls logic, better sensors and interoperability with other systems have all greatly improved,” Gentry said. “The leap for us is giving customers the ability to gather, read and then act on what the sensor data tells them.


“For one customer, our sensors were reading the number of people in the building. That allowed the company to see how that office was being occupied, by how many, how long, and in what rooms. From a real-estate perspective, the company was discovering where it made sense to have their offices, how to resize and use them. HVAC [heating, ventilating and air conditioning] operations decisions were made as well to better manage the heating and cooling based on occupancy patterns,” Gentry said.


The Enlighted light sensors are engineered to distinguish between people and objects using infrared.


“By identifying the human form, you know everything else is an object, which provides more accuracy to ascertain proper lighting, occupancy and room temperature,” Gentry said. “Because the sensors are no longer misreading an object as a person, the more accurate reading allows building managers to more effectively save energy in lighting and/or HVAC.”


A system’s simplicity may help drive adoption of networked controlled systems.


“Our control’s interface is akin to what you might see on your smartphone, with touchscreens, icons and common-screen navigation techniques,” Gentry said. 


A number of manufacturers have taken a similar approach, making lighting controls easier for installer and end-user alike.


“In residential, a home wireless router is no longer a mystery,” Donlon said. “Downloading apps to a smartphone to manage and monitor different aspects of your life is now commonplace.” 


Lutron’s Caséta Wireless platform controls lights, shades and thermostats and works on Apple devices. Apple’s Siri can be a command communicator to home devices. Lutron has also established partnerships with smart thermostat company Nest and Alarm.com. 


The evolving LED


In citing major trends affecting lighting manufacturers and installers alike, Mike Watson, vice president, product strategy for Cree Inc., Durham, N.C., said it’s all about solid-state lighting.


“LED lighting today offers advanced performance, better value and quicker payback, all making for a faster adoption than we could have imagined a few years ago,” he said. “They are versatile, controllable, can be intelligent and improve light quality.” 


Cree and other manufacturers have crossed a threshold; LED choices now line a third or more of lamp shelves at big box stores. With prices dropping, homeowners are more likely than ever to try out LED lighting. Controllable lamps are the next building block in adoption. 


Watson feels the time is right for connected lamps.


“The idea of controlling home lighting and more from connected devices won’t be a leap for consumers,” he said. “They are comfortable with mobile technology. Our product [Connected Cree LED Bulb] and others are attracting early adopters.”


Cree’s Connected Cree LED Bulb product has a Zigbee wireless interface that can connect to occupancy, light, cameras and smoke sensors through a wireless gateway, enabling homeowners to communicate over the Internet using a smartphone, tablet or laptop. It also works on platforms that include WEMO, Wink and SmartThings. 


Before entering the market, Cree researched the connected market as did The Home Depot, which now carries Connected. The company learned barriers to adoption would include cost and complexity.


“The consumer is trying it out right now,” Watson said. “We priced it at $14.95, made it simple and are seeing more broad-based adoption.”


Lutron’s HomeWorks and RadioRA 2 control systems are popular with the high-end residential customer and are reaching the mid-market consumer.


Ketra Inc., which debuted its lamps and control systems at Lightfair, has its own connected LED bulb in models featuring an E26 Edison screw base, GU24 pin, or linear lighting. The bulbs feature a self-contained, wireless control but can also be retrofitted for TRIAC dimming controllable from a programmable device or a cloud-based lighting control software program (Design Studio). Using Zigbee, an installer can replace a halogen lamp, for example, with a Ketra LED without swapping out or modifying the fixture. Ketra’s S38 bulb earned an Innovation Award at Lightfair International 2015. 


The Ketra product is an example of the continuing evolution of LED digital chips. Abby Aldridge, director of marketing communications for the Austin, Texas-based firm, described her company’s proprietary chip as unique in its ability to provide full-spectrum, saturated color, pastel lighting and 90+ CRI white light in one lamp. It also checks and holds color stability and matching and has a thermal feedback loop to diminish heat gain in canister lighting. Behind those abilities is the company’s interest in providing healthy light. 


“Let’s face it: in the home and in the workplace, we are often exposed to less than healthy light, especially at night,” Aldridge said. “We try to provide healthy color temps and intensity in a quest to replicate natural light and healthy nocturnal illuminants. For example, our light decreases blue content as nighttime approaches so melatonin production is uninhibited and circadian rhythms can be restored. You can actually program the lamp to your ZIP code so it follows your location’s rising and setting of the sun, changing in color and intensity in accordance with time of day and quantity of natural light integration. In the home, this dynamic lighting can translate as an incandescent that warmly dims.”


For insight on lighting trends and their applications, see the 2015 LFI Innovation Awards at www.lightfair.com.