Decoupling Wire and Power

While wire and electric power delivery will remain a constant, the marriage between the two is being redefined. Wireless lighting and energy control are expanding from homes to office, healthcare, institutional and industrial settings. While not yet common­place, wireless will be part of the conversation going forward for the building community.

Wireless offers many advantages. Electrical contractors (ECs) get to deal with less wire. This option particularly offers benefits for retrofits; ECs don’t have to break open walls or floors to lay conduit or pull wire through ceilings. Workloads shift to devising and mapping out installation configurations. An EC may wire a central control processor and then install a wireless topography including relays, lighting fixtures and communication sensors for occupancy, daylighting control, thermostats, fire, security, even demand management. “Power” is delivered through radio frequency (RF), and functions are communicated. Wireless components are battery-driven. 

Today’s lighting manufacturers and controls companies are getting behind wireless. Some are more broadly developing their existing wireless lines, while others are now entering the market. Cree Inc. introduced its SmartCast Technology in February 2014, advertising it as “the first self-programming wireless lighting-control system.” Osram Sylvania has a wireless version of its ENCELIUM line of lighting controls and energy management systems. Acuity Brands, too, has a full offering of wireless lighting controls. Lutron Electronics Inc., in the wireless market for more than two decades, has its Clear Connect RF enabling technology focused primarily on the home, where dimmers, thermostats and other functions can be wirelessly controlled. The company’s Maestro line also serves commercial markets, as well. 

Some companies are moving one step further, replacing batteries with solar cells to power sensors. Leviton Manufacturing Co.’s LevNet RF light sensor is one example.

Seemingly, every lighting manufacturer is playing a role in wireless, often collaborating with controls companies and other third parties to put together a wireless package if they don’t have one of their own.

“We see wireless playing an increasing role in the marketplace,” said Ken Walma, vice president and general manager, Control Group, Eaton’s Cooper Lighting.

Eaton’s Cooper Lighting Division, Peachtree City, Ga., entered the wireless marketplace 10 years ago. This year, it introduced its first Wi-Fi wireless lighting products at Lightfair International. Called “Greengate,” this line will officially roll out in early 2015.

“We’re still really early in this wireless discussion,” Walma said. “Today, maybe one-half percent of building controls are wireless, but, as designers and contractors get more familiar, the market will mature. I do see it becoming a major player as we go forward.”

According to Eric Lind, vice-president, Specification Sales, for Lutron Electronics Co. in Coopersburg, Pa.: “The expanding renovation/retrofit market is an opportunity to see broader adoption of wireless products. Time and demand has allowed us to develop more device types; faster, more robust products; and more frequency channels. Thanks to recent technological advancements, product costs have been reduced, allowing us to offer wireless lighting controls to midlevel and even mass market end-users.”

For manufacturers, wireless is an ascending market. So, when does wireless make sense?

“You must first look at the scale of the project,” Walma said. “Relighting is where we see advanced wireless control playing a role today. Such change-outs aren’t so much wiring but fixtures and switches. Now, existing fixtures can be adapted for wireless, or new wireless-ready fixtures can be installed. Whether retrofit or new construction, you need to look first costs with a wireless network and its components and remember commissioning for optimal operation.”

Cooper Lighting is targeting commercial (namely office and some retail) and other nonresidential markets.

“There’s a large relighting market where owners are looking to upgrade their legacy lighting to LED,” Walma said. “Offices are an obvious market, but there are others rich in opportunity, too. For example, warehouses and distribution centers offer large open areas. Wireless lends itself well and could be a good fit as owners look to incorporate control systems for energy saving and safety.”

Where the magic happens

As efficient as building control systems have become, wireless functionality may take them to a whole new level.

“We think wireless control makes perfect sense in the 21st century,” said Mandeep Khera, vice president, marketing and channels, Daintree Networks Inc., Los Altos, Calif. “Wire might be good for providing energy, but you don’t need it for controls.”

Daintree Networks, a building automation company, provides wireless control solutions for commercial and industrial buildings. When it launched in 2003, its focus was wireless networking and testing. In 2010, the company took on wireless lighting controls and later added thermostats.

“We were figuring out what we wanted to do as wireless evolved,” Khera said. “The evolution helped inform what our role could be and what markets to pursue.”

Khera sees the efforts to reduce CO2 emissions and achieve deep energy efficiency as propellants for wireless. Both trends he feels will elevate wireless to a tipping point of mass acceptance in building control.

