Power In Your Grasp: Contractors Move Into LED Lighting Controls

Most electrical contractors are no strangers to LED installations, and the industry-wide transition to efficient LEDs is a revenue source for many installers. Becoming experts in such deployments and their controls, however, requires some education for electricians to offer reliable service for customers and lighting control companies.

Each lighting controls installation starts with some decision making, said Gary Meshberg, director of specification sales for Osram Encelium and chair of the Lighting Controls Association. That process begins with a building owner or manager’s desire for a specific kind of lighting and ability to manage it. Engineers or design-build contractors design the system, and electrical contractors take the installation from there, often selecting parts, modules nodes and power packs.

“Then there’s the programming side,” Meshberg said.

That is when a variety of players may get involved; it most typically includes the lighting and lighting controls manufacturer, and in some cases, the contractors. But ECs who intend to turn the controls over to programmers have the challenge of getting the site ready for that final step, and that’s not always a simple task either.

Programming apps

Often, there’s room in lighting controls for ECs to do some level of programming, often using app-based systems.

“The electrical contractor should be able then to use the apps and walk through the installation and setup,” Meshberg said.

The challenge for controls manufacturers has been making the integration and programming more accessible for contractors. Many low-voltage contractors are already doing some of this work.

Meshberg said he has seen a variety of approaches to lighting controls installations. Some contractors jump in before learning which parts of the system will be communicating with which other parts (such as access control or HVAC), but those kinds of issues aren’t common and can be avoided through some basic upfront efforts. That means contractors should get into the early stages of the lighting controls system planning, before the installation takes place.

“I advise any contractor to have a preconstruction meeting with the controls manufacturer,” Meshberg said.

Any early meeting should include all parties that will be programming the system the contractor installs.

Training dedicated electricians

Contractors that take on a lot of lighting control installations could appoint a few electricians to specialize in the work.

“Contractors don’t typically have an IT crew, so it helps if they have someone who understands their way around an IT network,” he said.

Some tools for preparing such individuals include education programs at the Lighting Controls Association. Contractors can benefit from educating themselves about controls in general and on specific systems, since there’s a wide variety with their own requirements.

“Generally speaking, it’s a fresh start with each project,” Meshberg said. “The foreman could assign a few individuals to study the system, before the project starts, and even before a meeting with the manufacturer.”

Meshberg has seen contractors come to that kind of meeting with the plans and parts they will be installing, in-hand.

“It really minimizes the risk for everyone and helps make the install and programming run much smoother,” he said.

ECs are more often finding themselves in the role of installing and even programming lighting controls, said Thomas Perich, Lutron’s director of channel marketing.

“For electrical contractors, the shrinking labor market means they are frequently being asked to do more for their clients with fewer resources,” Perich said.

Because clients are demanding greater access to smart lighting technologies, manufacturers try to provide solutions that are easy to install, program and service.

“Wireless control that easily integrates with smart home and smart building technologies is essential to meeting these needs,” Perich said.

Code keep-up

The electrical codes for controls are changing. The National Electrical Code is updated every three years to reflect changes in technology, but individual states and municipalities choose when to adopt new codes into law.

“Electrical codes vary widely adding to the challenge of selecting and installing code-compliant lighting control solutions,” Perich said.

For example, effective Oct. 1, 2018, Pennsylvania adopted the IECC 2015 code. In Philadelphia, the code change was even more aggressive, as the city has fully adopted IECC 2018 for nonresidential buildings. Prior to this, Pennsylvania and Philadelphia’s energy codes were based on the 2009 version of the IECC while neighboring states New Jersey and New York were already using IECC 2012 or newer. To stay on top of these changes, contractors seek guidelines that help demystify Code-compliant design, as well as lighting-control solutions that are flexible to meet different code requirements.

The demand won’t be going away. The U.S. Department of Energy predicts LEDs will represent 30 percent of all lighting installations by 2020. They are getting cheaper and are able to deliver lighting that better reflects the way we want our home, office and building environments to look.

“We are learning more and more about how the right light can positively affect well-being, comfort, and productivity,” Perich said.

Increasingly, wireless control offers simple, scalable, cost-effective and labor- saving solutions.

“Contractors who are not installing smart, wireless systems (residentially and commercially) may get left in the proverbial dust by customers who are getting more savvy about connected technology every day,” Perich said.

Getting started is easy. Contractors can talk to their local distributor or manufacturer’s representative about training initiatives. Most manufacturers are committed to helping contractors stay on top of new solutions and technologies. Lutron, for instance, has training and experience centers in the United States, Canada and United Kingdom. Ledvance, Philips and Osram also offer training.

“We host thousands of customers every year to provide hands-on trainings and product experiences,” Perich said.

Contractors can also look online for videos on selection, installation and programming of wireless controls for both residential and commercial projects.

The tight labor market is forcing contractors to look for ways to offers their customers smart solutions that integrate easily with other smart home or smart building systems, install easily, and can be updated quickly in response to changing technology. Wireless systems often can address all these needs.

Lutron recognizes the contributions industry organization make in training and recruiting new talent, Perich said. The Lutron Lighting Control Institute, like other manufacturer education programs, offers a variety of online and on-site courses on electrical and dimming basics, controlling LEDs, sensors, and other product specific training.

“We are proud of our continued involvement with these contractor education opportunities and continue to support many of them in the field,” he said.

Smart lighting control is changing the way building owners and tenants interact with the world around them. Perich said contractors should embrace these technologies, solutions and trends to ensure a strong future for their business. Smart technology will not only help a contractor add value for its customers but also attract younger electrical professionals to the business.

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