Out of the Darkness: Residential Lighting Controls

“If you’re not in the room, why are the lights on?” my mom used to ask. These days, numerous initiatives, regulations and codes echo her sentiments. Who can argue with Mom? The call is being made not just to save on the family’s electric bill but also that of the city, state and nation.

“Various green building initiatives, e.g., LEED, are starting to drive the use of residential lighting controls in new construction and retrofit. It’s essentially a way to take power off the electrical grid where there is too much load. While lighting load is lower than that of HVAC or pool pumps, the cumulative control of those loads can ultimately prevent having to build additional power plants,” said Jennifer Holland, LEED AP, WattStopper product manager.

California often sets standards that other states follow; for instance, the various iterations of Title 24 have been adopted nationwide. Title 24 requirements from the 2008 version—and the upcoming acceptance of the language proposed for the 2013 Title 24 report are prompting integration of more controls into residences, particularly for new homes and major renovations.

“Controls could be as simple as a vacancy sensor as Title 24 recommends, or it could be as complicated as an energy management control system, which governs the overall scheduling of the house, including heating, cooling and lighting systems,” said Kelly Cunningham, outreach director at the University of California, Davis’ California Lighting Technology Center (CLTC).

Increased use of residential lighting controls is one of several trends affecting the residential market. Others include increased residential use of compact fluorescent (CFL) and light-emitting diode (LEDs) lighting sources due to the change in the light bulb efficiency standard and phase-out of the 100-watt bulb, continuing developments for controlling those lamps, and improvement in wireless and motion controls.
“Compared to 15 years ago, it’s fairly routine to find motion control integrated into exterior fixtures,” said Russell P. Leslie, AIA, FIES, professor and associate director, Lighting Research Center, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, N.Y. “If it is an Energy Star exterior fixture, it will have photosensor control that will turn it off when the daylight is sufficient. In the interiors of homes, motion sensors fit into standard wall boxes and switch off the lights when no one is around.

“Another trend is the ability to put in wireless controls, which are particularly useful for fluorescent products in existing homes where you may want to dim something but don’t want to open up the walls and run wiring,” he said. “There are products that would allow you to put a device in a socket so you can communicate with the device without having to open up the wall.”

Along with wireless controls comes continued advancement of the luxury market with complete home integration.

“With regard to integration, people demand more from their devices, such as iPads and Androids. Crestron, Vantage, Control4 and Lutron have invested deeply into these systems to keep themselves ahead of the market,” said John M. Fox of Fox & Fox Design LLC.

Homeowner control can also be accomplished with the installation of smart meters, which tie in with demand response and time-of-use utility metering.

“At CLTC, we’re looking at the homeowner market first and have small projects in demand response testing in that market because the homeowners have the highest degree of control and also highest degree of motivation because they are paying that electric bill,” Cunningham said.

“There is a wasteful increase in energy use, especially at times when electricity is needed in other parts of the grid,” she said. “People will be paying a premium for using electricity in that time frame, so systems in the home—done in the average home with smart meters—can respond to a demand response signal and curtail use of nonessential devices. Homeowners will decide what’s going be activated or deactivated with adjustable outlets and a monitoring system.”

Even simpler, some companies sell surge protectors that control plug loads. WattStopper offers ISOLE, an easy-to-use surge protector with a personal occupancy sensor connected by an RJ-11 cable. The occupancy sensor controls six of the eight outlets and will turn off connected devices in the space if it does not detect occupancy. Devices that the user doesn’t want turned off, such as a computer hard drive or fax machine, can be plugged into the two uncontrolled outlets.

Yet, while there is improvement in many areas of residential lighting controls, there is a challenge in one area: dimming.

“CFLs and LEDs are forcing lighting control manufacturers to take another look at their existing lighting controls and new devices they are developing to make sure that the lighting controls are compatible with the newer lamp technologies,” Holland said.

The need to re-evaluate affects everyone in the industry.

“We now let our clients know we plan on designing their home with all LEDs unless they tell us otherwise,” Fox said. “This is invaluable. But the problem is that not all systems have been tested yet, and as we know, there are new LED products being introduced every day. Standards being adopted are going to be slow in making a dent in the various products available.

