Sustainability Turns a Corner: Outdoor Lighting Controls

Martin Luther King Memorial Washington, D.C. Shutterstock/ Kropici/ Benjamin Scherliss Photography
Martin Luther King Memorial Washington, D.C. Image source: Shutterstock/ Kropici/ Benjamin Scherliss Photography

As architectural lighting gets more sophisticated and technology options diversify, contractors and their customers can achieve sustainability, in terms of cutting energy use and light pollution.

While the potential for lighting sustainably is growing, it’s also becoming more complicated, making achieving it an opportunity and a challenge for installers. Since LED is king when it comes to commercial lighting, it’s now about refining LEDs and controls.

While there may still be more improvements made to LED fixtures, the greater opportunity lies in controls. In fact, controls take companies to the next level of sustainability by keeping energy costs down, meeting corporate sustainability goals and by helping meet energy codes. That matters to building owners.

Contractors may already know of new technology in lighting systems, including systems powered using low voltage (e.g., power over ethernet), wireless controls added to fixtures for occupancy sensing and smart-city-style lighting that includes sensors tracking everything from air quality to gunshot detection.

Right now, the challenge—as lighting systems and controls get more sophisticated—is simply knowing when it’s done right.

“If it doesn’t get installed correctly, if it doesn’t work correctly, the customer won’t see the energy savings. Electrical contractors can have a large role in that,” said Glenn Heinmiller, lighting design company Lam Partners’ principal and director, and chair of IALD’s Energy + Sustainability Committee. They need to ensure the installation provides the benefits that were promised.

So while the electrical contractor has responsibility for the lighting control systems, the lighting can be complicated enough that the average building owner may not realize it’s not working right, he said.

That’s where an EC can help, by providing support in ensuring the lights operate at their best, after installation and beyond.

Heinmiller pointed out that an EC could partner with controls manufacturers to provide maintenance-level, post-occupancy support. Manufacturers rarely include such maintenance offers in their bid price if they want to keep their bid competitive.

For exterior lighting, Heinmiller predicts that the industry will see more occupancy sensing installed into parking lots to meet mandates, reduce energy consumption and cut spill-over lighting. Area lighting for parking lots, garages and other public areas requires more sensors to reduce the lighting output when 100% isn’t necessary.

Light pollution

Anyone flying over the nation’s urban areas knows that light pollution is an issue. Solutions range from simple—pointing fixtures down—to more complex, such as bringing intelligence to a system to reduce lighting in unoccupied areas. Lighting for parking lots and pedestrian areas, for example, can be dimmed to 50% or lower when there is no activity in the area. In that way, companies can reduce energy as well as light pollution, Heinmiller said.

For example, ECs could recommend and install occupancy sensors as part of their on-site work, which supports the customer and may lead to future service and maintenance work. For an LED conversion in a parking lot, Heinmiller suggested using fixtures with an integrated occupancy sensor.

Another concern is trespass light shining into another party’s property or window.

“Light-pollution control is common sense,” Heinmiller said, noting you can control 90% of pollution by directing fixtures down, using a fixture that doesn’t glare, and avoiding overlighting. He said, “What you often see on warehouse buildings or strip malls is glarey floodlights illuminating the whole parking lot just from the building.”

A knowledgeable contractor can do better than that. When ECs design lighting they should take into account the kind of activity that the light it needed for, the color and its appearance on the objects being illuminated, the distribution of light around a space, the effect of that light on those in the space and how it may spill beyond the focused-coverage area.

Working with LEDs

Cortex Research Park, St. Louis, Mo. Image source: Shutterstock/ Kropici/ Benjamin Scherliss Photography
Cortex Research Park, St. Louis, Mo. Image source: Shutterstock/ Kropici/ Benjamin Scherliss Photography

One question owners must consider is “How long is the lighting going to last?” Light source and equipment life is much longer than it used to be, thanks to LED lighting, said Randy Burkett, owner of lighting design company Randy Burkett Lighting Design. In fact, he said LED is the tip of the spear when it comes to sustainability. Municipalities or building managers are seeking to maintain or replace lighting fixtures as infrequently as possible, especially when they have large numbers of fixtures.

A high-quality LED source will last 30,000 to 70,000 hours, amounting to a 10- to 20-year lifetime with a dusk-to-dawn lighting source. Hot climates and other challenging environments could reduce life expectancy if the fixture is not designed to dissipate heat properly. For that reason, ECs should understand the environment they’re working in.

