Intelligent Lighting Upgrades: Where this technology has been and where it is going on the road to net zero

By Claire Swedberg | Apr 15, 2024
Intelligent Lighting Upgrades
The demand for more sustainable buildings is converging to create a demand for lighting retrofits across commercial and industrial buildings worldwide. 




The demand for more sustainable buildings is converging to create a demand for lighting retrofits across commercial and industrial buildings worldwide. The latest LED products are linked to internet of things solutions that promise smarter, safer and more comfortable and efficient buildings. 

The technology and the driving factors behind its adoption vary. While building owners used to focus on gaining energy efficiency, they are now taking a step further toward solving longer-­term, more existential issues. A key challenge pushing building owners toward intelligent systems is climate change and the accompanying shift toward decarbonization, said Gary Meshberg, chair of the Lighting Controls Association, Rosslyn, Va., and market development specialist for building control systems at Legrand North America, West Hartford, Conn.

“Buildings continue to produce a significant share of carbon emissions, so deep retrofits will be needed to meet the nation’s obligations under the Paris Agreement [Climate Accord],” he said.

LED adoption has already dramatically improved energy efficiency, while the next phase will be wholesale adoption of more efficient LED luminaires and advanced lighting controls, Meshberg said. That will also deliver benefits related to measuring and monitoring building operation.

Facility owners indicate that building management system (BMS) integration still ranks as the top priority for retrofits, Meshberg said. Lighting and controls integrating with HVAC are among the most common requests, followed by security—think fire alarms, cameras and card swipes.

Beyond the common and real-time benefits of BMS is the data: building owners and operators are using the information gathered from lighting control sensors, he said, “and repurposing this data to help them make effective decisions about space optimization and utilization.”

LED installations often bring contractors into the building, and retrofitting LEDs is only continuing. Even while LED lighting approaches a level of saturation, many products may be near their end of life, creating a new opportunity “to go back and comprehensively upgrade older piecemeal LED installations with the latest LED luminaires and state-of-the-art lighting controls,” according to Meshberg.

What lighting intelligence offers

Beyond energy management, advanced lighting controls increase user satisfaction and comfort through light level and color. The intelligence around the controls enables optimizing space use, asset tracking, indoor positioning or wayfinding, etc. Meshberg pointed to the example of buildings using controls to record forklift traffic patterns in a warehouse as a way to increase efficiency and safety.

Lighting manufacturers are providing an ever-wider variety of options. LED luminaires with embedded lighting controls can be used to simplify specification and installation, in part because wireless connectivity continues to gain ground. Wireless options are growing with the recently introduced Bluetooth NLC standard, Wireless DALI and Zigbee protocols, which promote greater interoperability.

“Manufacturers have demystified networked lighting controls to a large extent with software innovation that makes programming and commissioning control systems much easier,” Meshberg said.

In the case of new construction, electrical contractors that have familiarized themselves with the latest lighting control innovations and have the necessary training are highly competitive, he added.

“In that market, it is the forward-thinking portion of the electrical contracting community that will prosper by investing in education and training and then bringing enhanced capabilities such as system selection, integration, commissioning and nonenergy benefits to their customers,” Meshberg said.

There are many resources for installers to become more skilled in the types of systems available, he said. The Lighting Controls Association, for example, offers free online courses within its Education Express program. Another source is lighting manufacturers’ local representatives, which may have staff dedicated to lighting controls.

Achieving net-zero emissions

The goal for the U.S. federal government is to achieve a carbon-­emissions-free power sector by 2035 and a net-zero carbon emissions economy by no later than 2050.

Consulting company McKinsey and Co., New York, has indicated that the United States can’t get to a net-zero carbon emission economy through new construction, since 80% of the buildings that will exist in 2050 have already been built.

David Errigo, energy solutions director for Acuity Brands, a lighting brand headquartered in Atlanta, said, “The only way the country can achieve a net-zero carbon emissions economy by 2050 is retrofitting existing buildings to make them as efficient as possible.” 

As a result, major cities are evaluating individual buildings’ energy use intensity by greenhouse gas emission levels annually. If a building does not meet the required levels, the city will fine the owner.

