Talking to IT: Networked Lighting Controls

A 2017 DesignLights Consortium report analyzing performance data from more than 100 installations found that networked lighting controls produced an average 47 percent lighting energy savings. The biggest value in connected lighting, however, may be in information that can be collected to manage maintenance, improve business processes, and create new services. As a result, connected lighting is expected to enjoy strong growth in demand, which requires infrastructure that can move data from one point to another in the building.

While networked lighting control can be implemented as a stand-alone system, often these systems are connected to an existing IT network that allows components (e.g., central server in an IT room with wireless gateways in occupied spaces) to communicate without running new cable and setting up an entirely new network. In effect, this is adding a computer network to an existing IT network and then telling the server to look for the gateways’ IP addresses.

While this approach is simple in theory, it creates a risk both to the project and the installing contractor, which is the client’s IT department tasked with maintaining the network’s integrity. This stakeholder doesn’t care about lighting but cares very much about any “black box” connected to their network that might present a security risk.

Even if the networked lighting control system connects to the network switch and runs as a parallel network with a firewall, the IT department may be concerned about security and be in charge, because a new network will be touching the corporate network. If the connected lighting is a stand-alone, room-based system, they may be concerned about any cabling going into the ceiling, because all above-the-ceiling cabling may be color coded. If the specifier and facilities department do not involve IT in the planning, the contractor may end up engaging with a surprised IT department at installation, which can be disruptive to the project.

“A functioning network and protection of corporate data is paramount and ranks higher on the corporate scale than a networked lighting system,” said Scott Ziegenfus, government and industry relations manager, Hubbell Lighting. “This is why corporate IT departments have the final say about what connects to the corporate network and why it is best to engage with them early in the process.”

The IT department may have various requirements and restrictions as to what can be connected to the corporate network, which may affect how systems are installed and configured and may outright disqualify some solutions. For example, an IT department may require the connected lighting to be wired instead of wireless given risks of interference with existing wireless networks. It’s best to know these requirements as early as possible. For this, one must know who to talk to, because IT departments vary in terms of specialization and authority.

When going into the meeting, be aware that the IT department will likely not know much about lighting and controls but will instead care very much about the IT aspect. Come with manufacturer IT-related documentation for the given control system, such as hardware and software specifications, server topology, ports, protocols, addressing, and, most important of all, security. Be conversant, but otherwise don’t fake it.

“No one expects the contractor to be an IT guru,” Ziegenfus said.

That being said, he advised gaining a basic understanding of how networks work—perhaps starting with an open systems interconnected model—and corresponding lingo.

“Don’t talk about devices by just their name like, ‘network switch’ or ‘router’ but always say, ‘layer 2 network switch’ or ‘layer 3 router,’” he said. “You are actually being redundant, but in it, you are saying you understand the basic structure of a network and subsequently IT’s world.”

This meeting is a chance to build a relationship, provide information and gain buy-in. It is also an opportunity to receive valuable information about installation because networked lighting controls connect in different ways, and the IT department again may have specific requirements about how this should be done. It may be the first of several meetings throughout the project. Throughout, stay focused and avoid conflict.

“Don’t tell IT what they must do for you,” Ziegenfus said. “Inform them what their system needs to make it work properly, and let them tell you how your system can be deployed within their network.”

If the IT department proves extraordinarily difficult, there may be a lack of understanding. That’s the time to bring in an IT expert who understands the networked lighting control system and can make it work. This will likely be the manufacturer.

“IT is not the enemy,” Ziegenfus said. “They are just the gatekeeper. They have a tremendous responsibility to keep the network functioning and protect corporate data. It is up to us to make them feel secure.”

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