“Wireless doesn’t necessarily save you energy but it’s the enabler,” Khera said. “Plug loads, efficient lighting, [and] thermostats all play a role in saving energy when programmed, controlled and monitored. The gain when applying a wireless network is the ability to map your building systems together, each talking to each other. Control components, such as occupancy sensors, really benefit from a wireless approach, too. Wireless [occupancy senors] don’t add load and can be placed anywhere for optimal results. You can also leverage them for other functions like temperature control.”

Different delivery methods

RF allows wireless devices to communicate. Frequencies vary depending on the communication standard or protocol. 

The EnOcean sensor network operates domestically at a 315 megahertz (MHz) frequency and is often employed in residential applications. Its range can be extended by repeaters. Some feature battery-free modules that use energy harvesting to further reduce wireless cost and maintenance. 

ZigBee is another low-power wireless sensor network. It operates in the 900 MHz range domestically, though it can go as high as 2.4 gigahertz (GHz) with a frequency range of 250 kilobits per second. Both protocols use the IEEE 802.15.4 standard.

Osram Sylvania, Danvers, Mass., uses the ZigBee standard within its ENCELIUM line. Wireless systems are an option within ENCELIUM. The company also uses EnOcean energy harvesting in its wireless-dimming ELOGIC lighting controls.

“Wireless became an option for us when we introduced residential lighting controls,” said Chuck Piccirillo, senior product marketing manager at Osram Sylvania. “We analyzed and researched what protocol would best fit our needs at a particular time. EnOcean worked best for us in residential applications. When we looked at commercial, we found a majority of vendors used ZigBee.” 

Cooper Lighting’s new wireless line is strictly Wi-Fi. Based on the IEEE 802.11 standard, it operates in the 2.45 GHz frequency range.

“The world is cutting the cord,” Walma said. “We think the winners in wireless will be Bluetooth, cellular for the cloud, and Wi-Fi for data communication. None of these are proprietary technologies. For lighting and control, we chose Wi-Fi as it is eminently scalable, very fast and very compatible for office architecture.”

Open versus propriety systems

Not all wireless systems work the same way. Using RF, some systems may be configured as a mesh network while others might be direct. Hubbell’s Building Automation division has its wiHUBB mesh wireless system with a gateway that can accommodate 1,000 of its fixture modules to create a single wireless network. Daintree Networks uses the mesh approach, as well.

“Each device is communicating to the device next to it, lighting to thermostat, thermostat to daylighting sensor, and so on,” Khera said.

In a white paper, “The Value of Wireless Lighting Control,” Daintree Networks authors write: “When all devices are based on the same (or compatible) standards, they all speak the same language. This makes communications within the building much easier to facilitate.”

Cooper Lighting and Osram Sylvania favor open wireless systems. Cooper’s Walma said his company’s system is a bit of a hybrid.

“Wi-Fi blurs the lines between point to point (router) and mesh but enjoys the benefits of mesh,” he said.

When it comes to the home, Lutron saw a customer benefit in developing a proprietary fixed wireless system. Clear Connect operates in the 400-MHz frequency band. It’s designed to avoid interference from other signals in the home, including cordless phones, Wi-Fi, garage-door openers, etc. For Lutron, the system represents a culmination of RF work dating back to 1991 that first resulted in RadioRA, the company’s first wireless home lighting system.

While both fixed and open systems have their own merits, Lind said Lutron to date has favored fixed.

“In our fixed network, robust, dedicated devices have superior RF and processing performance allowing us to create large and scalable spheres of RF coverage,” Lind said.

The security question

A new development with fixtures, LEDs in particular, is their ability to be retrofitted or built to handle multiple functions. Cameras, air controllers and monitors, and other sensors are being added to the luminaire. The more programming and transmission of information, the more vulnerable wireless systems can be to hacking.

“I think security with wireless is the next big challenge and resulting opportunity,” Walma said. “Wireless is such a boutique space in the lighting arena with little installation history. We don’t hear of all the challenges. We only seriously considered Wi-Fi once it addressed security with its WPA2 standard developed to prevent hacking. Companies will invest in standards and protocols that ensure security.”

ZigBee uses various encrypted layers to protect its networks but depends on third-party devices and programs represented in its IP/SEP 2.0 security properties to limit its vulnerability.

Though lighting and controls companies have adopted one protocol or another, they seem fairly agnostic in their outlook.

“We are keeping an open mind as technology evolves; every protocol is trying to get better in both security and performance,” Piccirillo said. “We need to pay attention.”

About the Author

Jeff Gavin

Freelance Writer
Jeff Gavin, LEED Green Associate, is the owner of Gavo Communications, a sustainability-focused marketing services firm serving the energy and construction industries. He can be reached at .

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