Craig DiLouie, LC, CLCP, recently had the pleasure of interviewing Jamie Britnell, Senior Product Manager, Synapse Wireless, Inc. about lighting control software for articles for ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR and tED. The interview is published below.
DiLouie: What types of software are available to support commissioning and operation of networked lighting control systems?
Britnell: Commissioning and day-to-day operation are two very different ways that people interact with a lighting control system. Because they are distinct events and have different goals, the people who are commissioning the system are not very likely to be the same people who are using and maintaining the system daily. This creates more demand on the software to effectively and efficiently support these two distinct activities.
This is especially true for large installations, where the workflow for commissioning involves critical details. For instance, a technician will add lights to the management lighting solution, configure the lights into zones, set up schedules, etc. – each piece is very important and can often times be very challenging. However, with the right software tools, these tasks are made much easier. One of the important aspects of the software capability is to streamline commissioning activities, making it easier to add lighting controllers to the lighting management system. Depending on the installation, a number of different methods may be used, which is why the software should be adaptable to support a various methods, enabling the commissioning technician to choose the best method for the location.
Robust commissioning software will support manual entry of MAC IDs for individual lighting addressing or bulk uploading of information via a CSV file, as these are traditional ways to merge this information into the system.
At times, another method, such as auto-discovery of nodes, may be necessary. A technician often takes this approach when the MAC IDs of the individual lighting controllers may be unknown due to enclosure within the pole or luminaire housing on-site.
Additionally, stand-alone, mobile-friendly apps could be used for commissioning activities. These apps can be designed to scan the unique bar codes or QR codes that are on the lighting controllers to get the MAC ID and device information, and can even be utilized to pull GPS information if the proper mobile device is being utilized.
For day-to-day operation, it’s important for the networked lighting solution to meet the users where they are. There really isn’t a one-size-fits-all software package for a networked lighting controls solution because there are so many use-cases that need to be supported.
In general, however, the software for operations tends to be architected and deployed in two major different ways. First, a site-based lighting control system that doesn’t require a connection to the Internet. Secondly, a cloud-hosted solution that enables greater scalability and application support.
For the users that are interacting with this solution, there are many different solutions on the market today. Traditionally, site-based options required a powerful server on site where the user was required to interact with the server through a single hard-wired terminal interface. Today, some of this functionality is being embedded directly into low-cost site controllers that host a web interface supporting responsive design enabling multiple web-enabled mobile devices, such as smart phones and tables, to fully operate the lighting solution.
DiLouie: What role does software play in commissioning a networked control system? What should electrical contractors and distributors be looking for in good commissioning capability in software?
Britnell: Software must play an important role in this stage of the installation.
Some of these items were addressed in the previous question, but to put a finer point on it, there are many items that assist with streamlining the commissioning activities and making it easier and quicker for the technician to do his or her job.
When looking for commissioning capability in software, there are some fundamental things a technician should look for: How does the solution reduce complexity of adding devices to the network? What kind of feedback and customization is available through the workflow of adding lights to the network?
Complexity of the solution can be minimized through automated discovery of lighting controllers. Because lighting controllers must be individually addressed, they each will come with their own MAC ID. This MAC ID must be programmed into the lighting control solution. Historically, this has been a manual process oftentimes fraught with error. These are numbers that you do not want to type in manually for a large number of lights! New systems support auto-discovery where the solution will poll the network for unconfigured devices and automatically bring them online within the system. This helps to streamline operations, while providing a fallback mechanism if the MAC IDs were misplaced during installation.
Feedback within the software is also a critical capability when commissioning a network. One question to ask is, “Does the workflow provide feedback and allow the commissioning technician to easily modify the system as lights are being added?”
DiLouie: What role does software play in operating a networked lighting control system? What should electrical contractors and distributors be looking for in good operating software?
Britnell: Some of this was addressed earlier, but there are probably two different aspects of the software that should be considered with operating a lighting control solution.
