Scalable Wireless Lighting: Bluetooth Mesh lighting controls join the mainstream

By Claire Swedberg | Dec 11, 2023
F4a_Casambi - Case Study3
Just as fixtures have gone from incandescent and fluorescent lamps to LEDs, lighting technology has grown to include wireless controls. 




Just as fixtures have gone from incandescent and fluorescent lamps to LEDs, lighting technology has grown to include wireless controls. Electrical contractors will be serving their customers in these rollouts, now and in the coming years, according to lighting experts and technologists. Just what that role will look like as new installations and retrofits accelerate can only be limited by imagination.

When lighting manufacturers and designers talk about wireless controls, the focus is Bluetooth Mesh, which provides a relatively low-cost system that’s light on infrastructure. The Bluetooth wireless nodes are either built into fixtures or retrofitted to create a mesh of sensors, switches and control devices. While proprietary systems dominated in early years, new open standards are further simplifying Bluetooth Mesh systems.

For example, the Bluetooth Networked Lighting Control (NLC) is currently the full-stack standard for wireless lighting control. Bluetooth NLC offers standardization from the radio through the device layer, enabling multivendor interoperability, and could lead to mass adoption of wireless lighting control.

The wireless technology’s growth has been steady across the world and is now finding its way into the United States. Most often, Bluetooth Mesh is part of large deployments, or leveraged at sites where pulling wire is particularly challenging or expensive, said Fabio Zaniboni, founder and chief vision officer for building controls company BubblyNet, Clearwater, Fla. Such large projects have included airports, convention centers and multistory buildings, while challenging projects are often in historical buildings or fast-paced remodels with tight budgets.

Since there is no more data wiring in such cases, design is simplified and installation is a fraction of the cost of legacy systems.

“This is an end-to-end wireless solution. It doesn’t require hubs or any additional hardware beyond the fixture controllers, sensors and switches required for the project,” Zaniboni said.

Zaniboni added that with open standards, building owners or specifiers should be able to select the best product or company for the specific application among all vendors since devices are interoperable. A “mesh” control system is also built for easy scaling at a later date, since it doesn’t include centralized systems that get outgrown when additional points of control are added, he said. Bluetooth Mesh networks are inherently designed to support large numbers of devices. So even if an installation starts small, the technology is built for expansion.

Bluetooth Mesh adds functionality

This year, Kirkland, Wash.-based standards organization Bluetooth SIG Inc. released Bluetooth Mesh 1.1—the latest networking specification for use in commercial lighting control. Some of the large commercial lighting vendors in this space (in North America and Europe) include Signify, Tridonic, Acuity and Cooper Lighting. Such lighting manufacturers choose to build Bluetooth Mesh into their products for various reasons, said Mikko Savolainen, marketing director for semiconductor company Silicon Labs, Austin, Texas. Silicon Labs provides the ICs for such manufacturers. The technology drivers, he said, are its simplicity, phone connectivity, beaconing capabilities and the fact that it works without a gateway.

Until recently, there have been some key challenges to adoption of Bluetooth Mesh lighting controls, centered around the cost and network maintenance of wireless lighting networks. As the technology standardizes, prices are coming down. Bluetooth Mesh 1.1 adds multiple features that simplify and accelerate network setup. One feature is the system’s ability to bridge between different networks. The 1.1 updates also reduce labor needed for network maintenance, with new features including over-the-air firmware updates and remote provisioning.

“The new Bluetooth Mesh 1.1 standard is good news for Silicon Labs, as we are one of the leading companies providing this technology for lighting manufacturers and other companies developing mesh solutions,” Savolainen said. It is also good news for the company’s customers, “since we have undertaken the effort to standardize and develop this new technology—so our customers don’t have to do this themselves, saving them development efforts and costs.” That means lower costs downstream for end-users.

“As a result, Bluetooth Mesh 1.1 will dramatically simplify the installation and integration process, providing a single standard for commercial and industrial lighting,” Savolainen said.

Installers, particularly electricians from the younger, technology-savvy generations, will be able to adopt a software approach to commissioning a job, Zaniboni said: less 0–10V wiring and 3-way switch wiring, and more app-based job commissioning.

“Integrators will be facilitated by easier-­to-use mobile and desktop software and challenged by new integration requirements,” he added, that could include features far beyond lighting controls such as air quality control, active noise control, network health models and cloud integration.

