Lighting Control Systems Offer Energy Savings
April 2, 2012 - 2:20pm

Home automation draws a healthy dose of inspiration from science fiction. Think about it: We have technology that can wake us up, place and receive phone calls, stream entertainment from our computers to our televisions and even water our plants, all at the touch of a button. Isaac Asimov, it’s safe to say, would be proud. But for all their facility and convenience, the aforementioned tools have one not-so-favorable thing in common: They use energy. Lots of it. Home lighting control systems, on the other hand, represent one of just a few automation technologies that actually save homeowners money by conserving energy.

“When you think about it, everything else in home automation consumes energy,” says Gary Meshberg, chair of the Home Lighting Control Alliance (HCLA). The HCLA is a lighting industry group, formed two years ago to champion the notion of lighting control as a technology frontier for lighting manufacturers — and as a sales opportunity for lighting retailers.

Meshberg, who also serves as Director of Business Development for Lightolier, says the past three years have seen a sea change in the lighting control industry. The technology — typically marketed in the form of dimmer switches, sensors and whole-house operations — caught on, initially, among consumers interested in amenity and security. But that came with an unexpected side effect; home lighting control was quickly cast as the province of the rich and famous, a luxury attainable only by affluent homeowners. That’s changed, Meshberg says, as control technology has become more competitive and — by extension — more affordable.

“Eight years ago, if you wanted a whole-house lighting control system, you were going to dig deep to be able to afford it,” Meshberg explains. “Not so anymore.”

While the cost of control systems has tapered off over the last few years, energy costs have soared worldwide, putting many homeowners in a mindset to consider efficiency upgrades. Here again, lighting control technology has a unique part to play.

“Historically, a dimmer will save you energy out of the box; typically that’s about 3 percent,” says Grant Sullivan, Product Marketing Manager with Leviton’s Home Automation Products division.

The problem, Sullivan says, is that many homeowners “click through” a dimmer, jacking the control slider up to full output for normal everyday use. This defeats the purpose of a dimmer and prevents the homeowner from realizing additional energy savings.

According to Sullivan, Leviton identified this problem and retooled its Vizia dimmer series as a result. The new product — Vizia RF+, which debuted at this year’s Lightfair International — includes an energy-saving mode that is preset during installation. Using this option, the electrician or installer can set the maximum brightness at a lower threshold, effectively preventing the lamp from reaching full brightness.

“It becomes a very active savings,” Sullivan says. “Every time you’re using it, you’re using less power than a fixture that doesn’t have it.”

And lest lighting designers decry the deplorable notion of limiting a lamp’s full brightness, consider this: A 10 percent reduction — nearly imperceptible to the naked eye — more than doubles the life of the fixture’s bulbs, Sullivan asserts. Dimming a light bulb by 25 percent extends its life by a factor of four.

Lutron’s Vierti dimmer includes similarly inspiring statistics. According to the company's promotional material, if every household in America installed one dimmer, the action would result in carbon reductions equivalent to removing 370,000 cars from the road each year.

Dimming is all well and good, but it doesn’t solve the problem of good old American forgetfulness. A dimmed lamp is still using energy, even if the room itself is vacant. Luckily, there’s a solution here, too, and it involves using existing technology originally developed for occupancy sensors.

This type of sensor was popular in the early days of the “smart home” movement when homeowners delighted in the idea of strolling into a room and having the lights turn on at their arrival. It was a neat trick, says Carlos Villalobos, Product Manager for Residential/Retail Products at Watt Stopper/Legrand, but unforeseen factors (boisterous children and pets, for example) actually reduce energy efficiency by keeping lights on longer than necessary.

“If you need the lights to be on, you’ll turn them on,” Villalobos says. “At the end of the month, you’ll realize that you’re not really saving money with [an] occupancy sensor.”

Instead, Villalobos suggests flipping the technology on its head. The same motion detector that might turn the lights on can also switch them off, he says. Vacancy sensors turn out the lights we leave lit, offering much more tangible value in today’s eco-conscious environment. The technology is straightforward and user-friendly; just set it and forget it, he says.

“A vacancy sensor is exactly the same as a standard switch,” Villalobos explains. “It’s nothing more, nothing less — except for the fact that a vacancy sensor has the brains and the automation to turn off the lights when the room is vacant. The advantage of a vacancy sensor is that you don’t have to do anything for it to save money for you. You just forget it!”

Watt Stopper’s newest line of control systems employs this no-brainer technology. Combining a dimmer switch and a vacancy sensor, the RD-200 works best with incandescent bulbs and satisfies California’s Title 24, which calls for (among other things) the use of dimmers in new residential construction.

On the face of it, the two most prevalent control types (dimmers and sensors) together offer a broad array of style and functionality for most residential lighting projects. And while the energy-efficiency benefits are real, they’re not getting the play they deserve. Lighting industry professionals say this is because the technology hasn’t yet garnered the coveted Energy StarT designation from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But when it does, watch out.

“If the EPA [grants] an Energy Star rating for vacancy sensors, we’ll see them everywhere,” Villalobos says.

The renewed attention on lighting control systems is good for the lighting industry, helping to catalyze new technology and marketing efforts. Education is critical, according to the HCLA, because the general public is just starting to associate lighting control with energy savings. But once the relationship is made clear to homeowners, expect a swift adoption of the technology. “Once a customer, always a customer” is an adage that holds true among lighting control patrons, according to the HCLA’s Gary Meshberg.

“When you look at lighting controls, the reason why it has the highest preferred rate is that when somebody has it, that’s it,” Meshberg says. “If they ever move or build a new home, that’s the one thing they’re going to put in that new house.”

Wireless Lighting Controls

Lighting control takes on a new dimension when paired with wireless automation technology. Although competing systems exist, many lighting control manufacturers have coalesced around Z-Wave, a wireless utility system that allows homeowners to operate many different products (lighting dimmers, home theaters and kitchen appliances, for example) from the same easy-to-use access system.

Once a home’s automated systems are linked together via Z-Wave, energy efficiency becomes as simple as pressing a button.

“As soon as you can have house-wide system control, you can truly do some energy management,” says Grant Sullivan, Product Marketing Manager with Leviton’s Home Automation Products division.

Leviton is one of more than 160 members of the Z-Wave Alliance, a consortium of manufacturers offering products designed for the unique wireless network. Z-Wave itself was created by Fremont, CA-based Zensys.

“Z-Wave is turning into the de facto home control standard,” says Sullivan. “It’s catching on because it’s really rather simple to install — and very reliable.”


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