First, the software should “stay out of the way” of the user. Meaning the regular, day-to-day user should not have to battle with the software running the lighting network. If the system was commissioned properly in the beginning and the software running the solution is reliable, the user may never actually need to log in to the system to modify things.
Second, when a user does need to utilize the UI of the solution to modify a configuration, the system should be designed in such a way to help the user to quickly solve his problem. That may mean supporting multiple access methods. A user may need to remotely access the system across the internet, for example. Or, if local, the solution may need to support wi-fi access or utilize the facility network for connectivity. When connected, a responsive web-based design is the most flexible. This allows the user to connect from any device (phone, tablet, MAC/PC) instead of having to log in to a dedicated terminal to make changes.
DiLouie: In detail, what are typical capabilities for this software, and what would be considered more advanced capabilities?
Britnell: Essential elements of a lighting control system are of course on/off/dim, zones, scheduling, and the integration of switches and sensors. Also, many areas require compliance with strict energy codes. Therefore, to be considered in these regions the solution must support energy-savings strategies such as daylight harvesting, high-end trim, and task tuning.
Advanced capabilities of the solution may include tracking energy usage, including report generation, for long periods of time. Specialized capabilities are emerging in certain niches as well. Those include color tuning and color temperature tuning. These use-cases are being primarily driven in horticultural application, sports venues, and multi-use facilities.
DiLouie: How has networked control system software advanced in recent years? What new capabilities are available, and what problems are being solved?
Britnell: The biggest changes in network lighting control system has centered on the additional applications being supported beyond just the basic lighting requirements of on/off/dim, zones, and schedules. With Title 24, ASHRAE 90.1-2016, DLC NLC 2.0 requirements, advanced energy-savings strategies are being implemented within the lighting control software. By supporting daylighting harvesting, task tuning, demand response, and other strategies, end-users can reduce their facilities energy footprint, lower energy costs, and comply with increasingly stringent energy codes.
Furthermore, additional applications outside the lighting network are being added to the lighting control solution. You are finding integration with BMS systems becoming more commonplace. Also, as IoT gains traction in certain areas where there is a hard ROI (primarily within the Industrial space), additional applications that utilize the lighting network as a backhaul mechanism for data, are appearing.
DiLouie: What training or skill level is required to use this software? Who typically uses it at the end-user level, and what kind of support do they typically need from contractors and distributors?
Britnell: Like any good product manager will say, the answer is “it depends.”
For the commissioning agent, there is a technical skillset that will be required. Commissioning is obviously centered around the software to setup the lights, zones, and schedules, but there is also an element of troubleshooting issues. These issues may require some level of RF expertise for wireless networked controls and may also require knowledge of internetworking of devices. These skill sets are common within the telecommunications community, but are relatively new to the lighting world. For these activities, the software should make the workflow easy and provide feedback to the technician so he or she can make the proper decisions as the network is being commissioned.
For the end-user, the prevailing term is “simple.” Lighting control manufacturers should be making their solutions as simple to use as possible. Because there is such a wide array of end-user skillsets that are utilizing the software, the system should include UX design elements to make the solution easy to use, but also provide additional capabilities for the “power user.” This is a fine line to walk. End-users will range from techno-geeks to techno-phobes. There may be a facility manager with an engineering degree managing a one-million square foot facility all the way to a high-school employee turning on the lights at a ball-park. This wide audience requires intentional UX design.
End-users may need support from the lighting channel partners in a few different key areas. If there are basic questions to resolve, such as reconfiguring schedules or setting up new users, these types of questions will usually flow back to the manufacturer’s support website or online knowledge base. More advanced support may need to be provided when lights are being replaced or added to the system. The channel partners may need some level of commissioning expertise to accommodate these requests.
DiLouie: What are the options for where the software resides and how it is accessed?
Britnell: Most of this has been addressed in previous questions, but to reiterate some of the points:
Lighting control solutions are deployed locally or in the cloud. For locally-hosted options, there are a few different methods being utilized for deploying the solution. Some solutions require dedicated servers to be installed within an IT closet running across a dedicated Ethernet network. Other solutions utilize purpose-built network appliances that serve as a “site-controller” and can be locally accessed.
