The residential lighting controls market is quickly catching on with contractors, due in part to the increasing inclusion of low-voltage wired control systems in new homes, legislation calling for additional energy savings that can be achieved with control systems, advances in wireless technology and the resulting decrease in control systems’ prices.

Lighting controls comprise different applications and can manage interior and exterior lighting or be linked to home automation systems that control security, entertainment centers, heating, ventilation, air conditioning and window blinds. Automatic lighting control systems can be present in only one room or throughout a whole house and may be hard-wired or wireless. Hard-wired systems have a central control panel connected by low-voltage wiring to components—dimmers and switches—throughout the house. With a wireless system, there may be a central control component or individual components that are hard-wired, but the components communicate wirelessly.

An increasing percentage of new homes includes lighting control systems. Of the homes that were scheduled for construction in 2004, 7.4 percent featured automated lighting controls, up from just 1.1 percent in 2003, according to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB)/Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) State of the Builder Technology Market Study. In California, that percentage is rising in response to the state’s new energy code, Title 24. As of October 2005, all new and remodeled homes are required to incorporate energy-efficient lighting and controls, including dimmers and occupancy sensors that must be certified Title 24-compliant.

In the past, home control systems were too expensive for most homeowners. For contractors, they have been difficult to maintain or integrate. Products from one company often did not work well with those of another company, creating considerable frustration. That situation is changing due to technological advances. An accompanying decrease in price is prompting many homeowners to consider lighting controls.

Companies competing in the controls market offer products based on different technologies. Rather than release new products, most update existing ones. Lutron’s Homeworks, the company’s high-end lighting control system, has been updated with a new processor that includes such features as Ethernet connectivity and a hybrid repeater link that results in a simpler way to add radio frequency (RF) capability. It now communicates over a dedicated network of low-voltage wires and wirelessly through the company’s patented RF technology.

Lightolier Controls’ Compose PLC is a whole-house lighting control system that will have wireless control capabilities by this summer. It has been on the market for five years.

“It was created to be quickly and easily installed by the electrical contractor,” said Brian Matthews, public relations manager for Lightolier Controls. “The market is definitely growing. Lighting control systems are becoming the standard in new homes, but the market is also growing in terms of retrofit installations. I see it growing in phases as companies upgrade on their existing product foundations.”

On the ground floor

What does this all mean to electrical contractors?

According to David Bruce, national sales manager, Square D Clipsal, “If electrical contractors alter their business model to incorporate lighting control, it will improve their ability to increase profit. It provides an avenue for lead-in conversations with builders when competing for business. They can get in front of the builder and the homeowner and explain the value of lighting control. They can bring added value to their relationship with the building contractor by providing the service to spec/design, install, program and service a lighting control system. By getting involved in lighting control, they can differentiate themselves from contractors who just want to get in, do the wiring and get out.

“It also provides the opportunity to create a broader business referral network,” Bruce continued. “Getting in front of the wall not only creates the opportunity to work with the estimator early in the design phase, but also the ability to work with design agents and really sell their total business. If an architect or a designer works with an electrical contractor that offers lighting control and the experience is positive for the homeowner and builder, then they will likely specify lighting control in more homes, and most likely remember and refer that contractor for future work.

“It also extends the contractor’s ability to work with and communicate with the homeowner, and not only sell the total package, but also be looked upon by the homeowner as ‘their’ electrician. It develops a one-on-one relationship with the consumer and it gives the contractor the ability to do future upselling and service work, which is really the notion of ‘customer for life.’”

But what products should contractors choose to install?

The Z revolution

A host of new wireless products from a variety of companies is entering the market. In the past few years, Zigbee and Z-Wave initiatives have influenced the manufacturing of controls. Managed by the Zigbee Alliance and the Z-Wave Alliance respectively, the goals, basically, are to standardize wireless products—to have different manufacturers’ wireless products based on the same protocols, making it easier for installers to choose and specify the products and systems.

Z-Wave is a proprietary RF wireless communications technology designed for residential and light commercial control and status reading applications, while Zigbee is an interoperable IEEE 802.15.4 standards-based RF wireless communications technology for industrial, residential and home control and monitor applications, according to the Web site.

“We’re one of the founding members of the Z-Wave Alliance,” said Jeff Bovee, commercial marketing manager, Intermatic Inc. “We signed on right away. We believe in the technology. Their technology makes anything we make be interoperable with anything the other companies make. We think it’s going to make a huge difference in the residential controls market. It’s the first time you have a reliable technology that is affordable enough that everyone can have it.”

Other companies are studying the technology.

