Wide Open Spaces: Lighting Controls Find a Home in the Warehouse

A marriage is happening. Light-emitting diode (LED) lighting and controls may soon be inseparable. While popular in offices, the combined benefits of efficiency, lower cost and building-operation analysis are extending to other workspaces. One such place is the warehouse, where owners seek new levels of building management to better serve a booming market of online commerce and on-demand inventory. 

It starts with LED adoption. In statistics provided by Graybar, St. Louis, more than 50 percent of all high-bay applications are expected to be LED by 2021. High-bay lighting is a popular application in warehouses and distribution centers. Tubular LED lamps, good retrofit kits and new solid-state fixtures are also providing options. The conversation to add intelligent lighting control is more applicable now than ever. 

When looking at a new lighting investment, warehouse owners have specific needs. They include achieving higher rate on return; efficient building operation through lower operating costs, reduced maintenance and downtime; and a better work environment with improved safety.

Justin Moon, director of strategic marketing, Acuity Brands, Atlanta, said lighting represents 60 percent of a warehouse’s energy costs. He estimated a 61 percent savings can be had in an all-LED changeout from fluorescent, with a 70 percent savings when switching from high-intensity discharge (HID) lamps, and a projected 87 percent savings when LED is integrated with lighting controls.

Maintaining a tight operating budget is helping propel smart-lighting adoption in warehouses.

“I typically suggest the need to save 10 percent in energy costs to keep up with rising electricity retail pricing,” Moon said. 

He and others in the lighting industry see the combination of LED lighting and intelligent controls going a long way toward staying ahead of those costs. 

“LED lighting is changing the game,” said Teresa Bair, product general manager—outdoor and industrial at Current, powered by GE, based in Boston. “You saw it in the office space first with lighting that became easier to control. Now LED lumen outputs have increased to better serve what has historically been HID lighting in the warehouse. HID made controls challenging including dimming. That’s no longer the case for LEDs with 0–10 volts built into most LED systems, which is one reason LED and controls have accelerated. The controllability of LEDs, and its benefits, has allowed manufacturers to think ahead, expand control capability that can be built out.”

Painting a picture

Electrical contractors (ECs) can be an invaluable resource in helping warehouse decision-makers understand how LED lighting and controls might help their operations.

“Education is the first step for building owners and managers,” said Howard Wolfman, principal at Lumispec Consulting, Chicago. “The EC who understands the nuances of LED lighting can explain its strengths and weaknesses and match compatibility with a proposed application. Detail LED basics, misconceptions and realistic life. From there, you’ve set the stage for a discussion on the merits of controls.”

Wolfman serves on the advisory council for Forest Lighting in Marietta, Ga., and is an adjunct professor for the University of Illinois at Chicago. When tackling LED lighting for warehouses, he suggests starting simple.

“Maybe start with occupancy sensors and their value when installed in the stock aisles,” he said. “Establish a scenario; some options. Maybe the lights are fully off when the space isn’t occupied. Maybe the LEDs dim down which introduces controls. When a forklift enters a stocking aisle, the proper light level can be activated down a portion of the aisle. Perhaps lights can stay on for a predetermined amount of time to accommodate other workers.”

In effect, this means finding an effective lighting design for a customer. Wolfman will also introduce the concept and importance of commissioning a lighting control system to ensure programming and light levels, as well as when, where and how long lights need be activated. 

“LEDs in the warehouse space are usually 5,000 [Kelvin] and have a much better color spectrum than HID, making it easier to read labels and reduce errors,” he said. “They are also very directional, which must be considered in a lighting design.”

Controls might not be new to the customer’s warehouse space, but this is where the value of LED can come into play.

“A warehouse may have had two-level dimming capability for their traditionally lit HID high-bay lighting or fluorescent,” Wolfman said. “Unfortunately, HID dimming was limited to 50 percent. Warmup times ranged from 2–15 minutes, depending on the system. A selling point for LED is its instantaneous on/off capability and ability to turn on at any preset light level. Lighting control can also go far beyond simple dimming.”

