The world of lighting controls has been evolving at a staggering pace, ever since the introduction of the 2012 International Energy Conservation Code, and its successors. Lighting control products must keep up with these evolving requirements, including wireless lighting controls solutions. Flexible, expandable, and easy to install, wireless lighting controls seem to offer the best solution to satisfy the needs of commercial lighting projects that are forced to meet the latest energy codes. Often marketed as the best option for any retrofit project, and least labor and material intensive for the contractor, is there really any reason that wireless is not the way to go for all commercial lighting controls applications going forward? Let’s dive in and take a look at the advantages and the challenges that must be considered when proposing a wireless solution on your next project.
The current energy codes are as stringent as they have ever been and, in most cases, require automated lighting controls in just about every space on a commercial project. Whether they are occupancy sensor based or schedule based, automatic off control of lighting loads has become mandatory for just about every room in a building, with exception given only to those spaces that deem it unsafe for the occupant. Additionally, with so many buildings focusing on open floor plans and glass wall office with plenty of natural daylight, there have been supplementary requirements to add manual on or vacancy control to most spaces. Adding this requirement further helps to reduce energy consumption by not allowing lights to automatically turn on every time a space is occupied; if enough natural or other means of lighting is present, then the occupant has no need to turn the lights on unless they make the conscious decision to do so via the low voltage override switch. This has, in turn, pushed towards having a complete low voltage lighting control system in just about every room since regular toggle switches just can’t meet this requirement. So, now we have low voltage communication cable between our switches on the wall, our occupancy sensors, and our daylight sensors, all coming back to a power pack or a room controller of one form or another, in order for all things to function as needed. Currently, we only have low voltage plug-and-play wire between our control devices and line voltage wire to the power pack, and out to the fixtures. Yet, wire is wire, so why not get rid of the control cable altogether, and make things simpler? This is the aim of wireless lighting controls solutions.
Let’s examine some of the benefits of a wireless approach.
- There is no need for a low voltage communication BUS between all of the devices. Eliminating wire to sensors, switches, and photocells can potentially equate to considerable cost savings on material alone with some communication BUS costing as much as $.50 per foot.
- With no cable between the devices, there is also no need to carry the labor to run that wire. On projects that mandate conduit for all cable in the facility, this can be a big deal for the installing contractor, and the cost savings they pass on to their customer can be just as considerable.
- With devices not being tied together with wire, they now have much greater freedom to be relocated should the need arise. Relocating a sensor on a ceiling may now just be a matter of swapping around ceiling tiles.
- Just as flexible is the ability to expand the system in the future if a project is being renovated in phases. Tying into the existing controls system is now merely a programming task.
Now, let’s look at some of the challenges that we face when trying to apply a wireless controls approach to a project.
- Batteries – a lot of batteries, and someone, someday will end up having to replace them all. A few manufacturers offer ten-year batteries in their devices, but we have yet to see the true performance of these over this claimed period. This has some clients hesitant to invest in a wireless system until true results are presentable.
- The initial cost of investing in a state-of-the-art wireless solution on a project – It is currently perceived that wireless controls are a new spectacle, and they must be considerably more expensive than the traditional wired control system. The amount of cost savings gained from not having to provide and install the additional cable between all of those devices may not be making its way back to the client’s pockets either, because the contractors haven’t established how to estimate these savings, or just haven’t found them significant enough to deal with.
- Security – How secure is a wireless device that is sitting on a client’s network? Government institutions are particularly weary, and it will take time to get such consumers comfortable enough with a wireless approach.
- The lack of dual technology sensors for spaces, such as offices, or those that contain tall partitions, such as cubicle farms or large public restrooms – The ultrasonic technology that has been depended on to offer coverage of such spaces simply can’t exist in wireless sensors since it is an active technology, and not a passive one like PIR, and would tax the battery life of the sensors beyond practicality.
A few manufacturers have been able to step up and provide solutions for some of these challenges, such as Wattstopper’s Wireless DLM Controls solution. It offers features like remote system monitoring that allows the manufacturer to keep track of battery life on a project by their tech team. Top-notch wireless security with multiple layers of encryption and authentication have become a must in order to gain the trust of the most demanding customers. Wattstopper’s hybrid controls solutions allow wireless and wired devices to interconnect as needed, in order to accommodate things like dual technology sensors where necessary. This has helped to alleviate some of the concerns of not having a fully functional system. Lastly, the cost of a wireless approach may not be all that much higher once savings on material and labor start to be factored in to project estimates more accurately. A recent MH comparison of a digital wired system and a wireless solution on the same project revealed that material cost was practically identical between the two.
As wireless systems continue to trickle their way onto projects, we will obtain more and more information, and feedback that will help us understand their true value. As always, don’t hesitate to contact the controls team at MH for further information, or to review specific applications. And remember, whenever you have a technical controls question, on any project or application, simply email email@example.com. This email address is monitored by our entire controls team. During our normal business hours, we are committed to a four-hour response time for all emails sent to this email address!