What lighting controls need to grow up: standards


If you attended the giant lighting conference Lightfair this year, you probably noticed that technology to control and network lighting has been taking center stage like never before –- Lightfair is not just the “LEDFair” it once was. Finally, a technology that has long been recommended by utilities, and with a proven return on investment, is getting its due.

And yet, we in the lighting controls industry shouldn’t be too quick to pat ourselves on the back, since the hype does not yet represent the reality. According to a recent study from Lux Research, 37 percent of commercial energy in the U.S. is controlled by smart controls, such as a networked building management systems. But compare this with the 1 percent of buildings that use a smart lighting control system, and just 7 percent of commercial lighting energy is controlled by a smart control system.

Why the disparity? It’s not that lighting control systems are a new concept, or that their value is unproven – quite the opposite. Lighting is the second largest driver of energy consumption in buildings (behind heating and cooling), and scores of real-life examples over the last 20 years speak to the ability of advanced lighting controls to save money and energy. Yet centralized control systems for lighting is still rare.

What are the hurdles?

Is it because lighting control systems are still too expensive? This is certainly a factor, yet advanced building management systems have managed to justify their expense to become a trusted part of a facility manager’s toolkit.

So where have we in the industry fallen down? One of the answers has to do with the way we have adopted technology standards. Other advanced building systems have come to accept the concepts of interoperability and “open architecture” – using standards that allow products from many vendors to easily communicate with each other. This has helped the building management system vendors gain trust among building professionals, foster innovation, and grow rapidly.

Meanwhile, the lighting controls industry has remained stuck in a world of incompatible systems. Most advanced lighting controls systems on the market today can’t talk to one another. Customers buy one company’s control system and are forced to use that company’s specialized sensors, dimmers, ballasts or LED drivers. The communications between these devices is proprietary –- so the devices have to be proprietary as well.

If lighting control connections were standardized, the communications between devices would use an open industry protocol – be it a wired one, or a wireless one like ZigBee. Any control system using the standard could take inputs from any sensor or wall switch, and could control any luminaire – LED, fluorescent and other sources. And any vendor can easily build products that work with that standard, increasing their sales opportunities and allowing them to focus on building the best products for the market.

A trusted market

It’s no surprise that the lighting industry evolved like it did. Incompatibility can be good for individual vendors. It means that once a customer is yours, they stay yours – switching costs are high. But that’s a limited view. It doesn’t work in a growing industry like controls, trying to prove its value and increase trust among an often skeptical community.

When I talk to lighting designers, architects and engineers, the number one message I hear is that they have been burnt by lighting controls before. Their customers were stuck with control systems that don’t work, can’t be fixed or are too complicated to even try. Their level of trust is low, and needs to be earned.

Standards provide a fast route to that trust. Customers gain a proven technology, have more choice, and feel secure that their system is future-proof. Standards also remove a development barrier from vendors, allowing them to focus their efforts on being more innovative in their core expertise – be it sensors, optics, or software. And when communications between devices is standardized, that means some components can be produced in massive volumes – reducing product costs for everyone.

Fortunately, we’re not as far from that world as people might think. There are open standards currently available – like BACnet in the building automation world, and the ZigBee wireless protocol – that already contain many or all of the application capabilities needed.

Advanced lighting controls have a tremendous capacity to connect, control and ultimately reduce energy consumption for all of the lights – everywhere. We as an industry simply need to be farsighted enough to help it happen.

Danny Yu is CEO of Daintree Networks, a provider of standards-based wireless lighting controls systems for the commercial, industrial and government markets. 

Image courtesy of Daintree Networks, m.gifford.

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