Ask four different contractors or manufacturers what’s new on the residential lighting front and you’ll get four different answers.

One may point to new fixtures, maybe a Spiderman light suspended by wire from the ceiling. Another may mention backlit dimmers or fluorescents suitable for residential use that feature quick starts and excellent color rendition. From here it looks like the major changes on the horizon are the result of an evolutionary process that points toward a revolution in the world of residential contracting.

Sure, contractors are now doing a better, safer job of stringing wires from point A to point B to connect appliances, wall sockets and the like. And, they are using more energy-efficient lamps and fixtures so consumers will, perhaps, save a few bucks while at the same time conserving natural resources. Research supports claims that a lamp dimmed 10 percent saves 10 percent on an electric bill while doubling lamp life. Increase the dim rate to 50 percent and electricity use is reduced by 40 percent and lamp life increased by a factor of 20. New, highly efficient low-voltage lamps feature beam control and snow-white light. And, contractors now blend incandescent, fluorescent and halogen in the same spaces.

That’s evolutionary.

The revolutionary aspects, though, will alter the manner in which the contractor on the cutting edge of his or her profession approaches the marketplace.

Look at it this way: The salesman who showed up with the first incandescent bulb created migraine headaches for those whose survival was dependent on the candle industry. Market acceptance was slow, but when it happened the candlemaker became a dinosaur.

These days, the person who influences buying decisions armed with ‘lighting and ancillary systems’ in his repertoire—rather than ‘lamps and wires and installation’—is going to reap big rewards. That person may not complete as many individual jobs, but he or she will be completing jobs with larger price tags and profit margins.

Our hypothetical contractor will make this transition by becoming a proactive part of the design process, rather than one of a number of subcontractors whose ability to secure a contract will be dependent upon the proverbial “low number.”

That was then...

The mechanical components of the equation are not entirely new, though they are more refined than they were 10 years ago. The concept of saving energy dates back to the 1960s, when Lutron introduced the first dimmers. Setting a mood by coordinating room lighting was as simple as extinguishing, or dimming, a chandelier in favor of a sconce. An earth-shattering concept was the introduction of the personal computer with attempts to manage entire residential light and security systems from a central source.

...this is now

After years of false starts, as W.C. Fields once said, “It’s time to grab the bull by the tail and face the situation.”

The consumer has moved beyond the fundamentals of energy saving to a level described by many as, simply, “the comfort zone.”

When Mrs. Customer returns home after dark and touches the control on her visor panel, she wants more than a garage door opener. She wants to light the area between her garage and entry. She doesn’t want to enter a dark house.

When she’s entertaining, she wants to change the mood of a room by pushing a button labeled “Party,” which sets combinations of lights at preset levels. Lamps and dimmers may accentuate oil-rubbed furniture or the grain on cabinets. A touch of a button may open blinds, illuminate an outside fountain, or cue the stereo.

Since kitchens are a gathering place for casual entertaining, guests may join the cook during meal preparation, so fixtures may be chosen and lights preset to levels conducive to that event. Pendant fixtures may hang over the area to provide a bright source of illumination. Recessed low-voltage fixtures will produce dimmed illumination when the crowd is seated at the dining table.

Similarly, a traditional living room may now be a multifunctional area providing space for a video entertainment center, lounging areas and, perhaps, a cubby for the recluse in the family.

That type of environment may prescribe light bouncing off the ceiling to remove shadows, task lighting in the cubby, dimming devices in the video area and accent lights for artwork.

So, what’s the big deal?

The big deal is that instead of having walls covered with plastic plates and switches, the entire system may be managed by touchpads and, in bigger installations, computers and timers.

More importantly, consumers are dictating the quality of their environments without any expectation of recovering the initial cost.

Industry leaders have developed products and components that have broad application in new and existing structures, and that may be actuated by hard wire or radio frequency systems.

Jim Wolfe of Polar Electric, who took six months to prepare for his first installation, began with a simple Lutron RadioRA system that is designed for installation in existing structures. Since the system is run on a radio frequency, no wiring was required.

His clients wanted a system that created a pathway from a garage through various locations on the interior of a 6,200-square-foot house. At the touch of a visor control, a garage door opened and the garage was illuminated, as were exterior and interior entry lights. A panel inside the house controlled several other zones, as did a touch pad next to a bed that turned off all of the lights at bedtime. Total cost: $6,000, including labor. Profit margin: high.

Is this rocket science? Hardly. Company ads say the system can be installed by a homeowner.

At the other end of the scale, Wolfe installed a Homeworks system in a 30,000-square-foot trophy home. The computer-based, hard-wire system was “tied into generators, security systems, home theater and HVAC. And, it is programmable with a modem so the owner can monitor the site remotely.” Total cost: $50,000. Profit margin: high.

Wolfe also sold vans full of fixtures, lamps and wire in the process.

The future

One contractor described today’s market for these products as “fuzzy.” Those who can afford to build trophy homes add computer-driven systems because that’s the simplest way to manage multiple functions. And an extra $50,000 to $100,000 added to a $5 million project isn’t a lot of money.

However, at the other end of the scale, as these products become more sophisticated, user-friendly and less expensive, the market will expand in both new and existing residential applications.

In simple terms, you can either be the bug, or the windshield.

Interested? Start by doing your homework. Evaluate the features of products and the advantages of various methods of delivering power to the appliances. Check out each company’s expertise and stability, source of components, quality control and reliability. On a grander scale, prepare to learn about integrating lighting systems with home security, HVAC and telephones.

It will also require training. Depending upon the company with whom you deal, you may receive field training, or be required to send installers to factory schools.

Perhaps, before making a commitment to go full tilt, you can put a toe in the water by installing a system in an existing residence. Cost is (relatively) low and you won’t wreak havoc with existing sheetrock or wiring.

Then, if you are satisfied with the results, plan on taking a proactive role in the planning of lighting systems. That may mean educating yourself, and schmoozing with architects, lighting consultants, interior decorators and general contractors.

Finally, be patient. One successful contractor told us that he turned the profit corner 18 months after making the decision to enter this marketplace.

We know that refinements in existing lamp and fixture architecture are just around the corner. But we’re convinced that they are attachments to wiring systems that, eventually, will operate like R2-D2 and C-3PO. EC

LAWRENCE is a freelance writer and photographer based in Bozeman, Mont. He can be reached at hrscrk@mcn.net.