Points of Light

For many homeowners, the lights are something of an afterthought. They go on and off. There’s a good chance the lighting control devices in their homes are pretty much the same as those in the homes of their parents and their grandparents before them: the light switch.

But in an age where smart technology is intertwined with every part of daily life and there is an app for everything, why should something as vital to our lifestyles as internal illumination be left to what is essentially 19th century technology? Lighting control systems have long been part of the equation in commercial spaces and, as the technology becomes more available and affordable,these systems are starting to move into homes, as well.

“Lighting is the last thing that has entered the digital age, and it’s been kind of slow because ‘hey, it’s a light. Turn it on,’ ” quips Avraham Mor, IALD, partner with Lighswitch Architectural in Chicago. “Electricity and the light bulb are pretty old. It’s an analog technology. But things like LED and integrated controls systems are bringing lighting into the digital age.”


The basic idea of lighting control and creating particular indoor environments through measured illumination has been around for some time. “Lighting controls have been in homes since the 1960s, when Lutron founder Joel Spira invented the solid state dimmer,” explains Rich Black, director of residential product management and business development at Coopersburg, Pa.-based Lutron. “At that time, the most common place for a dimmer was the dining room. Since then, homeowners have come to enjoy dimmers in every room of their homes, not only for the ambiance that dimmed lighting creates, but also because of its ability to save energy and make light bulbs last longer.”

Home dimmers may have been the genesis of lighting control, but the technology grew up and came of age in commercial settings. Things like timers, motion and occupancy sensors were useful in commercial settings and today offices commonly employ full-scale lighting control systems.

“Many lighting control products are designed specifically for either the commercial or residential market, though the principles of operation are typically the same,” explains Craig DiLouie, LC, education director for the Rosslyn, Va.-based Lighting Controls Association. “Automatic control for energy savings is the main driver in the commercial market, while manual control for ambiance and convenience is the main driver in the residential market. The residential market is also dominated by incandescent light sources. As such, integration with home automation systems, color tuning, ability to control lighting with smartphones and tablets, compatibility of incandescent dimmers with new light sources such as CFL and LED and other demand issues are stronger in residential than commercial applications. That being said, often technology developed for one market may translate to strong development in another. This happened with wireless, for which residential initially proved a stronger application.”

More or Less Control?

With increasingly sophisticated and smart control systems becoming available for homes of all kinds, will the trend be toward sensors that handle lighting decisions automatically, or toward creating more control for the user? There are different schools of thought about the matter.

“The most common trend is motion sensors, internally and externally,” says Steve Brown, IALD, MIES, design director at NDYLIGHT in Melbourne, Australia. “However, you have to be careful about how you specify sensors. They are best used in frequently unoccupied spaces such as storerooms. Daylight sensors haven’t made big inroads yet into the residential market; however, given that most manufacturers are now producing combined motion and daylight sensors at a reasonable price, I would expect this to change in the coming years.”

With an eye to energy savings, Black echoes the trend toward sensors. “Often, lights are inadvertently left on in unoccupied rooms, wasting tons of energy and running up electric bills,” he says. “An occupancy sensor, which turns lights on when you enter a room, leaves them on while you’re in the room and turns them off when you leave, is a great energy saver. Typical savings from one sensor is around $10 per year.”

Mor, however, has encountered little need or demand for residential sensors. “I haven’t seen sensors in a lot of homes because people want to be able to turn their lights on and off,” he says. “In a couple projects we’ve been on, we’ve mentioned occupancy sensors and clients say, ‘why?’ What we are seeing with smartphone and tablet apps is that you can turn the lights on and off from outside the home or even outside the country. You can log into your house and turn the lights on and off.”