Gaining U.S. traction

While the transition into Bluetooth Mesh lighting controls began in Europe, U.S. building managers are increasingly opting for the mesh systems. Lighting control company Casambi, Atlanta, launched in Europe and came to America with its Bluetooth Mesh technology in 2020. It now has more than 100,000 projects complete, said Mark McClear, Casambi’s president and general manager for North America. Prior to 2020, some of the company’s iconic installations included the Colosseum in Rome and BBC World Headquarters’ multicampus building with more than 15,000 nodes.

Helsinki Airport also has leveraged the wireless controls using Casambi Ready daylight sensors that adjust lighting levels as needed, based on the amount of sunlight through the day. The controls are designed to provide a calm and comfortable ambiance, 24 hours a day, at the airport’s boarding gates. Now, Casambi also sees momentum underway in the United States, McClear said. Most of the company’s projects are commissioned by the EC or customer, he said.

There are regulatory changes underway boosting the deployment of Bluetooth Mesh lighting. Codes related to energy management are changing across the country. The Lighting Controls Association, a council of the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA), recommends luminaire-­level lighting control, which is part of state building codes. Other energy-management codes are expected to follow, because controlled lighting saves energy: typically 15%–80%, based on occupancy sensor data alone, according to NEMA.

Casambi is among the companies operating as an open standard system, McClear said, which for contractors means the technology is highly accessible since “it’s not something that would require an engineering degree to install and program.”

Casambi products use semiconductors from a variety of chip suppliers and their own software integrated into a module with a Bluetooth antenna. About the size of a thumbnail, these modules are built into existing lighting systems to bring controls where there were none before. Retrofits are still the most common applications, McClear said, where the walls and ceilings are already up and “you don’t want to start digging and cutting and replastering.”

For instance, the National Sailing Museum in Newport, R.I., deployed a Bluetooth Mesh lighting system from Casambi in spring 2023. The 127-year-old structure provides 8,500 square feet of exhibits beneath vaulted ceilings, where no holes could be drilled or tracking lighting drilled to trusses. The U-shaped track with low-­voltage circuits served to be lightweight, and the wireless controls also kept the weight down. The mesh controls were embedded in every fixture, the company said, and designed to showcase the museum’s exhibits and the historic ceiling. The facility managers then had 500 customizable light sources throughout the exhibition.

Modern Age, a New York aging and wellness clinic and spa, had Casambi lighting controls installed in July 2023. The business’ goal was to provide appropriate lighting to coincide with spa treatments and vitamin infusions. Modern Age has integrated the lighting and lighting controls into part of the therapy experience, intending to match circadian rhythms and the right mood for each treatment.

Stay current

Electrical contractors that install lighting would be advised to keep an eye on wireless controls, McClear said. They should stay current, he pointed out. 

“Just like all the fixtures went from fluorescent or incandescent to LEDs in the last 10 years or so, I think fixtures are going to take another click forward in evolution,” he predicted. A decade from now, “it’ll be routine that every fixture is going to have a Bluetooth radio, and every fixture is going to have a sensor in it,” McClear said.

If contractors understand the commissioning and can offer additional applications for this technology once it’s in place, that could be a new source of revenue, he added.

Bluetooth SIG is experiencing mainstream traction because of Bluetooth Mesh, said the organization’s director of product marketing, Damon Barnes. “That’s due to the proliferation of LEDs, a desire for greater energy efficiency, faster deployment capabilities and a higher­-quality occupant experience,” he said.

Expectations are that 28 million Bluetooth NLC devices will ship in 2027, he said. There will be a 115% compound annual growth rate for Bluetooth NLC device shipments from 2022 to 2027, according to a 2023 study from ABI Research. The U.S. Department of Energy also projects that 28% of commercial lighting deployments will be connected by 2035.

Barnes also sees the way forward guided by open standards and interoperable fixtures and applications. He pointed out that in the past, proprietary systems had led to limited product choice for the system and increased development costs.

“With standardization comes interoperability, and with interoperability comes trust—trust that products from different manufacturers can work together seamlessly,” he said. That enables users to create systems that fit a building or company’s purpose with value-added capabilities. 

Standardization also helps expand the overall size of the market and encourage innovation by allowing manufacturers to focus their engineering efforts on ­higher-level, valued-added capabilities, Barnes said. “If your wireless lighting control system is based on Bluetooth NLC, you can indeed add sensors from any vendor that provides qualified Bluetooth NLC sensors.”


About The Author

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





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