Commercial Lighting Control 101

Distributors wishing to break out of the gringd of serving up commodity-based "bid-and-pray" or "what's-the-price?" solutions will find selling intelligent lighting controls a refreshing and profitable alternative.

Offering whole-building commercial lighting-control products and services shouldn't be viewed as a niche business for electrical distributors. With growing significance on designing buildings for increased energy efficiency and reduced cost, along with the introduction of new and exciting products and technologies in this area, lighting control has become a more attractive proposition for distributors.

New technologies in whole-building lighting-control systems provide greater overall energy savings and improved control and reliability — even offering the ability to access the system via a common Web browser for easy schedule changes and control of lighting zones. Input devices such as touch screens, keypads and occupancy sensors have also come a long way, and they are now designed to make lighting control more attractive while providing seamless input functionality for occupants.

With that in mind, electrical distributors that don't currently service this market should reconsider and encourage the contractors they work with to do the same.

Studying legislative and program requirements

In a typical commercial building, lighting is the single largest user of electric power, often exceeding 30 percent of the building's total energy cost. Simply adding the ability to control lighting during times when the building is not occupied can reduce lighting costs by as much as 50 percent, in addition to cutting down on replacement costs for lamps and ballasts by reducing the number of burn hours logged.

The Energy Policy Act (EPAct) of 2005 and California's Title 24 energy-efficiency standards are two recent examples of legislation that involves lighting control.

EPAct contains a variety of tax incentives for commercial and residential buildings. In commercial buildings, a deduction can be gained by adding energy-efficient measures such as lighting control between Dec. 31, 2005 and Dec. 31, 2007. The National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA), Rosslyn, Va., estimates this provision alone will generate approximately $500 million in additional sales of lighting systems and products.

In California, recent changes to Title 24 have brought lighting control to the forefront. For instance, the latest update of this energy code requires both automatic shut-off controls and daylight control.

An overview of commercial lighting control systems

Lighting control systems are comprised of two major components: output devices that work behind the scenes to control lights by switching them on or off or dimming them up or down, and input devices like switches or sensors. Both areas have seen dramatic advancements in recent years, making the systems easier to install and more functional.

Advancements made in the ubiquitous lighting panelboard are good examples of innovation with regard to switching systems. Historically, these products have been perceived as rather static: installed and forgotten. Today's lighting control systems have transformed this gray metal box into the hub of an intelligent system that provides a connection between the lighting system, lighting-control input devices and the facility's power-management systems. Such panels now contain controllers that receive signals originating from the external control devices or from internal time schedulers and initiate commands to remotely operated circuit breakers, relays and dimming modules.

The ability to integrate with other building systems is another feature. For instance, sub-metering equipment is often connected to the intelligent lighting control panel through a panel's RS-485 serial port. Access to these meters is then available via a standard Web browser with the controller acting as a gateway and converting serial data into IP data available at the controller's Ethernet port. In addition to providing the ability to adjust schedules remotely, these systems let facility managers see operational status, power consumption and demand via the Web. Such systems also keep facility managers informed via e-mail whenever a breaker trips or an unauthorized override occurs.

Keypads and touch screens have grown in style and functionality and offer a stylish alternative to traditional control devices. Keypads and touch screens can be effectively used to avoid the “wall acne” often associated with wall-mounted dimmers, projector-screen switches, volume controls and wall plates.

Keypads can also feature LED indicators that provide illumination and status feedback or allow for electronic labeling of switches according to the preference of the building owner. Touch screens — available in black-and-white and color versions — provide a virtually limitless number of programming options to create preset lighting scenes that can activate automatically.

These new-generation lighting control systems really shine when it comes to energy savings. Occupancy-based sensors can communicate directly with the system and provide facility managers the ability to tweak settings from their computers to avoid disturbing occupants. Smart light-level sensors can measure ambient light levels and automatically switch breakers and relays on or off to maintain a constant light level. Such systems can also be used with the latest fluorescent ballast technologies to raise and lower lighting levels.

