Craig DiLouie, LC, CLCP recently had the opportunity to interview Stephen Zhou, Executive Vice President, McWong International, about how lighting controls are becoming simpler for an upcoming article in tED Magazine. Transcript follows.
DiLouie: What are the benefits of lighting controls?
Zhou: Obviously, energy efficiency, even with the mainstreaming of LED lighting, is significant. Savings attributable to the use of controls still can range from 20-30% beyond the savings attributable to the use of LEDs. In addition, emerging wireless technologies offer a range of ‘beyond lighting’ benefits such as occupancy monitoring, grid services that include demand response or load shifting, predictive maintenance, and energy monitoring. There are some cross-over benefits, such as using controls to manage germicidal UV lighting solutions and integration with other building systems such as HVAC or access controls. Unifying indoor and outdoor lighting control on a single platform is another valuable functionality.
DiLouie: How would you characterize today’s environment and opportunity for electrical distributors to sell lighting controls?
Zhou: There’s a fantastic sales opportunity for lighting controls, particularly in the existing building space. According to the most recent CBECS survey (2018), more than half of US commercial buildings were built between 1960-1999. The same CBECS survey shows that even the most commonly used controls (occupancy sensors) still only account for 17% of buildings, although nearly half the total floor space (46%). In addition to the fact that over 80% of commercial buildings in the US are without controls, modern wireless lighting controls solutions provide opportunities for enhanced performance and granular, occupant-friendly control.
This means there is still a substantial amount of market penetration still to be achieved. Policies driving this include the incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act and the newly permanent Section 179D Energy Efficient Commercial Buildings Deduction.
DiLouie: Lighting controls have a lingering reputation for being complex. In what ways have lighting controls become simpler to apply, design, and install?
Zhou: We’ve seen, and helped pioneer, a move toward greater interoperability and open standards in controls. Our belief is that this shifts the power into the hands of the building professional, rather than the manufacturer, so that the ‘boots on the ground’ can better control their own project workflow. For instance, using a Bluetooth mesh based solution enables the customer and their suppliers to source devices from a range of manufacturers and build their own customized solution. This can be deployed across a range of applications, in many cases using a smartphone or tablet for onsite commissioning and eliminating a lot of the complex wiring that has hampered installations.
Another trend we are seeing is the mainstreaming of LLLC, which embeds the control in the fixture at the point of fixture manufacturing. This eliminates complex network wiring on the jobsite. This, paired with app-based design and commissioning, simplifies the use of advanced control solutions.
DiLouie: What major trends are occurring in lighting controls that makes them easier to specify, install, and use?
Zhou: A lot of work is being done, both by industry consortiums and individual manufacturers, to create more standardized and interoperable solutions. These efforts, spearheaded by the DALI Alliance, Zhaga Consortium and the Bluetooth community, are creating truly ‘plug and play’ solutions that building professionals can source from multiple vendors to create customized solutions for both indoor and outdoor lighting.
DiLouie: Despite the strong utility of lighting controls, the smaller LED load reduces the value of the energy savings, which can be challenging for payback in lighting upgrade scenarios. In such a scenario, what pared-down, high-impact control options can be included in proposals that are most likely to be approved?
Zhou: Some of the capabilities like occupancy monitoring can provide ‘beyond lighting’ benefits. We also see benefits from offering a unified control platform for indoor and outdoor lighting or integrating with other building systems.
DiLouie: Is there a stepped sales approach distributors can take from there to upsell lighting control solutions that provide greater utility? How can a distributor get a customer who accepts a simple control solution to consider and buy a more complex, more powerful solution?
Zhou: An educated distributor can better listen to the customer and understand, or elicit, their needs both for the immediate and longer term. The more knowledgeable the distributor is about what is possible, the better able they are to ask the right questions or make focused suggestions to guide the customer’s decision making.
DiLouie: What should electrical distributors be looking for in a lighting control solution that is most likely to be approved, easiest to install and use, and least likely to be value engineered?
Zhou: Obviously, a solution that checks all the boxes for code compliance is important. Beyond that, solutions that are capable of future adaptability and scalability will offer value not just in the near term but also for years to come. Standards-based interoperable solutions are also a great risk mitigation strategy, providing insurance against future unanticipated changes, such as vendor or product line discontinuation.
DiLouie: Errors with lighting controls predominantly come from application and installation. What should electrical distributors be looking for when matching a lighting control solution to an application?
Zhou: Many manufacturers offer application resources that help distributors, and their customers understand which solutions are best for specific applications.
DiLouie: What should electrical distributors be looking for in an electrical contractor to ensure the installation and setup goes smoothly?
Zhou: Contractors who are educated and understand the technology will be better able to perform an error-free installation. Distributors can team with manufacturers to provide the best training. Most manufacturers offer some form of training, ranging from videos to hands-on training.
DiLouie: What should electrical distributors be looking for in a manufacturer when it comes to backing product with technical and other support?
Zhou: Look for a North American based team that offers training and other resources. Distributors and their customers should be able to call tech support and get a live person with the knowledge and expertise needed. The second recommendation would be to work with companies who have a solid track record— companies who have proven they stand behind their products.
DiLouie: If you could tell the entire electrical industry just one thing about simplicity and lighting controls, what would it be?
Zhou: Bluetooth mesh lighting controls have raised the bar on simplicity of installation and commissioning. There is a growing body of case studies that demonstrate impressive statistics in performance as well as efficiency and speed of commissioning.
DiLouie: Is there anything else you’d like to add about this topic?
Zhou: The untapped potential of wireless lighting controls in the US alone is enormous. Besides being a good business opportunity for distributors, the benefits of increased adoption of advanced lighting controls improves building energy efficiency, occupant comfort and safety, and at a state and national level, helps bring us closer to established decarbonization goals.