An App for That

People are growing increasingly accustomed to monitoring and coordinating most elements of their lives with their smartphones or tablets. The idea of controlling different aspects of a home with one simple interface doesn’t seem like science fiction anymore. In fact, it’s already here. “Homeowners are more tech savvy these days and rely on smartphones to make their lives more convenient,” Black says. “Apps give homeowners access to their homes from an iOS or Android device, allowing them to turn on lights and adjust the temperature prior to arriving home.”

The capability certainly exists, though there is plenty of room for refinement and improvement. “I have a wireless lighting system in my house that I can control from my smartphone or tablet,” Mor explains. “What I can’t do is connect my refrigerator to the system because the refrigerator’s manufacturer has its own proprietary system, which is different from my TV’s proprietary system, which is different from my lighting’s proprietary system. You can use a home automation system to integrate everything, but there isn’t yet an off-the-shelf, poor man’s way to connect it all together.”

Easily integrated controls may not be easy to come by now, but look for demand to drive it to the market in the near future. “I think wireless control technology will continue to grow in popularity,” Black predicts. “Homeowners are exposed to the concept of home automation almost daily and are becoming more knowledgeable and inquisitive about the possibilities. As demand for these products grows, so will the lighting control market.”

“We’re living in a proprietary world right now, but someone is going to take control, just like VHS took control over Betamax, and Blu-ray won out over HD DVD,” Mor says. “We’re seeing the housing market come back, which will drive this technology to the next level. But right now it’s kind of the wild, wild west, so when you’re deciding on lighting and lighting controls, the best thing to do is get in touch with a lighting designer to help get through what you want to do. It’s worth the consultation fee before you put the drywall on the wall.”

“As new home sales remain flat in comparison to the booming home remodeling market, the need for wireless lighting controls is greater than ever,” Black says. “In a wireless, RF lighting control system, devices such as dimmer switches and sensors communicate with each other, system remote controls and third-party devices via a wireless radio signal. By comparison, in a hardwired lighting control system, devices communicate with each other via low-voltage communication wire. Because they can be installed without rewiring or tearing apart the walls, wireless lighting control systems are commonly used in existing homes.”

The Future

So what can remodelers and homeowners look forward to in the realm of lighting controls? Quite a bit. The technology looks to be on the doorstep of a quantum leap in both functionality and availability. This means improvements in existing lighting control concepts and also some brand-new ideas.

“There is a trend toward natural light control, which is the use of motorized window shades,” Black says. “Remote-controlled window treatments protect flooring, furnishings and artwork from harmful UV rays and are useful for hard-to-reach windows. Another fairly new trend is integrating light, shade and temperature controls with a home security system.”

“There is a technology being used in commercial applications that I see coming down the pipeline for residential. It’s a protocol called DALI, which is Digital Addressable Lighting Interface,” Mor explains. “What’s really cool about this is that the light fixture becomes a smart device. You can talk to each light fixture independently. If you had your kitchen set up with six down lights, two over the countertop and four general lights, and you decided you wanted to put a breakfast table under one of those, you can go into the software and dim that one light differently than the rest without any rewiring. It also offers features that tell you how much power you’re using at any given time and even how much energy a particular light fixture is using at a given time. It’s putting smart technology into the fixtures.”

These concepts, as well as control systems already available in homes, offer a greater degree of illumination management and can deliver incredible energy savings, as well. A simple dimmer can save a good amount of energy, so imagine what today’s high-tech control systems deliver. Although that is a compelling reason to explore lighting control, the most common motivator is something much more basic.

“The primary driver for lighting controls in the residential market is lifestyle enhancement,” DiLouie explains. “When dimming, a homeowner can set a mood, effect a visual scene or establish good visual conditions for tasks such as home theater viewing. If the lighting is layered, with each layer separately controllable, dimming can be used to produce a wide variety of scenes to support different functions of a space.

“That being said, energy savings is a strong byproduct of dimming for visual needs. It has been demonstrated to produce an average 20 percent energy savings. As more homeowners go green, we will see more control functionality introduced into home spaces.”

Allen Barry writes about remodeling and construction from Chicago.