Other solutions may support a cloud-hosted infrastructure. This deployment method is typically highly-scalable and can support several different add-on applications.
DiLouie: How is lighting control software changing to incorporate additional data inputs such as temperature, traffic, and information provided by other sensors? Does lighting have an opportunity to be an entry point for Internet of Things strategies not only in hardware but also in software?
Britnell: Lighting control software is making a positive impact in many commercial industries, especially within industrial locations (such are warehouses and manufacturing) lighting is the ideal entry point for IoT data. Because all of these facilities incorporate lighting, a IoT communication network grid is essentially installed as a part of an LED retrofit or in new construction. With this network in place, compatible sensors can be distributed through the facility to monitor various equipment and processes. The potential for new products and services built on these lighting-based IoT communication grids is limited only by the imagination of the product developers and entrepreneurs who take advantage of them.
DiLouie: What opportunities exist for electrical contractors and distributors in this market segment? What do they need to do and know to install, recommend, and sell software-based control systems?
Britnell: As lighting solutions become more advanced, additional capabilities are being added that allow contractors and distributors to offer value-added services. With power monitoring and automated alerts/notifications, and with emerging IIoT technologies, these channel partners can begin to offer monitoring services, break/fix, and/or moves/add/changes to their portfolio. Lighting as a Service (LaaS) is one service-oriented innovation occurring within these segments of the channel.
When installing, recommending, and selling software-based systems, it is important to know whether the manufacturer is there to support their efforts. Of course, there’s a technical aspect of just understanding the particular system, but nothing goes without problems arising from time to time. Having a support infrastructure in place is important and should be considered when promoting these options.
But, even before the project begins, it’s necessary to have the proper pre-commissioning activities supported. Control manufacturers that can support the contractors and distributors with project management and commissioning services should be a key requirement.
DiLouie: What would be a checklist for what contractors and distributors should be looking for in good software? What issues should they watch out for?
Britnell: Is the solution adaptable to many different applications? If they can leverage the same software platform for certain indoor application or outdoor deployments, this minimizes the number of different solutions they will need to be trained on.
Is the solution reliable and secure? It’s important for the manufacturer to keep the software platform up to date with the latest security patches, especially of Internet-connected systems. Additionally, the software must be reliable and not require daily maintenance or reconfiguration.
Is the solution simple to use? For both the commissioning agent and the end-user, a solution that is easy to use will minimize frustration with the system and allow quick configuration and changes to be made so that they can get on their business.
DiLouie: If the operating software incorporates monitoring, what are the hardware/software options for collecting and displaying data for analysis and also generating automatic alerts for maintenance?
Britnell: Some lighting control hardware integrates sensor capability – things like motion and photocells are common. Of course, the inputs from these sensors can drive the lighting network behavior, but with the proper software capability, these sensors can be utilized in other applications within the facility. Motion sensing can be leveraged to build heat-maps for example. Or, provide inputs into other systems running at the facility. An important component of supporting these additional applications is support for a web services-based API. This API makes it easy for a system integrator to tie in disparate systems and create a customized application for the facility.
DiLouie: If you could tell the electrical industry just one thing about networked lighting control software, what would it be?
Britnell: Lighting control software has improved dramatically over the past few years. Controls have traditionally been a very problematic area for the sales and distribution channels, and resulted in many people trying to avoid them. However, with energy code mandates, these solutions are now being required as a part of standard applications. Additionally, more IIoT applications are being integrated into the lighting control software. It’s important for the industry to understand that these products are coming and will become a critical part of many applications over the next few years. I would encourage the industry to further educate their employees on this technology and gain the skillsets needed to support these software-based solutions.
DiLouie: Is there anything else you’d like to add about this topic?
Britnell: The capability of lighting control networks to collect data via sensors is going to make lighting companies more valuable in the data-driven future. Electrical distribution companies should position themselves to take advantage of this rising tide of income opportunity.