Lighting’s Bright Spot

For years lighting controls have been marketed on convenience, security and the beauty they can create. Now, the green building movement places a spotlight on the energy-saving features of lighting controls, and provides builders and architects a fresh way of selling in a down market.

Of all the products in a new home, lighting control products might be the only ones designed specifically to save energy, not consume it. A dimmer switch here and an occupancy sensor there can result in substantial household energy savings of up to 20 percent, according to the California Energy Commission.

“In the past, from a manufacturer’s perspective, we weren’t telling people to put in lighting controls because they save energy,” says Gary Meshberg, business development manager, Lightolier Controls, and chairman of the Home Lighting Control Alliance. “But with rolling brownouts in California, rising oil prices, discussions of power grids, and so much attention on movies like ‘An Inconvenient Truth,’ energy has become the lead hook.

“We’ve all done a pretty bad job of getting the word out there,” Meshberg says, referring to manufacturers. “Now, through the Home Lighting Control Alliance, we’re battling the toggle switch. Dimmers save energy, save lamp life, and make rooms feel and look good, so why wouldn’t people put dimmers in their homes?”

Some lighting control manufacturers’ new goal is to make energy savings a pillar to support their products. “At a time when energy costs are soaring, you can save a considerable amount of energy. And there’s a feel-good aspect and social responsibility that comes with saving energy,” says Peter Hoagland, director, HLCA.

How Energy is Saved

A report by the California Energy Commission estimates lighting can represent up to 25 percent of a home’s energy bill. Such a big piece of pie deserves the attention lighting control can deliver.

Lighting control products can save energy in a variety of ways. Perhaps the most simple way is using a digital dimmer switch, Meshberg says. “Lighting controls in the past were rheostat-based, so the dimmer sucked any energy not directed to a lamp. Digital dimmers, however, deliver true energy savings. If you dim a lamp 50 percent, you will save about 40 percent of energy,” Meshberg explains.

“Another way to save energy with lighting controls is using timers,” Hoagland says. They can turn lights off so they’re not left on accidentally. A third way lighting control saves energy is through the use of vacancy sensors. A vacancy sensor turns lights on when people enter a space, and off when they leave. This also eliminates lights left on unwittingly, but it’s also a nice convenience.

One of the most compelling reasons people enjoy lighting control is the “All-off” button. Hitting it once assures a homeowner that all lights are turned off and eliminates all risk of leaving lights on and wasting energy.

Selling Lighting Control

Builders and architects can add advantage to their side by including lighting control in their homes. But selling lighting control, with all its benefits, isn’t always the slam dunk it might appear to be.

Multipurpose media/family rooms are the most asked-for rooms in custom homes, according to Residential Design & Build magazine’s 2008 Market Trends survey (April 2008, pg. 28). “Luckily for builders, you need lights for a home theater, which is a good way to introduce customers to lighting control. Year-on-year the home theater shows the greatest percentage increase in popularity,” Meshberg says.

“Not only is lighting control popular, it can be profitable,” Meshberg says. “The profits on media products such as flat-screen TVs have evaporated, so builders are looking for products that have more profit built in. Lighting control is a way you can do that,” he adds.

Home technology appears as No. 4 on RDB’s list of products that became more important to clients in 2007. But when home technology also appears as No. 4 on the list of products customers scale back on when budgets get tight, suddenly selling isn’t so easy.

“This is why a home theater or media room could be the doorway to more sales. Sometimes a consumer will start out with a home theater with lighting control used in that room,” Hoagland says, “and they’ll get so enraptured with it they realize they want it in the rest of their house.”

Incandescents’ Dim Future

The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 became federal law in December 2007, which put the United States on par with Canada, Europe and Australia in developing new lighting efficiency standards targeting today’s inefficient version of the incandescent light bulb. One of the many accomplishments of the act is establishing energy efficiency standards for general service incandescent lamps.

Today’s popular 40W-100W light bulbs will be eliminated by 2012

Beginning Jan. 1, 2012, all general-service incandescent lamps must meet certain efficiency and performance standards. This means popular 40- to 100-watt light bulbs as known today will be eliminated by that date, according to the law. Consumers will retain choice over their lighting, however, according to the Lighting Controls Association.

Light bulb manufacturers are developing technologies to meet the standards, including combination incandescent/halogen bulbs and new high-efficiency incandescent bulbs that will comply with the new standards. Dimmable LED lights also remain a possibility: The energy law creates a $10 million prize for an LED light bulb that can replace today’s 60-watt incandescent’s warm glow.

By carefully choosing light bulb replacements, consumers can continue enjoying the benefits of lighting controls, from single wall-box dimmers up to whole-house lighting control systems, without negative issues.

Compact fluorescent bulbs have received negative attention recently for their poor dimming qualities and mercury content. While the amount of mercury in each bulb is minor, Hoagland acknowledges the potential harm to landfills containing millions of CFL bulbs.

The dimming ability of CFLs could improve as technology advances, Hoagland continues. “Most CFLs on the market are not dimmable at all, and this leads to confusion and frustration for the consumer. Dimmable CFLs are just now coming on to the market though they are very expensive and have performed poorly in our tests. For use with lighting control systems, cost-effective dimmable CFLs would be welcome provided that they perform reasonably well,” he says.