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Connected Lighting - Beyond the Obvious

By Nikos Pallasidis
10 January 2024

Portfolio Manager - Lighting

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There are times when we encounter a physical item that can trigger an emotional reaction in us, which may have nothing to do with its original purpose. It may range from total dismay to joyfulness or from mild contend to fury; the common factor is that it has nothing to do with what this item was originally designed for. I have such an item too which, whenever I use it, I feel admiration and respect, not so much for the item itself but for the people involved in its conception and making.

It is a humble, floor-standing fan. In pastel green colour, typical of the 60s, built as a tank, is sitting atop a heavy metallic base with interlocking wheels and just two rotary switches on its body. The aluminium label reads “Made in Japan by” -insert a well-known Japanese brand- in 1971.

It has been operating for more than half a century, several hours a day for 4-5 months per year, in hot Mediterranean summers. Every flick of the switch is followed by a gentle purr of the fan, regardless of the speed setting. No squeaks, no hesitations, no vibrations. Not even the wires show any signs of ageing! A perfectly balanced machine, poised to outlast our civilisation (well, some of it).

Which inevitably, brings questions in mind and comparisons with some of its “descendants” of today. Yet, how fair would this comparison be? A modern equivalent could have temperature sensors, app control, connectivity with other systems, and air quality sensors; we can even find fans with activated carbon filters, removing harmful chemical substances from the air or notifying us if there is a health hazard. So, yes, both devices would push air, but apart from that, not many other things in common. It reminds me of discussions with old friends of mine about the good old days, when we could service our cars ourselves, of mechanical carburettors and manually adjusted distributors. However, once we remove the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia we start noticing the big and small differences. Air quality was not a big thing for houses, we were even handling asbestos with naked hands and without masks. You did not need a remote control to turn the fan on and off – when I was younger, that role was ceremoniously assigned to me by my parents... Fuel efficiency was not a top priority and pollution was considered just a minor side effect for the majority of people. This era has long gone and the ignorance of yesterday has no place in today’s world. Modern devices and appliances have capabilities that would have looked and sounded almost magical a few decades ago. Information is available at our fingertips, we just need to know where to look. Best of all, it does not even need to be a niche, super expensive device. These options are already built into many everyday items, and luminaires are one prime example of this.

I remember very clearly a case where a fitting on top of a mast in a car park, kept failing consistently every 1-2 months. It would be replaced, and operate for a while only to fail again. Power was found to be okay, with no water, no damage, just a periodic failure on every luminaire that replaced the old one. As this was done over warranty, the first couple of times was just a minor annoyance, but as a pattern emerged it became apparent that there was something more than a random component failure. This is where the intelligence of modern lighting makes a difference. Information can be gathered during operation and stored within the device. A suitable control system can read this information, live or later, sometimes even after the device has stopped operating, and provide valuable insights. In this particular case, we made the shocking discovery (pun intended...) that the luminaire’s power supply (also called “driver”) was switched on and off about 3000 times per day. The switching was too fast to be visible with naked eye, or spotted when measuring the voltage, but it was nevertheless registered in the driver’s memory. The driver itself was rated for 100000 total switching cycles, with only one switching expected per day. The result? The driver simply kept dying from over-switching. The culprit was a loose connection at the fuse box at the bottom of the mast, nothing to do with the fitting itself. Just a tiny screw, incurring costs of thousands of pounds, man hours lost, site disruption, customer relations and reputation endangered. The only thing required was knowing where to look. Finding a broken wiring connection is relatively easy, in some cases, it can even be visually identified; finding a loose connection though, can take days.

If we consider cases like this on a much larger scale, like a university, a hospital or a train station, the complexity grows exponentially and so does the difficulty of spotting the problem. Modern lighting control systems can help in ways not considered before.

Connected Lighting is not just about lighting control; dimming and switching are certainly there but the true power lies within the information gathered and the possibilities it uncovers through analytics and integration with other systems. One might argue that this is not necessarily new and that there have been cases where similar options and capabilities were already available. Indeed, there were solutions and systems that offered functionality beyond lighting control but it was rather a niche feature than a fully utilised aspect of the system. The big difference today is that there has been a lot of standardisation. From the way information is stored inside the luminaire and made accessible, to the connectivity options with other building management systems. There are now well-defined standards and methods that facilitate the transition from isolated control systems to unified Building Management Services.

Once we have access to this pool of data, a whole new world of understanding, trends and insights opens up. With the modern analytics engines, what would appear to be a bunch of numbers on a spreadsheet, can now be pieced together as qualitative and quantitative data. Graphical representation gives meaning to abstract ideas and concepts, enhancing the understanding of past events but also enabling proactive strategies and preventive actions.

British mathematician Clive Humby said in 2006,

Data is the new oil

Clive Humby (1)

(1) https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/dcs/people/academic-visitors/clive-humby#:~:text=In%202006%2C%20he%20coined%20the,useful%20to%20drive%20business%20innovation

In the last decade with the integration of microprocessors and smart technology, we became able to harvest huge amounts of data. This information can now be filtered, nicely packaged, sorted and ready for use. We just need to know where and how to look for what really matters.

Our next Decarbonising Buildings Webinar is on the importance of data structure when integrating building systems.