“Planning ahead, they can select products that would provide a long lifetime, based on the specific application,” Burkett said.

ECs can also consider other features, such as optical proficiency, which enables fixtures to direct light without reflectors or refracting lens, meaning they can be manufactured with specific distributions in mind.

“So not only is solid-state more efficient in lumens per watt but also efficient because the light goes where you want it,” rather than having to bounce off a reflector, Burkett said. Applied with insight, he added, this optical control can also be key in controlling unwanted glare and light trespass.

Several challenges remain. LED lighting can’t simply be installed and forgotten. Every fixture requires a driver that may have a shorter life span than the fixture itself, so it too will require maintenance. Due to the use of lower-quality parts, some drivers can reduce the quality of the LED installation.

Even what happens after the fixture is installed can have an impact. Burkett recalled a corporate park installation in which ground-mounted LED lighting fixtures were used for uplighting trees. The landscaper then packed mulch around the fixtures, which caused a buildup of heat. Within a few months, the lights started to fail.

A long-lived light source also has extended exposure to the environment and gets dirty, which will degrade the quality of light over time.

“People rarely think about that but it happens quite a bit. We tell our clients they should have a cleaning schedule,” Burkett said.

ECs with a maintenance contract can help building owners manage such a problem.

Additionally, the evolution of technology means some fixtures are becoming obsolete by the time they burn out, which could require a complete replacement, instead of just replacing small parts. Today, however, many companies are selling fixtures with modular components, so ECs can accomplish a quick disconnect, install the new model, and return the fixture to its original position.

“That’s the kind of fixture contractors should insist on, if they want a long term, happy client,” Burkett said.

Choosing fixtures is its own type of stress, as manufacturers create more options.

Arch Grounds, St. Louis, Mo. Image source: Benjamin Scherliss Photography/ Debbie Franke Photography
Arch Grounds, St. Louis, Mo. Image source: Benjamin Scherliss Photography/ Debbie Franke Photography
Image source: Benjamin Scherliss Photography/ Debbie Franke Photography
Kirkwood City Hall, St. Louis, Mo. Image source: Benjamin Scherliss Photography/ Debbie Franke Photography

“[Sales reps] may have presented one or two products 20 years ago. Today they bring in 15 or 20 products,” Burkett said, adding that it’s so many, in fact, an EC simply can’t review them all.

When ECs are facing a new technology or product, the best option is to bring in designers for help, Burkett said. In many cases, substituted products may operate entirely differently than the system was intended.

“We tell our clients if someone recommends Widget B instead of the specified Widget A, let us review what they might be giving up and then assist them on making an informed decision,” he said.

Burkett said in a design-build project, it’s often up to the contractor to do the specifying. “They need to have someone on board who can help structure an appropriate project-specific specification rather than just asking for 20 floodlights from a distributor.”

Staying educated and getting support when needed are essential for ECs as they deploy more sophisticated LED lighting systems, both indoors and outdoors.

“This is an incredibly fast-moving field,” Burkett said. “Contractors have a lot of other fast-moving things to stay on top of. Lighting is just one more of them. When in doubt, They should ask ‘Do I have enough in-house expertise before I go to my client with a specification?’.”

In addition to cutting energy costs, Paul Lewis, Hubbell Lighting’s brand marketing vice president, sees trends in visual comfort and architectural relevance that also leverage controls. These trends are driving demand for products with a broad offering of wireless control solutions; precise, high-performance, low-glare optics; and luminaire form factors to compliment a variety of architectural styles.

Energy savings is usually the primary driver for LED upgrades. But improved optics and the associated photometric performance are just as beneficial for site lighting.

“Optics, including TIR and edge-lit technology are being used to achieve specific distributions required for area lighting applications,” Lewis said. “Use of high-performance, asymmetric site lighting should minimize the backlight, while maximizing the target illumination and “optimizing curb line distribution.“

Aesthetics have trended toward sleek and contemporary designs that often clash or seem out-of-place when used in a traditional site lighting context.

“The key is to offer a variety of luminaire form factors to compliment a variety of architectural styles,” Lewis said.

“Contractors will be seeing more of [these products], so they would benefit from learning more about LED and controls installation,” Heinmiller said.

When it comes to energy legislation and codes, contractors must meet the changing requirements of their state or county.

Stay Informed Join our Newsletter

Having trouble finding time to sit down with the latest issue of
ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR? Don't worry, we'll come to you.