Operating in a Wireless World

Published On
Mar 15, 2016

Wireless power management is on the rise. With its choice of closed or open systems, customers expect seamless performance. The electrical contractor (EC) that understands the two wireless approaches can recognize the benefits of each, ably work with a design team and better advise the client.

Companies offering open-source controls promote their nimble scalability and versatility. Those who favor closed or proprietary systems sell an all-in-one package, promising consistency, reliability and security. Some companies go to their respective corners, confident that their methodology is best. Others are open to a hybrid approach.

Wireless controls are in their infancy. Cutting the cord in the office is emerging for early adopters. In the residential market, wireless controls are more established. For now, the lack of a true wireless standard keeps the closed-system advocates secure in their proprietary approach and the open advocates committed to reaching true interoperability in the controls industry. Light-emitting diode (LED) lighting could be the catalyst for wider adoption, allowing wireless to follow a similar trajectory of slow and steady growth, followed by rapid acceptance.

Weighing open versus closed wireless

Lutron Electronics Co., Coopersburg, Pa., embraced wireless 25 years ago with its RadioRA home lighting system, which helped pave the way for Clear Connect, a proprietary, fixed wireless system applied across its radio frequency (RF) products for residential and commercial applications.

“Wireless communication is the way of the future, but interference can be a potential problem,” said Brian Donlon, sales vice president, North America for Lutron. “There is so much potential wireless technology going through a home or commercial space. You don’t want your lighting control to compete with other noise. Our technology communicates in a less-crowded radio frequency band [434 megahertz (MHz)], so it doesn’t compete with other wireless communications.”

Donlon said lower frequency also enables Lutron devices to better transmit through construction material. The company developed its closed system with a goal of providing “ultra-reliability” for customers.

Douglas Lighting Controls, a member of the Panasonic Group, is based in British Columbia. The company has been providing lighting controls for 30 years. It uses a proprietary wired system backbone.

“Our nodes are proprietary, but they have gateway capability,” said Rob Mahaffey, director of market development, Douglas Lighting Controls. “We are not excluding others to use us and allow them to add their devices on our backbone.”

One of the company’s biggest projects was a proprietary-wired project for Baylor University’s McLane Stadium in Waco, Texas. Douglas engineers needed to develop exclusive software that enabled the stadium’s controls systems to speak with one another.

“We wanted to ensure interoperability with the lighting element and compatibility with the customer’s building automation systems,” Mahaffey said. “The last thing you want is spotty wireless performance.”

Mahaffey added that, while a proprietary system has met the needs of their customers, they are open to “open.” The question is whether “open” really matters.

“The best thing for us is to remain flexible and agnostic in the technologies we use,” Mahaffey said. “Deciding on the right technology platform is an important decision and requires extensive collaboration between us, our contractors and the manufacturer.”

Like Douglas Lighting Controls, Nedap Inc. offers a proprietary lighting system, but it’s designed to accommodate a host of other protocols. A Netherlands-based company, Nedap established a U.S presence 20 years ago, and its wireless systems are focused on industrial applications, such as manufacturing distribution centers, big-box retail and other high-bay applications.

“While there are a lot of good open-protocol wireless controls, our system allows for a lot of information going back and forth with wireless modes,” said Thomas Lang, Nedap’s sales and marketing manager—U.S. Light Controls. “ZigBee can’t accommodate our needs, at least for now. So that has always brought us back to our proprietary advantage.”

As the company expands its wireless control system to monitor and handle other applications, such as heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) and security, it is moving to a more open wireless platform.

“We have really good software and no longer want to limit it to just our products,” Lang said. “Our goal is to open our protocol to a widespread standard. The moment a clear wireless standard becomes available, we will adopt it.”

“As the market exists right now, there isn’t really a defined open standards, and that needs to happen,” said Stefan Bernards, proposition manager—Light Controls, Nedap. “Even a platform like ZigBee isn’t strictly open.”

Nedap’s system operates within the 2.45 gigahertz band. The bandwidth allows for different channels to operate much like a home Wi-Fi modem. To avoid interference, it offers 11 channels. For any wireless system, node position is essential for effective performance, Bernards said.

Meanwhile, Daintree Networks Inc. is firmly committed to open standards applied broadly and delivered across a high volume of products.

