Intelligent Light Control

According to the Energy Conservation Enhancement Project at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, 20 percent of all electricity produced in the U.S. is used for lighting, but 50 percent of that electricity is wasted by inefficient lighting sources or careless consumers. Lighting-control systems, which long have been utilized in commercial buildings, have become affordable for the average homeowner. And today’s wireless lighting-control systems make installation easy and practical for renovators.

Wired vs. Wireless

There are two types of lighting-control systems: wired and wireless. Both types promote dimming as the source of energy conservation. The Energy Conservation Enhancement Project notes dimming lights by 10 percent uses 10 percent less energy compared to lights at full brightness, and dimming them by 50 percent uses 40 percent less energy.

In small increments, dimmed lights are barely noticeable to the human eye. “The basic principle is that because of the sensitivity of the retina, you don’t perceive the dimmer light, so you can dim the lights, save energy and not feel like your room has darkened,” says Jeremy Kleinberg, product manager for Lutron Electronics Inc., Coopersburg, Pa.

A traditional wired lighting-control system typically involves installing keypads for each light fixture in the home with a main controller that is programmed to automatically manage all of the home’s lights. A wired system is recommended for new construction rather than retrofit projects because it requires installation of an intricate wiring system that is invasive when walls already exist.

In contrast, wireless systems involve the installation of thin, stick-on keypads and dimmers that replace wall switches and control modules installed into each light fixture. These keypads then communicate to lighting modules throughout the house via radio signals, much like a television remote. A home can have as few or as many keypads as the homeowner desires, and each keypad can control any light in the house. Many wireless systems also include remote-control capabilities via handheld devices.

“I advise looking at wireless carefully,” says Terry McGowan, director of engineering and technology for the Dallas-based American Lighting Association. “In an older home, you want to minimize wall damage, and wireless is the way to make the install economical and safe.”

“Because no wiring is required between the controls and the light fixtures, retrofitters don’t have to deal with fishing wires through walls and ceilings,” adds Bob Eckery, director of business development for EnOcean GmbH, Boston. “Wireless installations are far less invasive than comparable wired solutions because installers do not have to cut into walls nor worry about running power throughout the home.”

Wireless Benefits

Many manufacturers offer the ability to begin with a small wireless lighting-control system and build on it as needed to create a more encompassing solution. Starting with one room and expanding as needs change can be a cost-effective consideration for budget-conscious homeowners.

“The performance of wireless is the same as traditional wired solutions, except it offers additional features that home buyers are not accustomed to,” Eckery adds. “For the same cost of a wired system, wireless is a gateway to fun bells and whistles that are costly to achieve in a purely wired world.”

In addition to the dimming capability standard in all lighting-control systems, wireless systems offer occupancy sensors. These sensors dim or turn off lights when rooms are left unoccupied and turn them back on when someone enters. The occupancy sensor operates on low-frequency sound waves that sense movement in an area. The user chooses a time delay and then the sensor turns off lights if movement has not been detected for the specified time. Available motion detectors can gently ramp up lighting to guide a late-night trip through the house. And, instead of an alarm clock, lighting can be programmed to come on in the morning to gently wake a homeowner.

The wireless daylighting feature allows homeowners to adjust electric-light-output levels in areas near windows or under skylights to leverage natural light. The daylighting feature is designed to allow the homeowner to maintain optimal lighting levels while reducing energy consumption. Systems with astronomical clock timers can be set to the turn the light on or off at precisely sunrise or sunset each day.

Some manufacturers offer the ability to control the lighting system with smart-phone applications. The downloaded app shows an illustration of the lighting system, and the user can adjust the home’s lights remotely from nearly anywhere in the world.

Wired and wireless systems can be "zoned" to pre-programmed lighting levels, or scenes, for different situations. Creating a scene allows the user to set a number of dimming options in which lights in a particular zone will be set to various levels for security needs and aesthetic preferences. For example, setting a “vacation” scene can set lights to turn on and off in specific or staggered patterns to deter burglars. 

Lighting-control systems also offer security in emergency situations. In the potential event of a home invasion, all lights in the house can be turned on instantly to ward off intruders. Exterior lights can be set to flash on and off so emergency vehicles can locate the home.

Lighting-control systems offer a vast number of settings to increase homeowner comfort, security and energy savings. “It saves only as much as the homeowner chooses to use the product’s myriad features,” explains Jay Sherman, director of marketing, Residential Products, for Melville, N.Y.-based Leviton Manufacturing Co. Inc. “If a homeowner uses the product as it is intended to be used, he or she can enjoy considerable savings.”