However, Errigo pointed out, “The U.S. grid is not currently equipped to handle the load if everything becomes electrified. In addition, renewables are a variable power source,” rather than a steady-state power source.

In 2019, the Department of Energy started promoting Grid-Interactive Efficient Buildings (GEBs). A GEB uses analytics and controls to optimize energy use for occupant patterns and preferences, utility price signals, weather forecasts and available on-site generation and storage.

Buildings will increasingly be required to become more dynamic in interacting with the grid through demand response.

“We will see more advanced control solutions that enable the lighting system to interact with the grid effectively and efficiently become a part of retrofit projects across the country,” Errigo said.

Acuity has experienced an uptick in the number of advanced control solutions sold in the retrofit market segment over recent years, he said. That number will continue to rise due to the burden being placed on the grid through the electrification movement and shift toward renewable energy.

Errigo noted that contractors dedicated to serving the retrofit market, or that have a division that serves that market, should develop expertise in the design and commissioning of wireless control solutions and networked systems that allow a facility to tie multiple measures together. That also applies to software solutions that enable a facility manager to understand a building’s (or a company’s building portfolio) energy use intensity.

“One of the biggest value-adds a contractor can offer a customer in a retrofit project is the identification of various funding mechanisms and tools that enable the upfront cost of the project to be as small as possible for the customer,” he said, which can be done by accelerating the payback.

“If the contractor can make that part of the equation easy for them, it is a huge value-add and will turn the relationship between the contractor and customer more toward a strategic consultative relationship rather than a transactional one,” Errigo said.

Expertise in the wireless world

Companies such as sensor system manufacturer IR-TEC America Inc., Anaheim, Calif., offer wireless solutions aimed at ease of installation. Traditionally, installers in the retrofit space were burdened with the time-consuming process of investigating the existing electrical infrastructure and building from there, said Ken Lancos, IR-TEC America’s president.

For contractors, he said, wireless technology offers more flexibility. “You don’t have to run new wire, you just lay in our sensors … the upside, too, is how simple it is to program, you just use a handheld remote.”

While IR-TEC offers its own services, from installation to preprogramming and on-site programming, contractors also use its products. Wired sensors are still a large percentage of IR-TEC’s business, but the (wireless) network is taking a growing percentage of that business over time, Lancos said. Wireless solutions on offer include Zigbee-based sensors that leverage infrared motion detection and energy harvesting.

Contractors open to change are the ones most likely to benefit, he added. There are inherent differences between a wired system and a wireless one.

“If you press a button on a wireless system, it’s not going to instantaneously react and change the lights—there’s always a delay,” Lancos said. 

It’s important to be educated about the change in performance and help users understand the differences as well.

“Having a contractor who’s willing to listen to us and understand how the system works—just having somebody that’s open-minded is fantastic,” he said.

Already, he said, the company works with contractors that have the traditional pipe and wire installers and a division (or at least an individual on staff) that offers programming.

“The great part is that there’s a lot of money to be made on the wireless side, when you consider how easy it is to install. They can get these jobs done quickly and economically,” Lancos said.

What may lie ahead

Where the technology will evolve in coming years can be hard to predict, Meshberg said. Unexpected developments have changed the course of the lighting industry before.

“We witnessed early LED luminaires—that were not dimmable—cost hundreds of dollars, and then became standard dimmable in a short period of time,” Meshberg said. 

In the meantime, the cost of the luminaires has continued to drop significantly. 

“This would have been difficult to predict even three years before the first viable commercial LED luminaires were available,” he said. And, according to Meshberg, the ultimately low cost of dimming “was a game-changer for the value derived from lighting controls.”

In the future, Meshberg speculated, “Perhaps the intelligence will transition from the lighting controls hardware to be embedded directly into the LED driver.” 

He posed the following questions: Would this mean luminaires are smart or controllable by default? Would retrofit lamps do the same? It may take time to learn the answers.

He recalled the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, credited with the idea that the only constant in life is change. It will be interesting, Meshberg said, to see what we ultimately adopt. / petinovs / Macrovector

About The Author

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at [email protected].





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