A Brief and Painless Explanation of the Today’s Modern Lighting Controls

Post by on August 28, 2017 in Lighting Tips

Lighting Controls are no longer simply about dimming, they are a platform for better management and functionality of our build spaces.

One could be forgiven for not being able to follow all of the different lighting control options available on the market at the moment. Most people actively involved in building industry understand the basic needs and requirements of typical spaces. Vacancy sensing, daylight harvesting, time code events and basic dimming are all well known best practices and they are common in schools, office spaces, industrial environments and homes across the NY metro area. At the end of the day, end users want simple intuitive lighting control systems that work perfectly every time, but we can do better than basics. We can deliver systems that improve building performance, reduce operating costs and open up whole new ways to control and monitor not just buildings, but the people, equipment and collateral these buildings house.

So how do we begin to break these down?

What follows is a basic set of categories that will serve as a good basis for conversation with end users who may have a vague understanding that something above the basic is available but not necessarily what.

The First Question That Needs to Be Answered is Power Distribution

The traditional and by far the most common means of power distribution is common (line) voltage over branch circuits feeding lighting fixtures. There are still many applications where this makes the most sense for power distribution. However, there are new distributed low voltage schemes that centralize power feeds to central drivers or hubs and then send low voltage out to the fixtures. The topic of distributed low voltage could be it’s own series, I will touch on our preferred option a little bit later.

The Big Buckets – Traditional Device Based Controls or Modern Software Based Controls

Traditional lighting control systems fall into stand-alone devices and centralized panels. A good example of a stand alone lighting control device would be an in-wall vacancy sensor.

Stand-alone devices like this have some advantages:

  • Low-Cost
  • Easy installation, which most electricians are familiar with

They also carry disadvantages:

  • Disconnected from other parts of the building
  • Relatively few options to change settings or adapt controls to future needs.

The other traditional system platform is the centralized dimming panel.

Centralized panels are the industry standard for creating broadly capable lighting control systems. In these systems, all sensors and keypads wire back to the panel for control, while the dimming wires (0-10v) also run back to dedicated leads at the panel to control their dimming. Programming is handled at the panel during system commissioning and in general requires a factory tech. These systems are ideal in new construction scenarios where pulling control wire is easy to do.


  • Complete end-to-end solution for sensors, scheduling and dimming.
  • Components are still relatively low cost.


  • Can be connected to BMS, but generally don’t report granular data on energy consumption, occupancy, etc.
  • Best scenario is a new construction project, poor choice for retrofit or partial construction.

Modern Distributed Control Solutions

Control solutions are moving away from the traditional panel based systems and toward software based wired and wireless systems. These systems tend to push control devices out across the network instead of centralizing them in a single panel. This offers modularity and scalability. It’s also relatively easy to react to changes in how the building or space is used.

There are several different models for how these systems are built, we’ll outline and describe a few of those options below. It’s important to first understand why these systems are a leap ahead and we’ll touch on that in the next section.

Recently, Douglas released  Bluetooth enabled wireless controls that can integrate into existing traditional controls systems, but can also stand alone. These controllers can be setup via a smartphone app and are ready to go the moment they are energized.

The Encelium system from Osram allows for an infinitely scalable distributed wireless control solution. With the Encelium system, granular per fixture control is possible by embedding a wireless controller directly in the specified fixture. There is a subtle added benefit to this type of control scheme. When every fixture acts as a wireless transmitter, there’s no need to run separate dimming wires to a central panel. This makes for tremendous labor and installation savings. In urban markets where jobs are often done in phases, the ability to install small portions of the system at different times, then tie them together digitally allows for the kind of flexible, demand-responsive work necessary in today’s real estate market.

Distributed systems don’t have to be wireless. The next wave of power distribution and lighting control is coming and its Power over Ethernet (PoE). PoE systems allow for the complete integration of the lighting system into the IT network. Cree was one of the early innovators in the PoE space, releasing their Smartcast PoE system complete with an open API to integration with other software applications. PoE creates a low voltage method for running power and control signal to each fixture on the network, reducing installation time and labor cost, while increasing granular control and data collection.

In addition, Williams has announced their adoption of PoE including a diverse array of fixtures. Leviton has been in the PoE space for a long time, and they seem poised to join the fray in a big way toward the end of 2017.

Lighting As A Vector For Data Capture

Photo by Tetsuya Tomomatsu on Unsplash

The Internet of Things is a term thrown around a lot in different tech circles. This term refers to the coming connected nature of many of our everyday appliances and tools. Early applications of this concept in the consumer world include devices like TrackR and Amazon’s Echo series, Samsung even has a data-connected refrigerator so you can check it’s contents while you’re at the grocery store. What does any of this have to do with specification grade lighting? In commercial, retail, educational and medical environments lighting is the most ubiquitous and evenly distributed system within the space. It’s also already a digital medium with the move to LED. Integrated LED drivers can power auxiliary devices such as sensors and wireless communication devices.

What’s exciting about this development isn’t just the availability of wireless controls, but the ability to detect other smart devices. The future of this technology is a lighting system being able to see not just that someone or something is in the conference room, but that Lisa is in the conference room. The system can then report back that Lisa prefers the room to be 78 degrees instead of the typical 72 degrees so they can change the HVAC set point to accommodate. Hospitals can give patients and equipment smart tags allowing them to be tracked throughout the facility. When a patient goes into cardiac arrest, you don’t need a crash cart, you need the nearest crash cart. When a patient with dementia wanders off the ward, security can be alerted instantly.

In a world where the brightness and color temperature of each element of the lighting scene is now instantly changeable, we can create different triggers to initiate those changes. Those triggers could be time of day and season, position of the sun, task at hand and personal preferences. Moving to intelligent distributed systems makes that possible in new and refreshing ways, from simple creature comforts like your workstation illuminating before you reach it, to adapting lighting conditions for optimal response in therapy spaces for children with autism. In the retail world, this gives store managers a host of data about who is physically browsing their displays, which areas of the store are “hot” and which ones are “cold.” As the cost of these systems drop, even smaller chains and independent retailers will be able to take advantage.

Adapting To A World With Lighting As A Platform

A decade ago we were talking about lighting as the low-hanging fruit of the sustainability movement. Fast forward a decade and no piece of the built environment has moved faster than lighting to reduce energy consumption. The next wave coming is the connected nature of buildings and no subset of architectural products is moving faster in this direction than lighting. Ten years from now we won’t be talking about whether or not connected systems are possible, we’ll be talking about the preferred integrations and methods. Just as daylight harvesting and vacancy sensing are the norm today, digitally integrated lighting will be normal. So how do we prepare?

Make Sure Design Takes The Lead

Controls are increasingly important, but the quality of light itself is paramount to a built space feeling wonderful and functioning well. Whatever design choices you make, we can find the right solutions to control them. It always starts with the right light.

Get Your Clients Thinking Beyond First Cost

This is probably the most difficult step. There are always less expensive solutions out there, but future capabilities and competitive advantages are more valuable the earlier they are gained. Let’s talk about the value add of integrated lighting.

Open Up The Conversation Beyond the Typical Stakeholders

As lighting people we’re not used to talking to the IT department. We’re not used to talking to software and systems developers. The reality is that if our system is going to work with every other system in the building then we need to have conversations with every relevant stakeholder from HVAC to the interior designer to the IT people to make sure we are delivering a beautiful looking lighting that is also delivering for every other part of the project.

Last Thing….Investigate the above options in more depth.

Bluetooth, PoE, Encelium – what’s the right answer? Well that’s entirely dependent on what you need and the design needs of the team. More information is always available – don’t be afraid to jump in and find out more.





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