Just about a year ago, we first reviewed the benefits and challenges of using wireless controls on projects. After a year’s worth of exposure, I think we can re-examine where things stand. In this update, we will look at what makes wireless controls so attractive, and also touch base on where they might still be a bit problematic and not as reliable as a wired solution.
Wireless controls have become a favorite go-to solution for contractors as customers become more and more comfortable with these systems, knowing that, for the most part, they work just fine and are attractive for these reasons:
- They save on labor with no wire and no cost associated with that wire or pipe to house it.
- They actually save on material costs on larger scale projects. In addition to not having to pay for the wire, some of the components in a wireless system cost the same, if not less, than their wired counterpart over a larger work scope.
- They offer ease of installation in unique applications (glass walls, existing masonry, or other hard-to-reach places where running wires would be costly for the installing contractor.)
- They offer ease of expandability. With no wires required to connect to existing installations in the building, it becomes easy to expand and add new rooms or zones.
With all of the above being a big plus to installing contractors, and end users, we also need to factor in other considerations before deciding if a wireless solution is the right choice for a particular project. The scale of the project, the installing contractor’s understanding of the system, and what security measures the project requires are a few concerns to think about. When going with a wireless system, the one thing we get rid of is the communication wire between the control devices. All line voltage wires and dimming control wires (if needed) are still required, unless the controls are integral to the luminaire.
The communication now has to happen wirelessly, and being that most wireless systems use low power communication protocols to save on battery life, the devices often need direct line of sight or be in close proximity to each other for reliable communication. This can be a challenge when you have a large project that requires a switch to control all corridor loads across a building or when the plenum space is packed full of HVAC equipment or other obstructions. Below is a list of requirements for a wireless installation on a project in order for things to go smoothly and work:
- The project must allow for placement of wireless devices so that a clear path of wireless communication is available. Air is now your communication cable.
- The installing contractor must learn and understand the proper placement of devices and their limitations in order for the system to be successful. The more complex the project, the harder this task becomes.
- Most wireless systems focus primarily on 0–10V dimming protocols. Additional considerations and components are necessary to implement wireless into a project that contains a lot of decorative fixtures that use phase dimming.
- Communication protocols continue to be muddy, and there is still no industry-wide standardization or understanding of what is best.
- Security protocols for wireless systems are not necessarily less reliable, but they are new and sometimes not yet adopted or written into specifications, and therefore might not be accepted on projects that otherwise might seem like a good fit.
- Battery life on devices is still an item to consider. Most systems claim anywhere from 10–25 year mean battery life. However, few of these systems have been in operation this long, so these claims are not yet proven. Additionally, “mean” battery life means that half of the batteries installed will fail before this time. Facility owners need to have battery replacement protocols in place to ensure reliable operations.
The push forward with wireless controls continues, and systems are improving quickly. Although wireless may be easy to install, it does require a greater product knowledge than most wired alternatives and there will always be limiting factors that must be taken into account. Wired communications, in general, will always be more reliable than wireless communications. This is why WiFi has not completely replaced network cables in buildings. Wireless also has the additional maintenance of ongoing battery replacement. For the life of the facility, unless there is a specific need for wireless communications, wired solutions should still be considered.
MH currently carries two lines of wireless controls which offer both distributed and in-fixture control options for indoor and outdoor applications. If you have a project that may require a review of a wireless application, please feel free to reach out to our controls department for feedback.