Lighting Controls: Beyond a Flip of the Switch

Less than a decade ago, if the lights in the room suddenly turned off, your first thought would have been “power outage”. Today, the lights go out, and you mindlessly wave your hand over your head to get the occupancy sensor to recognize your existence and tell the lights to click back on.

This week, the Rebate Bus analysts have been diving deep into lighting controls, and we thought we’d give you a quick update on the lighting control industry, where it’s been, and where it’s headed (because, believe or not, it’s exciting!).

 

It all started back in the 1980s when a nationwide push to make commercial lighting more efficient prompted the invention of analog controls that allowed fluorescent ballasts and dimmers to be controlled from a central source – basically, the great-great-grandfather of the modern passive infrared sensor-controlled LED. Since then, a variety of factors have driven the development of lighting control technology including: dramatic improvements in lighting and sensor technology, decreased price of LEDs, increased concern for energy conservation (for both financial and environmental reasons), and more.

These days, when businesses are looking to cut energy costs with efficiency upgrades, lighting is seen as the first simple step, “low-hanging fruit”, allowing building owners to significantly reduce energy consumption with a relatively small investment – especially when you factor in the rebates available. Over the past few years, lighting control systems have become the increasingly common sidekick to LED retrofits, allowing for an even greater reduction (~70%) in lighting energy consumption. These control systems are also quickly making their way into green building certification programs and building codes.

According to the recent American Institute of Architects (AIA) Home Design Trends Study, which assessed the popularity of different home technologies, lighting controls have seen the highest leap of any technology in 2017 with 39% of architects saying it is growing in popularity, up from just 26% last year.

How is this trend being treated in the world of utility rebates?

We thought you’d never ask. The answer reflects a common theme in incentive programs – almost everyone is doing it differently, with a few recognizable patterns emerging. Some programs (AEP Ohio, Duke Energy, etc.) offer two separate incentives for the same lighting upgrade – one with controls and one without, valuing the controlled measure higher. Some programs (Mass Save) require that the installed lighting is compatible with control systems, while others (Central Hudson, Delmarva, PEPCO, etc.) require the use of controls in certain applications – most commonly stairwells. Still others (Focus on Energy) list lighting controls as separate measures for which incentives can be granted independently of any other efficiency upgrade. All in all, at present we’re seeing rapid advancement in technology accompanied by a varied reaction from utilities.

What does the future hold?

In terms of utility rebates, the our best guess is that as lighting control systems become more common, Focus on Energy’s model, treating controls as independent measures, will become the most feasible and most widely used. Incentives for controls will also continue to expand beyond lighting to advanced HVAC and other “smart building” features.

The future of the technology itself will follow a similar path, expanding beyond lighting to include a range of applications never before considered possible. One particularly exciting feature on the lighting controls horizon is Cree’s new SmartCast Technology. This technology pairs a variety of intelligent sensors embedded in light fixtures with cutting-edge electronics and software. These sensors not only tell the light to turn off when you leave the room or brighten when it’s cloudy outside, but they can be integrated with speaker modules, CO sensors, and the HVAC system. They can even be programmed to let others in the office space know whether the conference room is occupied. This valuable source of data enables the level of analytics that makes buildings truly “smart”.

So next time your lights cut out in the middle of an important call and you’re furiously flailing your arms around, take a second to remember that lighting controls are your energy-saving, cost-cutting friends, and their potential is only just starting to be unlocked.

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