By Charles Knuffke
Connected Lighting Systems Stakeholders Research Study (https://bit.ly/3HaAcKs) is an interesting report on connected lighting systems (CLS) that was issued in September 2021 by the U.S. Department of Energy. In my view some of the report misses the mark, while some of it is perfectly on target.
The study says over the past 20 years the general trend in lighting control has been toward greater sophistication and abilities coinciding with more detailed control requirements imposed by energy codes. The technology underwent a revolution as extraordinary as the shift from traditional lighting to LEDs.
The ultimate connected system enables centralized programmability, has means to improve occupant wellbeing, and provides data that can be used to enhance operations and location-based services. These robust connected systems naturally present a cost premium and are more complex than out-of-the-box systems, creating a hurdle for mainstream adoption of advanced systems.
The report defines CLS as “solid-state lighting sources, interfaces, sensors, and controllers connected as a network, allowing for two-way communication and data sharing across devices and systems. CLS must have either occupancy, daylight, color tuning and/or task tuning capabilities, in addition to the ability to communicate with a BAS, HVAC or other centralized platform.”
After initial research on the topic by the group, interviews were conducted with manufacturers and their representatives, utility programs/consultants, lighting designers, operators/building engineers and electrical contractors. The goal was to understand key issues when currently trying to design, install and achieve successful operation of lighting control systems.
THERE ARE A FEW STATEMENTS made in the report that veterans in the industry may want to challenge. For example, the report states that while manufacturer representatives are often consulted by contractors and designers when choosing products, representatives “may be biased or incentivized to specify certain manufacturers.” Since this is exactly the job of a representative, the report misses the point that having a strong representative in a territory (to field multiple individuals with control expertise) is often precisely why the products represented by the firm are more likely to be specified in that territory.
Another passage states energy codes are not a focus of the study or are largely out of scope. I can appreciate that the authors of the report wanted to focus on opportunities for improvement among listed stakeholders and not on what can be done regarding energy codes. However, since many systems are installed because of requirements in prevailing energy codes, the influence of these requirements should have been explored. Not because energy codes jeopardize the introduction of CLS, but because failing to provide a fully functional, code-meeting CLS might prevent an owner from being able to occupy their newly constructed space.
Finally, the report does not make clear the different types of projects where a CLS might be installed and why different stakeholders will be actively involved in some projects as opposed to others. Even a simplistic description of construction opportunities would have been helpful. For example, “New Construction” is when a CLS is just a component in the overall scope of the building, all of which must to be installed and operational. “Alterations” cover a range of improvements from full down-to-the- studs tenant improvement to a lighting and controls upgrade in a space, to the retrofit of components in a luminaire. In a “New Construction” project it is understandable that early stages of a project could be over-budget, and that the lighting and controls might be value engineered (as the report suggests). However, if the project is an “Alteration” there is no reason the owner should not benefit from the originally planned system. The lack of clarity about different project types may leave readers wondering how some of the report’s recommendations might apply.
DESPITE THE ABOVE CONCERNS the report packs a lot of value, especially in its recommendations (Figure 1). There are key opportunities in technological validation, education, clear communication, enhanced tools, and acceleration toward standardization and ease of use.
If you are a stakeholder, it is worthwhile to look at the recommendations in Figure 1. The items listed are valuable best practices, but are you taking advantage of them all?
Manufacturers, have you reviewed your customer-facing installation literature and viewed it through the eyes of an installer who has never installed your system before?
Contractors, are you reaching out to local support to find out what is offered in the way of system-specific training sessions?
Designers, projects involving more complexity require a disciplined design approach—are you consistently calling out the different control zones and locations for devices on the project documentation?
As the report makes clear, lighting and lighting controls have grown more complex in the last decade because they are being required to provide more features than ever before. Regardless of the type of space you are working on there is a need to provide functionality specific to the space and meet the requirements of the local energy code. Rather than build separate systems for each space, it is smarter (and cheaper) to provide one or two base system architectures and then extend the functionality of them to cover the needs of the different space types.
Because of this expanded set of functionalities and the desire to tap into new technologies, I would argue that the lighting field will not be getting less complex anytime soon. Stakeholders should undergo education and training, develop appropriate expectations based on the type of system specified, and document and coordinate the system in a disciplined approach. Manufacturers should support these efforts across the board while striving for standardization (as long as it does not impede technology and ease of use advancement).
IN CONCLUSION, I WILL RELAY the advice I found over 30 years ago in the book The Macintosh Way by Guy Kawasaki. Kawasaki was one of the original “evangelists” at Macintosh. His advice was to search out products that are both “elegant and deep.” Deep meaning that the product will have features you do not even know you want to use; elegant meaning all the features in the product will be designed in such a way that they do not impede you from doing current work, but will provide intuitive access to more advanced features as you continue to work.
Providing deep and elegant products takes time and significant effort, and is especially difficult in a changing landscape, which is where we are right now right now. This is at the heart of why CLS products are different, and why project stakeholders who follow the specific recommendations directed toward them—and spend time developing expertise in the products that they specify, install and use—will be successful in the long-run.