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Building Lighting Controls: Strategies for Taming the Wild West

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On the eve of Lightfair, the largest lighting show in the United States, it seems fitting to draw attention to a brewing storm that threatens the next great opportunity for deep energy conservation in commercial buildings: networked lighting controls. Over the last three years, the networked lighting controls industry has witnessed explosive innovation. Networked controls place the operation of building lighting under a multitude of sensors and a facility-wide automation computer. The technology is a leap beyond simple occupancy sensors that replace wall switches. Some of the new capabilities include knowing when to dim lights to capitalize on sunlight and the ability to schedule heating and cooling based on lighting motion sensors.

The Wild West

Unfortunately, the path of innovation in networked lighting controls is starting to mirror the progression that has plagued the heating ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) controls industry over the last 20 years. Manufacturers are largely going it alone with a notion that technological innovation is going to equate to market dominance. While it is true that a number of firms are adapting the same communication and technology standards into their offerings, as the HVAC controls industry has demonstrated, just using the same standards in products does not ensure that when Company X’s equipment is used on the 1stfloor of a building and Company Y’s on the second, the communication is seamless. The true test of integration, usability post the software updates, is sure to create headaches within the growing field of competing platforms. As a recent occurrence at a Boston sports venue highlights, proper operation and ease of use of lighting controls goes well beyond energy savings. Having lights shutting off in a gym during a javelin competition is a wakeup reminder of the critical importance of lighting.

The 3 Elements That Drive Savings

As California is learning first hand with Title 24 – Energy Code implementation, the subtleties of how modern systems are installed and configured has a dramatic impact on the achieved savings. For example, the yield from properly harvesting daylight as the sun traverses a building each day and optimally setting how quickly fixtures turn off at the conclusion of evening cleaning rapidly builds over time. Ten fewer minutes of on-time each day for 1,000 light fixtures results in dramatic savings over a year. Reaping the benefits of this ten minutes requires extra effort during installation and can involve multiple return visits to align systems with unique building attributes. Too often, specifications and bid reviews overlook the benefits of this added effort in determining the realized savings.

Another challenge with these systems relates to the economic reality of their cost structure. The annual savings associated with controlling individual fixtures is small. In comparison, the expense for factory trained service is high. Over time, this imbalance can strip away the savings from the systems. As walls are moved and space use is changed, limited budgets often do not include the funding required to reconfigure lighting controls. The economic reality is that energy savings from reprogramming six fixtures will never pay for factory service. With this in mind, long-term efficiency rests heavily on the training of in-house facility staff and local contractors. After-hours visits to sites to facilities with poorly trained users too often reveal a scattering of fixtures that are overridden in the on setting.

The final point of consideration is that, in today’s competitive real estate industry, it is routine for maintenance staff to manage five or more buildings. Stretched thin, complex technology is becoming the bane of personnel. Navigating five buildings with three different lighting control interfaces is like trying to produce a single document while evenly splitting time between Mac, PC and Linux operating platforms. The lack of commonalities between lighting systems is becoming a near guarantee of poor long-term energy performance across portfolios of buildings.

This Time is Different

Lighting control manufacturers are introducing products into a new paradigm: interval analytics. Interval analytics, or software that tracks smart meter electrical data, has the ability to cost effectively assess the real world savings of actual controls installations. A number of companies, including C3 Energy, First Fuel and Retroficiency, are making strides in identifying buildings that are promising candidates for lighting upgrades and evaluating the savings of systems post installation. It is difficult to underestimate the power of this new offering. Applied across hundreds of buildings, interval analytics promises a statistical analysis of equipment’s actual performance. In the new world of analytics, manufacturer’s published data is just sales literature; building owners are increasingly able to evaluate the offerings of manufacturers, based on actual installed performance.

A Better Contracting Model

The prevailing bid practices of the real estate industry are one of the principle contributors to missed energy savings from complex building systems. For most companies, awarding projects is about low initial or first time costs. Too often, cutthroat bidding necessitates that vendors hold strong on only delivering the minimum contract specifications. Similarly, heavy cost pressures encourage vendor practices that intend to recover from tight margins or even installation losses by charging high service rates once other vendors have been locked out by conflicting technologies. As noted, this practice is at odds with the savings economics of lighting controls.

A new model offers both competitive pricing and better performance. Under the revised approach, hardware and installation labor are bid independently. Requests for proposals stipulate quoting the fixed costs for components over a reasonable period of time. To be effective, these cost guarantees need to be locked in for a minimum of five years. On the installation and labor side of contracts, it is essential that multiple local contractors be available to assist with the installation, service and upgrades. To facilitate this need, bid details include requirements for local certified vendors. An added benefit of this stipulation is that the factory pays to train local talent. Finally, upfront requirements ensure that getting service does not necessitate paying for travel from three states away.


Next Steps


It is likely that companies and organizations that own large portfolios of buildings are the key to directing the lighting controls industry. Through updated bid practices and an increased concentration on tracking the real world performance of installed systems, the heavyweights of the real estate world can maximize savings at their sites and encourage changes that will benefit the entire building community.

Matt Conway's picture

Thank Matt for the Post!

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