“If I can share a cautionary tale, one of our large dimming projects was specified with LED lamps of various wattages from a manufacturer that hadn’t yet completed their ‘testing’ of compatible dimmers and controls during the design phase. As a result, we were unaware of any pending disaster with ‘phase control’ (reverse/forward) and ‘in-rush current’ issues as well as in-situ conditions regarding minimum loads and older style existing dimmers. Our tale has a happy ending due to the ability of the knowledgeable controls company’s ability to address the needs of the lamp with their standard product, but it did create some unwanted stress and some sleepless nights,” Fox said.
A lack of standards creates the problem.
“In the industry, there is no real definition or standard accepted yet of what is dimming,” Leslie said. “For lack of standards and a definition, a particular dimmer may not work well with certain advanced light bulb products. To complicate this situation, LEDs coming on the market are more easily dimmed than CFLs. The important issue is that manufacturers are trying to design dimmers for CFLs and LEDs. And ones designed for CFLs will work OK with LEDs as do some standard dimmers, but it depends on the particular LED lamp. The problem is how to control dimming with these light bulb options.”

Research supporting the development of standards for dimming is ongoing at the Lighting Research Center, which in 2002 established the Alliance for Solid-State Illumination Systems and Technologies, the ASSIST program, as a collaboration among researchers, manufacturers and government organizations. The program has created definitions for LED life, recommended test methods and metrics to evaluate LED lighting performance, and identified suitable lighting applications at each stage of LED advancement.

“One topic that the Lighting Research Center and ASSIST are presently looking into is dimming performance of LED replacement lamps, ones to replace incandescent lamps,” said Nadarajah Narendran, Ph.D., professor and director of research at Rensselaer’s Lighting Research Center. “Most homeowners only want to change their lamp and not have to install a new dimmer as well. We tested a number of different LED replacement lamps, CFLs and traditional incandescent lamps on several types of residential triac-style dimmers. The tests were conducted to understand how the lamps performed when dimmed and what performance variations could be seen from one dimmer to another. The results showed that, in general, the different lamps dimmed to different light levels along the dimmer’s travel path (i.e., their ‘dimming profiles’ were different), and that one given lamp’s performance with one dimmer does not predict its performance with another dimmer. This was also true for the incandescent lamp. The dimming profile of an incandescent lamp can vary considerably from one dimmer to the next.”

Lighting controls companies are well aware of the problem.

“The single most important challenge our industry faces presently is communicating the compatibility and, in many instances, the incompatibility between manufacturers’ lighting controls and the lighting loads that they are controlling,” said Jay Sherman, director of marketing, Residential Products, Leviton Manufacturing Co., Melville, N.Y.

“If you look on a lot of packaging of dimmable CFLs, they will imply that you can use a ‘standard’ or ‘traditional’ dimmer, an incandescent load dimmer to control a dimmable CFL,” Sherman said. “That’s just not true, not accurate. What we—both the lamp and lighting control manufacturers—have learned is that there can be flickering of the lighting loads because the lighting controls and the lamp are not truly compatible. The reality is that many people don’t understand that there are CFLs and dimmable CFLs. The lamp business has evolved. Now there are lighting loads intended to be dimmed and others that are not. Bottom line: Lighting control manufacturers are coming out with dimmers that are specifically designed to work with dimmable CFL lamps as well as dimmable LEDs. This truly is a significant issue,” Sherman said.

For example, in February 2012, Leviton debuted a universal dimmer in both its SureSlide and Illuma Tech models that is compatible with its Decora devices. A small load-selection switch is factory-preset for use with incandescent lamps and dimmable LEDs. Once the product is energized and turned on, it will identify the lighting load and automatically adjust itself for maximum efficiency with that load. If the homeowner is using dimmable CFLs, they can move the switch to maximize the efficiency with the CFL load. The 2011 winner in the Lighting Control Devices category of the Consortium for Energy Efficiency’s Lighting for Tomorrow Awards was Lutron Electronics’ Diva C-L dimmer that controls CFL, LED, incandescent and halogen lamps.

Yet, since the situation is complicated, electrical contractors would be wise to do their homework before installation.

“Contractors and homeowners need to be mindful about the compatibility and check the manufacturers’ websites about the compatibility of their respective products,” Sherman said.

“When you get into more complicated dimming system, particularly for fluorescents, contractors need to understand that a fluorescent lamp requires a dimming ballast and control wiring instead of the standard incandescent dimmer. Fluorescent dimming can be done well, but it requires a knowledgeable contractor and careful selection of products,” Leslie said.

What would Mom say? That’s just it. Soon, she won’t have to say anything.

CASEY, author of “Kids Inventing! A Handbook for Young Inventors” and “Women Invent! Two Centuries of Discoveries that have Changed Our World,” can be reached at scbooks@aol.com and www.susancaseybooks.com.

About the Author

Susan Casey

Freelance Writer
Susan Casey, author of "Women Heroes of the American Revolution," "Kids Inventing! A Handbook for Young Inventors," and "Women Invent! Two Centuries of Discoveries that have Changed Our World," can be reached at scbooks@aol.com or www.susancaseybooks...

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