Rob Walker of Lighting Controls Ltd takes a look back at the early days of lighting control, and ahead to its bright future.
From a user perspective, the transition from mechanical switch to high-tech went moderately smoothly. Compared to the early days of the PC, when copious volumes of hair were removed and paper wasted as users tried to resolve the battle between printer and computer, the introduction of networking protocols such as DALI went relatively smoothly... from the perspective of the user, anyhow.
That was less true for installers. Used to the interconnection of traditional analogue wiring harnesses, network-based lighting control systems were sometimes challenging. In a similar way to old-school telephone engineers transitioning to the resolution of internet ‘issues’, the problem was not so much to do with competence but with the introduction of a new way of thinking; a way of thinking that included the control of lighting zones along with a host of new capabilities, limitations and innovations.
These innovations have tended to fall into four categories:
1. Innovations that improve the ‘fit’ between the technology and the environments into which it is destined to be installed
2. Increasing ease of installation and reducing the costs of commissioning and ownership
3. Improving the ease and flexibility of the user experience
4. Reducing the intrusive nature of the new technology (particularly when retrofitted into older buildings).
Improving the ‘fit’
Early, DALI-based lighting control systems coped well with simple, one storey, self-contained installations. Such installations had no need for computer (head-end) control or to interface with other management systems. However, they did not cater for many environments.
A new or refurbished office or industrial building, for instance, with one landlord and several storeys that may be leased to different tenants, with common areas, perhaps including the carpark, is a frequently typical environment requiring lighting control systems. This scenario presents challenges to many traditional systems. For instance, a lighting control system requires completion for a whole building (the CAT A fit out), which is sufficiently versatile for future leased spaces to be controlled independently.
However, a landlord’s responsibilities, although they may vary according to use, invariably do not end with ensuring common areas are well lit. For example, to be fully protected, the landlord may need to ensure that emergency lighting checks are carried out and documented in a timely fashion throughout the whole building. On the other hand, tenants will not feel comfortable with the landlord having control over the lighting programming in leased spaces. There may also be times when a tenant needs certain common areas to be lit outside normal business hours; a sales conference may need ground floor corridors and the carpark lit during a particular weekend, for instance.
Enter computer control
Computer, or head end, control of the DALI network has been with us for some time, but is only now sufficiently versatile to address the above problems in such a way as not to require a PhD in computer science to programme and operate! This advance has been achieved in a number of ways. First, more user-friendly programming enables the use of a tablet or smart phone so that the person making the adjustment can actually be in the area for which the programming is being adjusted. In other words, it’s ‘Plug‘n’Play’; you can see what you are doing as you are doing it.
The second way in which simplicity of use has joined forces with sophistication of control is by divesting control away from a central computer, by, for instance giving area-controllers computing power. This enables an authorised user in a particular area to easily adjust lighting programming in that area without having access to a central head-end control system.
Ease of installation
Several relatively small innovations have had quite a dramatic impact on saving time and money. The latest area controllers, for instance, allow for the testing of area lighting and DALI strings immediately after the network wiring is completed. This enables a building’s lighting to be functional before a fitout is completed, saving time and pre-commissioning costs.
Another example of time saving innovation is in the assignment of DALI addresses to luminaires. This can now be done after installation with a handheld device using Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. This increases versatility and can make an installation easier and quicker.
Cost of ownership
Having a computer-based control network enables remote diagnosis in case of a problem. Savings in time and money resulting from this can be dramatic. Also, if there is a faulty component – a lighting control module, for instance – an innovation such as a replaceable memory module can make installation of a new module trivial.
Keeping technology discreet
To those that take pride in, and win prizes for, designing the spaces in which we work, technology is not always their friend. Whether new build or refurbishing a listed building, keeping technology discreet is a priority. Thankfully several evolutionary innovations have helped this cause.
For instance, older style motion sensors can be replaced by much smaller PIRs some of which can be almost invisible when mounted within a luminaire. There are also ultra- slimline switch interfaces that can enable architectural switches to be interfaced with the DALI network, dramatically simplifying the task of updating older buildings during refurbishment.
Considerable progress has been made, in the past couple of years particularly, regarding making the customer interface more user-friendly, reducing the cost of installation and ownership, and ensuring increasing the compatibility with other building management and building automation systems. This trend can only continue.