“As a company, we were an early player creating the wireless-control-system application,” said Danny Yu, president of operational technology business for Daintree. “From the start, we invested heavily in building an ecosystem of complementary product partners who believe in open and interoperable systems. I see 2016 as a breakout year for such systems. The cost of adding wireless to an existing fixture has dropped by 75 percent in two and a half years. We are moving from expensive, brick-sized wireless adaptors to embedded connectivity the size of a fingernail.”

For Yu, wireless mesh technology is the primary way to deliver control. Given ZigBee’s breadth of products across vendors, he sees it as the dominant mesh technology.

“Previously, there were incompatible ZigBee profiles, such as ZigBee Light Link for residential lighting and ZigBee Home Automation for thermostats,” he said. “The recently introduced ZigBee 3.0 is a commitment to unify all of ZigBee.”

Daintree will also use other open wireless standards as they emerge to ensure customers have what Yu called a “futureproof” system.

Finding value

“For today’s contractor and customer, it’s about finding value in a wireless project that also lets you plan ahead for other wireless control,” Yu said. “Maybe you start with lighting control and plug loads in your initial project this year and add thermostat control next year. You can futureproof your facility by planning ahead for management needs or other capabilities that are quickly coming down the road.”

Yu believes there will be a “predominance of open systems in the future.” However, there are still issues to work out.

“Wireless is still in its infancy as it grapples with connectivity, the impact of the Internet of Things and security issues,” he said. 

He believes proprietary systems will have their place but will be more of a niche option as the controls industry invests in open protocols.

Both Leviton, Melville, N.Y., and Osram Sylvania, Wilmington, Mass., have adopted an open platform for their wireless lighting and building controls as the companies navigate within this new controls approach.

Last year, Osram Sylvania introduced a wireless version of its ENCELIUM energy-management system.

“We use ASHRAE’s BACNet protocol to connect to other building-management systems,” said Chuck Piccirillo, director of marketing. “Other products and systems, such as security and HVAC, can bridge to connect to our systems.

“While wireless is still in its early stages, customers are showing a lot of interest. From a cost perspective, people are leaning to it. There are certain industries where wireless is penetrating faster such as office, mom-and-pop retail spaces, and single-floor buildings. We find multiple floors wanting a wired background but with a wireless build-out. In new construction, we are also seeing growing interest in wireless. Improvements in wireless are definitely being delivered through software. Our system will advance as our chosen protocol, ZigBee, makes advances,” Piccirillo said.

ENCELIUM operates at 2.5 MHz to avoid interference with mobile devices. Osram Sylvania finds its wireless opportunities in commercial spaces, higher education and K–12, warehouse and industrial, and some healthcare facilities.

Leviton also went the open wireless route, choosing the Z-Wave protocol, which runs on the 908.42-MHz frequency band for home automation. 

“For those seeking integrated home controls, you want a system that can easily handle what the customer is seeking,” said Thomas Morgan, director, product management for Leviton. “I think customers benefit from an open wireless platform, as any number of products and respective manufacturers can participate. For us, we can now communicate with a Yale lock system or a Hunter Douglas shading product.”

For its commercial wireless management, Leviton partners with EnOcean. This protocol enables the company’s LevNet RF Energy Harvesting Wireless system, in which transmitters use zero power, to operate corresponding receivers. These devices help to support projects with deep energy-efficiency goals.

While open-source wireless allows for robust scalability, proprietary systems are in the game, as well.

“We are working to enhance the customer’s ability to gather lighting control data,” Donlon said. “Our Lutron EcoSystem digitally addresses ballasts and driver technologies, allowing lighting use to be analyzed to create a more efficient lighting control system. Room occupancy, daylight management, integration with HVAC systems and building-management systems are all control strategies adaptable to your system to enable better data analysis, greater energy efficiency and enhanced user comfort.”

Mahaffey predicted a future where wireless is used to achieve today’s wired controls capabilities.

“But meeting that challenge is what all of us in this field face,” he said. “I don’t see one [a closed or open system] as the replacement of the other. I see a wireless future that has a number of viable approaches.”

About the Author

Jeff Gavin

Freelance Writer

Jeff Gavin, Gavo Communications, is a LEED Green Associate providing marketing services for the energy, construction, and urban planning industries. He can be reached at gavo7@comcast.net.

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