“We evaluated both Zigbee and Z-Wave technologies for use in our design,” said Diane Davis, vice president of marketing for CentraLite, in reference to creation of that company’s new wireless product, StarLite. “Since both technologies are emerging standards, we just didn’t feel that we could guarantee reliability without providing our own technology. Our base-control is somewhat Zigbee-like, but at this point, our implementation is proprietary. Our solution is unique. Our goal was to make StarLite as reliable as our hard-wired systems. We’re watching both standards very closely and, in the future, we will probably offer Zigbee and Z-Wave options for our master control unit.”

Electrical contractors may want to base their specification choices on those products that are Zigbee and Z-Wave compliant.

Training in control

How does an electrical contractor take advantage of the lighting control design/specification/application opportunities?

“One crucial key is for electrical contractors to fully educate themselves on the benefits and functionality of a lighting control system,” said Brad Wills, director of business development, Square D Clipsal. “But perhaps more importantly, they have to decide, ‘I want to be in this business,’ and they have to commit to the training from a design/installation and programming standpoint.”

Electrical contractors can learn about installation and details of programming from manufacturers. Intermatic offers training classes through electrical distributors across the country and at trade shows. Its classes cover Z-Wave technology and information on designing a control system using wireless technology, installation, set up, programming and selling strategies. Training for StarLite will be available online and in other media.

“Electricians who are used to replacing wall switches will be able to install our dimmers,” said Davis. “If an electrician is not familiar with installation of lighting control systems, the biggest challenge may be the software configuration component, but we’ve added features to aid the installers, including voice installation commands. An installer would connect a laptop to the base control unit, use a wireless headset and walk around the house speaking simple commands like, ‘OK, StarLite, set dim level to 85 percent.’”

Beyond being trained by individual companies, contractors may want to learn about products without the pressures of a job situation.

“I suggest electrical contractors interested in entering the controls market buy a simple system and install it in their own home,” said Helen Heneveld, founder, Bedrock Learning, an online training company that offers classes in residential lighting control systems and many other residential low-voltage related topics. “I’d rather have the lights come on at 2 a.m. in my home than in that of my client. There is a big learning curve with design and programming of residential lighting controls.

“For example, electrical contractors need to understand that each technology operates independently and that if a customer has a Zigbee light switch it won’t work with a Z-Wave controller,” she continued. “There is also a difference between the design of the lighting layout and the design of the lighting control system.

“For the lighting design layout, which most electricians are familiar with, decisions are made about the type and location of the fixtures. Design of a lighting control system involves a plan for how to control those loads so that the homeowner doesn’t have to turn on seven switches and adjust the dimmer every time.”

According to Heneveld, the best example is the dining room.

“You’ve usually got six loads: the chandelier, the ceiling cans, cove lighting, wall sconces, curio cabinet and bay window. That’s the lighting layout. The lighting control system design would involve programming for certain scenes. One might be ‘intimate dining,’” Heneveld said.

“For that, a design might be that the cove lighting is on while the cans are not, the chandelier is at 60 percent, the bay window at 25 percent and the sconces at 40 percent. Another scene could be called ‘cleaning.’ That design would have all the lights on.

“Creating scenes is an opportunity for the contractor to get creative,” Heneveld said. “That’s challenging and out of the comfort zone for most electrical contractors. One suggestion is to learn by working with a lighting designer or studying lighting design in order to learn to design scenes. Once learned, that is an additional service they can provide and charge for.”

A controlled business plan

As the residential market continues to grow, and as electrical contractors get more involved in designing and specifying lighting controls, savvy contractors will be “the first line of service, since they are going to have to interact with the homeowner after they’ve completed the design, installation and programming of the system,” Wills said. “They need to position their business so they can service the system over its entire lifetime. Whether it’s a system issue that needs to be resolved or the homeowner wants to change or enhance the system, that’s service revenue and a new product sales opportunity.

“It comes down to a willingness and desire to interface with a homeowner. If you don’t want to do that, then you probably shouldn’t be in the lighting control business.

“It is critical that a contractor understand all the capabilities of a lighting control system and be able to translate the needs of the homeowner back into how the lighting control system ultimately functions,” Wills continued. “In addition, the contractor may need to be willing to work hours that align with the homeowner’s availability. For example, the best time to tweak final system design is at night when the full effect of the lighting can be seen.

“That means meeting with the homeowner after hours to go through final changes and enhancements. The contractor might say, ‘I’ll bring some pizzas and we will walk though the system so I can design the system exactly to your specifications.’”

This kind of service just may help your company succeed over the competition.     EC

CASEY, author of "Kids Inventing! A Handbook for Young Inventors" and "Women Invent! Two Centuries of Discoveries that have Changed Our World," can be reached at scbooks@aol.com or www.susancaseybooks.com.