Customize Lighting Controls with Wireless Flexibility

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Mesh networks for devices create greater granularity with minimal disruption


Running wires: it’s expensive, invasive, and labor-intensive. The cost alone can be prohibitive to otherwise valuable projects.

It’s no wonder that wireless technology continues to gain popularity for applications like lighting controls, where it offers a simpler strategy for intelligent lighting management. FMs can automate dimming and shutoff without having to cut holes in the walls to install new sensors and controllers.

But the wireless aspect alone can’t tell the whole savings story. Devices that can form a mesh network – a self-healing web that allows all components to communicate with each other and relay messages – add a new layer of ease to installation and operation.

Why Wireless? And What Does Mesh Mean?

Like any other wireless technology, the growing popularity of wireless lighting controls is mainly due to cost, both in the reduced labor required for installation and the energy savings possible with smart lighting management. The wireless aspect makes these devices particularly well-suited for existing buildings where running additional wiring is not an option.

“One of the impediments to lighting control adoption is on the installation side. It depends heavily on how easy it is to get access for running wires,” explains Tom Hinds, product portfolio manager for Cree, Inc., an LED lighting manufacturer that also offers a proprietary wireless lighting control platform called Cree SmartCast Technology. “For example, in buildings that are more than a few decades old, there may be asbestos concerns when you access the ceiling. Going wireless and not having to break the ceiling plane means that you don’t have to worry about abatement, which would introduce more costs.”

Facilities in areas where lighting control mandates are popping up – such as California, where Title 24 took effect in July – may find a wireless system to be a relatively easy way to meet the control requirements. It may even be a good option for future deep renovations or additions, Hinds adds: “Even in new construction, there are benefits to wireless lighting controls. You still don’t have to buy copper or install wire, so there are savings in that application as well.”

Lighting controls that utilize a mesh network connect the wireless components to each other. Depending on the product, the network likely includes a combination of:

  • • Software that helps you review data and control lighting remotely
  • • At least one area controller to deliver local control for each floor, department, or building
  • • Centralized software that acts as the liaison between you and the area controllers and provides a user interface
  • • Devices such as switches, sensors, and fixtures, any wired devices that have been adapted to support wireless connectivity.
  • • Any wired devices that have been adapted support wireless connectivity
  • Every device with a power supply can communicate to any other device with a power supply. For example, when an occupancy sensor detects motion in a conference room, it fires off a split-second command to the area controller to turn on one particular bank of overhead lighting. The area controller commands the nearest affected light fixtures to turn on, and they pass on the message as needed to other light fixtures in the zone until the job is done. This task is complete in the blink of an eye, just like it would be in a wired control system.

    “Mesh networks are like a very sophisticated version of the telephone game,” says Hinds. “Let’s say you have a long hallway with a single row of light fixtures. With mesh technology, when I walk into the hallway from one end, the first fixture sees motion, turns the lights on, and passes that message along down the hallway. The next three to four fixtures hear the first one, turn their lights on, and repeat the message down the hallway. You don’t have to worry about whether all the fixtures get that message from the first fixture because the network shares that message with all other fixtures that need to hear it.”

    This also means that if one link in the chain is disabled – a light fixture is damaged or a sensor runs out of battery power – the message will automatically find an alternate route.

    “If one of the fixture end points fails, it’s not a critical path for the whole network. For example, if I can’t talk to fixture 17 anymore, I’ll find another path through a different fixture to share my messages down the row,” says Hinds. “Unlike other technologies, if something does fail, there’s no need for immediate replacement – you’re not going to lose lighting or functionality for your whole floor because one switch or fixture failed.”


    Expand Your Network for Savings Strategies

    Once your network is in, some vendors can incorporate HVAC controls, thermostats, plug load monitors, or infrastructure for other building systems on top of the existing lighting controls so that each new addition is controlled by the same system.

    “Frequently facilities managers are exposed to point products, where lighting, HVAC, and other controls are all standalone systems,” says Danny Yu, CEO of Daintree Networks, a vendor and developer of software and wireless control devices. “Once you have the mesh in place, if it uses an open standard, you can take advantage of the infrastructure you put in by adding other devices.”

    Controlling more devices using the same system allows you to incorporate compound strategies where the solution for one application increases the value of another solution, Yu explains.

    “For instance, occupancy sensors are used to turn lights on and off,” says Yu. “If you already have that configured in your facility, why don’t you use the same information to set back the thermostat?”

    If granular control isn’t financially feasible right now, you can still reap some of the benefits of mesh-networked lighting controls by simply controlling a larger number of lights with a single device, Yu adds.

    “If you want to control a bank of lights on the same circuit, you can do zone control where you can just turn a certain zone on or off,” says Yu. “The tradeoff is that you’re exchanging cost for granularity.”

    3 Tips for Maximum Benefit

    Reaping the greatest rewards from your lighting control network requires a smart strategy. Try these three tips to ensure a smooth rollout and painless operation.

    1) Bring in IT early. A successful implementation will require your FM team to work closely with the IT department, especially if you’re planning to tie the new lighting controls into the existing IT infrastructure, says Hinds.

    “You need to have that conversation with IT early and often because they may have bandwidth or security concerns,” Hinds recommends. “Simpler systems, however, don’t need IT infrastructure involved, so the facilities team can spearhead that project on their own and have some autonomy with it. At least let IT know it’s coming, though – with some of our customers, IT simply wants a little more information about how it’s not going to interface with Wi-Fi.”

    2) Know your operational goals. The best lighting control system will account for your facility’s individual quirks, from your budget for upfront costs to staffing or training levels.

    “Have a broader conversation about your energy management goals where you get out of the product discussion and talk about an impactful solution,” recommends Yu.

    Some products provide automated reporting or alert messages to warn you that a component in the mesh network has failed, Hinds adds. These features could be helpful if you have a limited staff that can’t devote much time to predictive maintenance. Be sure to ask potential vendors about maintenance and troubleshooting on their products, as some include a testing mode to help you narrow down the source of the problem.

    “Diagnostics that are simple enough to use without people having to retrain themselves is an important part of any system,” says Hinds. “Inevitably, the instruction manual is lost after a few years, if not a few weeks, but years down the road is when you’re going to start experiencing issues. Wireless control systems make it easy to do diagnostics even if you don’t have the manual around.”

    3) Use your data wisely. Some systems allow you to track usage by fixture so you can predict when a lamp will need to be replaced, allowing you to stay ahead of the game instead of waiting for complaints.

    “You can also troubleshoot remotely if your devices can store information,” Yu adds. “That’s helpful for making service calls.”


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