An Untapped System: Navigating the new lighting control world

Published On
Aug 13, 2021

The lighting industry underwent a major technological shift with the LED revolution. Despite the product challenges of the early years, the electrical contracting community absorbed the change handily. Today, LED illumination is the norm rather than the exception. However, networked lighting controls remain relatively untapped.

Because they install differently and require more commissioning than conventional controls, contractors generally have been more hesitant to get on board, particularly regarding systems at the building level.

Lighting educator Steve Mesh said networked lighting controls are not as complicated as they may seem, and contractors that become knowledgeable about the controls’ installation and use can position themselves as more competitive as demand grows. Mesh speaks as a veteran of more than 55 contractor training sessions as part of the DesignLights Consortium’s networked lighting controls market transformation program. In each hands-on class, he said, every electrical contractor attendee properly wired, commissioned, programmed, operated and troubleshot a system.

“Networked lighting controls are systems, and by definition, a ‘system’ is automatically complex,” Mesh said. “But how complex are they? I’d say they’re at the low end of the complexity spectrum.”

He said many ECs have experience installing low-voltage relay panels in typical commercial buildings. If they do, they’ve already experienced installing a lighting control system. In this case, power and lighting control are centralized at the panel. (A power controller is a device that changes power to the load. A lighting controller is a microprocessor that accepts control signals from input devices and then decides whether to change the load and by how much.) AC power flows out through line-voltage wiring to all lighting loads. Control signals flow in through low-voltage control wiring from input devices such as switches and sensors.

The next level of complexity is for power and lighting control functionality to be distributed at the room level. Some systems offer room controllers housing several relays able to control numerous local lighting control zones connected to the controller through switch legs. (A control zone is one or more light sources that are simultaneously controlled by control output, which may be called a zone or channel.) Another difference is that low-voltage wires may connect to the luminaires and line-voltage wires, which allows the controller to send dimming signals, usually 0–10V. The system may have preconfigured control profiles (sequences of operation) for energy code compliance or be programmable.

With the latest generation of networked control systems, the lighting controller can reside at the luminaire level, with a controller factory-installed in each luminaire. The controller typically resides in a digital LED driver that speaks a proprietary or open protocol. This provides each luminaire, along with each switch and sensor, its own unique address for networking. Once that occurs, one can group luminaires into control zones using software instead of physical wiring, which provides the ability to change zoning remotely and without rewiring. The wiring is typically digital low-voltage, which replaces the low-voltage control signal with a binary message. This allows a luminaire to participate in more than one control zone using the same wiring. It also allows bidirectional data flow for software-based applications, such as monitoring, energy analysis, space use and more.

“There are many different flavors of networked lighting controls, so it’s simply a matter of learning how a new system works,” Mesh said. “In essence, however, all systems must have the same essential features. Once you get your feet wet installing one, you’ll be amazed how quickly you can learn the next. The differences are typically not major.”

He said controllers must 1) provide and control power to the LEDs, 2) send dimming signals to dimmable luminaires (usually 0–10V) and 3) have some means of connecting to the lighting control network. The first two are accomplished by the luminaire’s internal connections. The third can be accomplished with or without wires. If the contractor is running power wiring to the luminaire, connecting the luminaire to the lighting control network is a matter of running ethernet or some other type of low-voltage wire to it at the same time.

As for wireless, Mesh added, it’s even easier if the controllers are pre-installed in the luminaires. The controllers communicate wirelessly with a gateway, which is essentially a router for the wireless control network. In this case, only power wiring is required.

“Are networked controls more complex than line-voltage devices cut into switch legs?” Mesh said. “Of course. But it doesn’t take much to develop proficiency in these systems. Of course, it takes some extra effort and training. Is it worth it? That depends on how badly you want new sources of revenue. If I were an EC, I wouldn’t hesitate.”

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