Understanding the space

A number of decisions have to be made when lighting a warehouse, including office spaces and outside dock areas.

“What are the best mounting heights of sensors, proper fixture spacing, and the electrical drop?” Bair said. “These could all be different in different areas of the warehouse. What combination of hardware and software do you use? Certainly new construction will give you more opportunity to ‘architect’ your lighting design and controls installation. With a retrofit, you have to understand the existing space to figure out how LED and controls will work best.”

“You may find you have sufficient light levels in the warehouse without running the LEDs at their full power,” Wolfman said. “You need to determine where no light, low light or more light is needed based on levels of activity. For instance, shelved areas that store inventory, sometimes stacked to the ceiling, may need more light so workers can find and identify product. If a warehouse has skylights or other natural light, controls [featuring] daylighting could help deliver deep energy savings using less artificial light during the day.”

Lessons learned in big office-lighting design can have applications for the smaller office spaces in a warehouse, as well.

“One important impact could be accommodating the range of ages working in a warehouse,” Wolfman said. “Individual lighting control can play a role if you have both 30-year-olds and employees twice that age, each with different sight capability.”

While warmer temperatures can affect LED performance, luminaires are advancing to perform better in warehouse settings where air conditioning isn’t typically installed.

Good, better, best

“The argument of value is no longer just energy savings,” Bair said. “It’s controllability. It can be networked, offer wireless communication, be expandable. Warehouse managers are now seeing the significance to it in their operations.”

Bair said value can be described to a potential customer through a “good-better-best” scenario.

“‘Good’ represents better lighting with future connectivity,” Bair said. “‘Better’ connotes an upgrade with a nonnetworked addition. ‘Best’ is a fully networked, integrated solution, offering mobility when controlling your system—the ability to run reports, analyses of the lighting and other controls. Owners can plan ahead or find ways to optimize and troubleshoot before failure. Each add-on within a control system helps advance the energy savings.”

Integrated, networked control might also allow for problem solving, such as using lighting to address safety concerns. 

“Perhaps you program the lighting in such a way so movement in the warehouse triggers lights to signal a forklift operator that someone is around the corner,” she said. “And then there’s convenience. Software attuned to the Internet of Things can give facility managers system control from virtually any mobile device or laptop. Advancements in wireless and lighting fixtures equipped with multiple sensors offer a world of building control not considered possible until today.”

Bair sees programmable and upgradable networked lighting systems as a way to futureproof a warehouse operation.

“By having the right hardware structure in place, you remain connectable in the future,” she said. “Maybe you start in a middle tier when buying LED lighting. You add some un-networked controls such as OCs [open controls] and daylight harvesting but know you can build from there by networking your system down the road.”

According to Wolfman, if warehouse owners are considering LEDs, they should go all in. 

“LED luminaires come in all shapes and sizes,” he said. “For example, I see tubular LED performing very well. While its LED light is directional—like all LEDs—you are losing less light with the luminaire and achieving higher life, less maintenance and fewer replacements. Taking a wireless approach offers far less invasion of the lighting and controls installation space. You avoid the possible opening up of the ceiling or office walls. Controls will help you maximize your luminaries, extending their efficiency.”

Beyond long LED life—possibly 100,000 hours in a warehouse setting with controls, according to Acuity—there are other return-on-investment arguments to be made. They include less maintenance, meaning fewer deployments of a scissors lift and the closing off of needed inventory aisles. Utility rebate programs may be available that can add to the affordability of an LED/controls installation. 

Bair offers another, equally compelling argument.

“Price is relative when it comes to controls, especially with multiple sites,” she said. “By taking a networked approach, maybe cloud-based, you’ve now gained the capability to control multiple sites from your smartphone or laptop. A wireless mesh network offers great benefits for self-commissioning a lighting system.”

You must understand your application space with wireless. Make sure there’s no interference with the wireless communication.

Bair is a fan of demos. GE installs demos across its facilities when configuring LED lighting and controls.

“Demos are a great way to test the technologies likely to be deployed,” she said. “They also allow you to see where the controls could expand down the road for your warehouse customer.”

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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