homethings i wish i knew

Things I wish I knew

By Nikos Pallasidis
06 December 2023

Portfolio Manager - Lighting

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While undertaking the annual task of getting the Christmas lights to work at home, our Smart Lighting Systems Portfolio Manager Nikos was also thinking about the wider considerations of Connected Lighting control.

It was a lovely Sunday evening a couple of years back when I proudly presented to my family the latest addition of technology to our home.

It all started with Christmas lights and LED modules; the excuse was the unreliability of the time-clocks but the real reason was that internal itching sensation every time I read about some new wireless technology for homes or witnessed the marvel of the countless gadgets for modern home automation.

After a weekend of tinkering in the garage, the old-school time clocks were out and replaced by modern electronic switches, drivers and wireless connectivity. The old T5s in the fish tank were ostracised by a pair of waterproof LED boards, and a safer, low-voltage box, was hosted in the fish tank’s electronics compartment. The fish would have their own sunrises and sunsets, powered by modern lighting control technology, although I could not really tell if they were happier or not; I surely hoped so…

A similar process was controlling some ambient lighting in various places around the house and things were looking and behaving as they should. Controlling was pretty easy, as long as you had a device with the respective app, smartphone or tablet. Of course, there were the occasional hiccups as I was messing around with the system and after a “firmware update” I was eventually reminded for one more time that “backup is your friend”, albeit a bit too late. Nevertheless, the whole setup kept growing, with other smart devices joining the family, humidity sensors, CO2 and CO detectors, smart plugs, cameras, doorbells and other useful or not-so-useful gadgets.

Now, most of them were pretty easy to set up, for anyone with elementary IT knowledge and the quick setup guide. Some others, not so much, and I had to start messing around with things I normally wouldn’t, with the occasional disruption; trying to explain to a disgruntled teenager that the internet went temporarily down because I had to pair a new wireless socket, was not met with wholehearted understanding. Also, as is the case with pretty much any electronic device today, every single one of them was accompanied by one more app, one more account to set up, driving the complexity indicator one degree higher.

Now, trying to use a bunch of apps to switch lights on or off, might have worked in a large-scale installation, but it is certainly not the quickest way for a typical home. Trying to show the difference between two similar apps to an already agitated partner is not an easy task either. So the decision was made, voice assistants would solve these problems and bring things together!

One can see where this is going; and this scenario, unfortunately, is not that uncommon:

  1. A specific technical solution is used to solve one problem or at least a part of it, because “it was used at location x and it was fine”.
  2. A few months later another one is added as “we encountered some very specific issues”. It may or may not necessarily communicate with the already installed one, but it does not matter as it is used for a different system in the building.
  3. A third system is brought in to “mitigate unforeseen circumstances” but certain interfacing devices have to be used as there is no direct connectivity or compatibility with the previous ones.
  4. The energy bills indicate that the installed systems are not operating optimally or even working against each other due to a lack of communication. Another system is considered to bridge the already installed ones and allow for a more organised and efficient approach.
  5. The person trained for the previous systems leaves/gets retired/goes for a 3-year camping trip to Tibet and there is no one else to manage the systems. The OEM manuals are locked away to prevent getting lost, but no one remembers where the safe place is.

All the above may not have to happen in the same order or at the same place, but they are more common than one would think.

Some aspects have indeed been intentionally exaggerated but I have encountered more than enough buildings that share a similar, troubled history. Unsurprisingly, the common denominator in many cases is lighting control.

For a long time, lighting control was typically the last system considered in a building, too often as an entity of its own. This treatment of lighting control in isolation was certainly the spark for some very creative ideas, with all the positives and negatives that unlimited creativity pertains to. Some brilliant solutions came up as well as quite a few half-baked solutions with seriously underperforming systems.

The cherry on top of the cake was typically interfacing with a different system. This might not have been a big thing or not even a consideration when many lighting control systems were first conceived, especially as they were operating in their own, closed environment. However, as soon as the Smart Building started emerging, lighting could not and should not remain a separate entity. There simply is too much synergy with the other systems that are tasked with the operation of a building; from HVAC operations to energy distribution and monitoring; they can all benefit from the input of data, acquired via the lighting control system. Hence the new term which describes lighting controls in a much more concise way: Connected Lighting.

Connected lighting is considered an advanced system where luminaires, apart from the traditional control methods, are capable of communicating with other systems and acquiring and exchanging data not necessarily related to lighting. Analysing the essence of Connected lighting deserves much more time and space and cannot be simply done in a couple of paragraphs without massively understating its potential.

It can do so much more than traditional lighting control, that it requires a significant amount of thought and design prior to implementation. It is not just a mundane, everyday task, which can be easily changed or fixed tomorrow. Several aspects need to be considered before decisions are made; Scalability, the type of information we would like to get from it, the connectivity options with other systems, standards that it has to comply with, its usability, the potential for gradual upgrades, the embedded security, the capability of firmware and software upgrades.

One might think that all this seems unnecessarily complicated, and it may be true for basic applications. Nevertheless, when the choice needs to be made for a lighting control system, we need to pay much attention to the user’s needs, not only for today but also for future requirements. It may be a big investment depending on the case, but when done right, it can have such a great and positive impact on quality of life and energy efficiency, in ways that we could not even think about before.

As an endnote, yes, all my connected house devices now “talk” to each other. The added convenience is now considered normal, and a simple, unified interface has replaced a whole lot of apps. There may still be things happening in the background but my family does not need to know about them; all they need is a simple way to control and adjust their lights, temperature or ambience in a room, easily and quickly.

Who said that lighting control is complicated?

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(And good luck with the tree lights)