Window of Opportunity: Electronic Shading

Electronic shading has been around since the 1980s, but for the most part, electrical contractors have shied away from installing it because it involves those perceived risks always attached to something “we’ve never done before.” But by avoiding this work, contractors continue to lose out on the considerable revenues that accrue to this facet of building construction.

Times are changing fast, and chances are that, over the next few years, electrical contractors will be bidding on projects requiring at least a working knowledge of, if not hands-on expertise in, this technology.
And the loss of potential income isn’t the only consideration for contractors. A lack of continuity in finishing the job as a complete package also is an issue.

The management of buildings currently under construction and on the drawing boards are demanding centralized control of the operability and efficiency of all systems-—HVAC, alarms and lighting—in order to better control costs. In addition, shading is becoming more widely and frequently recognized as a lighting adjunct.

First of all, what is electronic (or automated) shading all about? In basic terms, it’s a system that controls the interaction of electrical lighting and daylight, synchronizing shades and artificial light levels automatically based on the sun’s position, thus taking maximum advantage of natural light. In effect, the shades become an integrated part of the lighting control system of the entire building. It is estimated that, in a commercial structure, this technology can reduce lighting energy use by 60 percent and air conditioning usage by 10 percent.

It goes without saying that such a system is an obvious fit in today’s economically strained, energy-conscious and green-driven construction industry.

So what does the electrical contractor have to know to get involved in this market?

“The electrical contractor has to understand that this is a four-part solution package: power, control, pocket and fabric,” said Andrew Lawler, commercial systems sales manager at Lutron Electronics Co., Coopersburg, Pa., a systems supplier in the field. “Pocket refers to the geometry of the window itself where the shade fits in, and fabric, of course, is what the shade is made of. Obviously, the contractor is well-equipped to deal with power and control, but often, he just pulls the power wire out to the pocket and leaves it hanging. So somebody else gets all the revenue associated with the control, pocket and fabric. On any given project, the money to be made on installing the whole electronic shading package might be twice what the electrical contractor might make on a lighting system alone.”

Typically, a specialized window systems provider is the entity getting paid for finishing the job, and to some extent, the general contractor who subcontracts this part of the project to the specialist benefits as well.

There are a couple of ways the electrical contractor can recapture some of this business. Product manufacturers offer training and design assistance, or the contractor could align itself with a window systems provider in its territory.

The QB
But there’s another way to hang the shades. ADCO Electrical, a contractor based in Staten Island, N.Y., recognized that significant income was escaping in terms of the electronic shading aspects of project work and decided to acquire the relevant expertise. In 2009, ADCO acquired Kay + Sons, Norristown, Pa., a leader in the shading industry since 1922, which had repositioned itself over the last decade as an electronic shading specialist and systems integrator.

“The real value proposition we were focusing on was combining the disciplines the two companies excelled in,” said Edward Welsh Jr., manager of ADCO. “It would have been difficult to develop the shading capability ourselves, and Kay had already established this as its core competence. With our combined resources, we can deliver the entire package—specifying, designing, installing, commissioning, calibrating, testing, and follow-up and support—to ensure the full functionality of the entire system for the client.”

Critical to this full-package approach is understanding the customer’s growing demand for single-source responsibility, which to him means lower risk, reduced costs and enhanced total systems performance.
“Clients want to place the responsibility and the ownership of the operability of the entire building system in one source’s hands,” said Barry Kay, president of Kay + Sons. “The shading component is part of the lighting system. Ignoring this would be analogous to an electrical contractor wiring up only three-quarters of an HVAC or alarm system.

“Since lighting represents 40 percent of energy costs in a building, a significant way to help clients cut these costs is through comprehensive lighting controls. The most effective way to reduce artificial lighting costs is to use as much natural light as possible. That’s where the marriage between solar shading and lighting controls in a single system came from.

“This gives the contractor the ability to control the total lighting of the building and be able to offer a much greater contribution to energy-cost reduction than by simply concentrating on conventional electric lighting. And the natural choice to play quarterback in this situation is an electrical contractor who has access to electronic shading expertise,” Kay said.

The residential side
While much of the installation of electronic shading currently takes place in commercial project work, the demand is slowly growing in the residential market as well.

“The reasons for installing electronic shading differ between the two markets,” Kay said. “For the commercial client, virtually everything is driven by return on investment and increased performance in the context of the entire building system. For the residential customer, right now it’s a high-end choice related to convenience and lifestyle. The systems are essentially the same, but the benefits are economically greater in the commercial setting due to the economies of scale involving more extensive space, the number of perimeter windows, and the demonstrable cost savings on artificial lighting use. That having been said, acceptance in the residential market is already here because, in situations like high-rise condominiums, about 50 percent now include some kind of integrated lighting and shading controls.”

But this residential market may grow sooner than expected. Lutron offers a line of wireless electronic shading for residential applications that brings automated lighting and shade control into the price range of the average homeowner.

“The world is changing,” Welsh said. “People already have their iPads hooked up to their thermostats and alarm systems. As electronic shading becomes more affordable and easier to integrate with other systems in the home, this will grow.

“We don’t do electronic shading installation en masse yet in our residential business; it’s mostly in new construction or the complete renovation of a large home or an apartment complex. It isn’t common yet on smaller scale retrofits in typical homes.”

The potential
While acceptance and significant installation of electronic shading has grown steadily in the United States since the 1980s, it has been used widely in Europe in both commercial and residential applications for 30 to 40 years prior to that. The European experience provided both a track record for the technology and an established history of the rapid growth of the market.

Sources in the United States’ industry agree that electrical contractors remain either unaware of the lucrative potential of electronic shading or are reluctant to become involved.

“This represents a significant next frontier of opportunity for the electrical contractor,” Lutron’s Lawler said. “It provides an opportunity for differentiating his business, especially as energy codes and building design continue to promote the use of intelligent systems. There is no question that electronic shading will be central to the concept of the daylighting design of buildings.”

QUINN reports on a broad range of business and industry issues for journals in the United States and Europe. He can be reached at 203.323.9850 and

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