These technologies represent far more than just manual on/off control. Benefits to building owners extend beyond just energy savings and can provide a more comfortable work environment, less stress and greater productivity. Distributors wishing to break out of the grind of serving up commodity-based “bid-and-pray” or “what's-the-price?” solutions will find selling intelligent lighting controls a refreshing and profitable alternative.

The Thomas & Mack Center: lesson learned

Imagine you're the electrical supervisor of a major sports arena. You're in the middle of hosting a nationally televised basketball game at your facility, and the lights go out. After a frantic three-minute search in the dark, one of your staff members has to restore power manually using a screwdriver.

For one man, this wasn't a bad dream. Darrell Smith is the electrical supervisor for the Thomas & Mack Center, Cox Pavilion and Sam Boyd Stadium at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas (UNLV). A few years ago during a nationally televised game at the Thomas & Mack Center, the facility went dark after a power failure resulting from a stuck contactor in the center's original lighting system, which was almost 25 years old. The incident was enough to spur the installation of a more reliable, whole-building lighting control system.

After an extensive review, a Powerlink G3 3000 Level System from Square D/Schneider Electric was chosen. “Since we're a state-owned facility, we usually have to contract the lowest bidder — but in this case, I knew that I was going to be around for awhile, and I wanted the system to work,” Smith says. “What's more, the Powerlink system offered monitoring capabilities, which allow for quickly and safely finding the source of any problems.”

The Thomas & Mack Center is divided into four sections or quads — similar to a pie — each having an IDF (intermediate distribution frame) room that controls its power. “With the old system, almost anyone was able to access the power switches to turn on lights in the arena, and they usually wouldn't take the time to turn them off when they were done,” Smith says. Now, only he and one other member of his staff have access to the lighting control for the center. When a basketball practice is scheduled, its time frame is programmed into the system, and the lights are triggered and turned off at precisely the appropriate times. This has saved valuable power and has afforded a whole new level of control for Smith and his staff.

“Now I can go on vacation and make changes in the lighting schedules from a remote laptop while sitting in a hotel room in Honolulu,” he says. “The whole thing takes five minutes — it couldn't be easier. Lights can be controlled from wherever I am.”

In terms of energy savings and return on investment, the lighting control system had a payback of $200,000 in its first year — paying for itself in about eight months. Plus, with the newfound monitoring capabilities over its lighting-related power charges, UNLV is able to negotiate with Nevada Power on its energy rates and monitor current bills for accuracy.

Expanding on the success with the Thomas & Mack Center, UNLV is planning to purchase lighting control systems for all of its major sports complexes, including swimming pools and baseball and soccer fields in the near future.

Turning knowledge into profit

With increasingly apparent benefits for end users and contractors, it's getting tougher for your customers to ignore lighting control's growing popularity, especially with success stories like UNLV's Thomas & Mack Center. The transition for contractors becomes much more practical as installation of these systems gets easier, and end users see energy savings as a major benefit.

The market potential of lighting control systems will grow in the coming years. Now is the time for distributors that don't currently offer these solutions to start.

Scott Jordan is the lighting marketing control manager, Square D/Schneider Electric, Palatine, Ill. He can be reached at (615) 287-3310.

Key Lighting-Control Definitions

Here are a few of the most common lighting control terms/definitions.


These input devices replace typical wall switches and offer multiple options for turning on individual lights and other room components such as curtains and ceiling fans.

Lighting scenes

Lighting scenes are created by controlling the individual light levels of several lights within a room and preprogramming them to work in unison, creating a specific mood or environment within the room.

Touch screens

Available in color or black-and-white versions, touch screens activate preset lighting scenes and can control other systems within the room such as audio/video components.

Light-level sensors

Many occupancy sensors also include an ambient light-level sensor feature, which can be set to automatically turn lights on or off when natural light in the room is sufficient or limited.

Dimmers and relays

Typically stored out of sight in a separate enclosure, dimmers in commercial lighting control systems are used for dimming resistive and low-voltage lighting loads and are capable of controlling multiple independent dimmable channels. Relays are similar, but they can only turn lights on or off — not dim them to a specified level.

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