Wireless technology is certainly getting attention these days. We’ve covered the extensive range of new home automation and security products and systems often here in the pages of ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR. Given the ink (and electrons) spent describing these offerings, one might conclude the days of wired connections between sensors and controls are waning, but wires aren’t disappearing anytime soon, especially in many commercial and high-end residential applications. And hardwired lighting control, in particular, is drawing new interest among consumers and manufacturers alike, thanks, in part, to the forecasted growth of light-emitting diodes (LEDs).

A structured approach


Now coming to market are systems that could be considered structured wiring for lighting. Structured wiring has been a common approach for distributing entertainment and security data and control for years. With these designs, cable boxes and media servers can live in a centralized location, with Category 5 cable running out to multiple televisions, speakers and other end-use devices. This eliminates the clutter of multiple devices next to every TV. The plug-and-play aspect of such systems also makes it easier to upgrade either the central “brains” or an individual TV or security camera.


New lighting plans see similar advantages in centralizing not just control, but also power delivery for low-wattage LED lighting fixtures. Today’s 8-watt (W) LED lamps can produce the equivalent illumination of a 60W incandescent, which means designers and contractors can begin re-evaluating the need for line-voltage alternating-current (AC) wiring. LEDs may only now be beginning to hit both performance and price targets that make them an attractive option for residential and commercial building owners, but tech entrepreneurs already are seeing opportunities in rethinking current practices in the face of a coming lighting revolution.


“The light bulb is now an electronic device that requires a ‘wall wart’ at each device,” said Derek Cowburn, founder and chief technology officer of Indianapolis-based startup Lumen Cache, referring to the power-regulating drivers required by LED lamps.


His company has developed a system that centralizes drivers (among other components) in a panel or closet. Cat 5 cable connects drivers to individual fixtures, with two pairs of the cable’s wires delivering low-voltage direct current (DC) power, leaving remaining wires available for sensor data. No AC wiring is required. Luminaires are connected to the system using an RJ-45 connection that delivers both electricity and control functionality.


“The product is not a lighting product, per se. Really, it is what we call a ‘microgrid platform,’” Cowburn said. “It’s a solution for the last 1,000 feet” of power distribution.


The gateway into this “microgrid platform” is an AC-to-DC power-management module supplied by an AC power converter and charger (the charger keeps connected batteries on the ready, so lights stay on for up to several hours during outages). This unit can supply power to up to six power-distribution modules, which, in turn, can each support up to 16 “pucks” that may serve as LED drivers or switches. In development is a puck that will enable Internet-based lighting control over any web-enabled device, such as a PC, smartphone or utility control system.


Not surprisingly, Cowburn is bullish on incorporating DC power distribution into a building’s electrical plans. Even beyond lighting applications, he sees the possibility of incorporating DC-supplied RJ-45 connections next to standard AC outlets “for all the things that are DC in the home.”


Going commercial


Fremont, Calif.-based Redwood Systems has developed a sophisticated structured approach for large-scale commercial and institutional applications, including offices, schools and data centers. The company’s system makes full use of the communications capacity of those wires in a Cat 5 cable not being used for power. The company has developed a series of sensors and controllers to monitor occupancy, available daylight and temperature; it also has hardware and software to connect with existing building management systems.


Such communications provide capabilities including dimming overhead lighting based on ambient daylight conditions and turning on illumination in underused hallways only when a worker is passing through. These strategies are becoming common in top-performing buildings. However, with the Redwood Systems approach, this responsiveness is being delivered with a single run of Cat 5 cable instead of expensive Romex or conduit-clad copper.


Interest in responsiveness and control will grow significantly as California’s latest Title 24 energy codes take effect Jan. 1, 2014. Among the updates are provisions requiring adaptive lighting—which automatically dims or shuts off when it is not needed—and daylight-based operation in much smaller buildings than were previously covered. The new requirements will kick in whenever more than 10 percent of lighting is being changed out or more than 40 ballasts are being replaced. Daylight-based controls will be required in all day-lit interior spaces with more than 120W of installed lighting power.


California’s regulations often become a model for national and local energy codes across the United States. Derek Anderson, Redwood Systems’ senior marketing director, sees the updated Title 24 as a major boost for equipment such as his company’s offerings.


“We feel it will have a hugely positive impact on structured lighting systems, as the new standards codify the type of control that companies such as ours provide to our customers,” he said. “We think all vendors should be doing this. We’ve seen a lot of similar standards being put in place around the world.”


Catching on?


Big names in the lighting-controls industry are starting to track this new DC distribution approach.


“From a technical standpoint, we’re interested by it. It seems like it should make a lot of sense,” said Doug Jacobson, Crestron’s vertical market manager for lighting and energy markets. “Why run line voltage through a building if your lights want low-voltage DC?”


However, he added, there are still reasons for skepticism. For one thing, any given run of cable can support a limited number of LED fixtures, so the need to install multiple homeruns of cable could negate some of the savings. More important, though, the industry has yet to develop universal standards. So, building owners could be looking at a VHS-versus-Betamax-style standoff down the road, and if the cable in their facility isn’t compatible with future advances, they’re looking at a major renovation project, Jacobson said.


So, for now, Crestron is advocating a combined system—power through standard AC wire and communications using a wired Ethernet connection.


“If you have a hybrid approach, you could certainly use structured wiring to communicate with room and area controllers,” he said. “But we’re delivering information, not power.”


Another controls-market leader, WattStopper, has moved halfway between building-wide DC power distribution and fully duplicative power and fiber wiring. With this company’s digital lighting management system, AC power is wired to the room level, feeding room-level controllers, which step that power down to 24 volts for distribution to Cat 5e-connected sensors, switches and other devices. Cat 5e cable also connects the controller to a network bridge, which is then linked back to a building automation system using a standard twisted-pair data line.


The system is designed for easy installation. The Cat 5e cables are preterminated, for example, and devices within a room can be connected to one another in any way that’s most convenient.


“There’s no wrong way to do it,” said Eric Fournier, a director of product marketing for WattStopper, who added that this capability was specifically designed to speed up installation. “Ultimately, contractors are seeking solutions that are easy to use and safe to use. We want to design our products for the apprentice contractor.”


What kind of contractor?


An electrical contractor seeing all this enthusiasm for low-­voltage power distribution now might be wondering, “What’s in it for me?” Both startup manufacturers and industry stalwarts say opportunities are strong for ECs who are open to growing their businesses by learning new skills. Lumen Cache’s Cowburn has gotten mixed reactions from electrical pros when telling them about his system.


“Half the electrical contractors I talk to are thrilled,” he said, with the cost-cutting potential and a built-in LED dimming solution, while others see the technology as a threat, and he’s anxious to allay their fears. “This isn’t something to be afraid of. It’s just a slightly new trade.”


Redwood System’s Anderson is even more bullish on the opportunities for electrical contractors in this burgeoning field.


“There is a huge opportunity for ECs to take advantage of the multibillion-dollar lighting market,” he said. “In particular, by installing systems that go beyond lighting to also include building performance capabilities, they can really differentiate their service offerings. It also helps them exponentially grow their project portfolios.”