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Introduction to Lighting Automation for the Home

Automated lighting control—programmable dimming and on-off control—can transform a home as well as the homeowner’s lifestyle. With declining costs and complexity, these systems are no longer exclusively the province of luxury homes.

An estimated 1.5 million homes were scheduled for construction in 2004. According to the NAHB/CEA State of the Builder Technology Market Study, about 7.4% of these new homes featured automated lighting controls, up from just 1.1% in 2003.

home automation - lightolier

Automated lighting controls enable recall and selection of scenes with the press of a button, instantly customizing the lighting to accommodate different preferences and different uses of the space. Photo courtesy of Lightolier Controls.

“Lighting automation systems are a growing area of interest for homeowners because they have a measurable impact on quality of life and home value,” says John Taylor, Product Line Manager for The Watt Stopper.

“The market is in a rapid growth state and has been for several years,” says Gary Meshberg, Director of Marketing for Lightolier Controls. “Lighting designers can differentiate themselves by becoming more involved in one of the most rapidly growing home automation segments.”

The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) projects about 1.8 million housing starts for 2005.

“Lighting automation” is a broad term, encompassing everything from a one-room scene-control system to a whole house system controlling interior and exterior lighting. It may be stand-alone, whole house, offer room and/or house control, and be tied into the security system (about 30% of new homes), home theater system (about 8% of new homes), or a complete home automation system.

home automation - wattstopper

Miro from The Watt Stopper offers wireless RF controls and wiring devices and plates with numerous aesthetic options. Using Miro’s hierarchical structure, homeowners can control groups of lighting, rooms or the whole house with the touch of a finger.

The residential market is similarly a broad space and can be categorized as single- versus multi-family; the single-family segment can be further categorized as starter, move-up and luxury homes. Although automated lighting control offers particular utility for larger rooms with multiple light fixtures and types, it can be a desirable and realistic option for homes as small as 2,000 sq.ft.

In addition, home lighting automation is no longer exclusively a luxury item, but has become more of a lifestyle item due to declining costs and complexity, with controllers available for as little as $100. Due to greater affordability, lighting automation is experiencing rapid growth in the move-up segment, according to manufacturers.

The primary demand driver is lifestyle, while manufacturers say the primary supply drivers are declining end-user cost, less upfront design, more flexibility, and seamless integration with other home automation systems.

“Consumers are now expecting this type of system to be installed in the home that they are building or remodeling,” says Ari Supran, Manager, Residential Marketing, Lutron Electronics. “The more educated the architect and lighting designer is about the available systems and solutions provided by each, the better equipped they are to satisfy their clients and enhance their lifestyle.”

home automation - leviton

Using automated lighting control, at the press of a button, various lights can be dimmed to create a home theater experience. Photo courtesy of Leviton.

Types of Systems
A whole house lighting control system, the highest-level option, can include scene controllers (generally room or zone), central controller (with timer and programming), dimming rack and processor (depending on the manufacturer), remote control(s), occupancy/motion sensors, and related devices such as photocells, telephone, security, Internet, and low-voltage interfaces to integrate lighting with other systems.

Automated lighting control systems may be hard-wired or wireless. Hardwired systems involve a central control panel with low-voltage wiring to connect the components throughout the house. Wireless systems can require central control components or can be built from combinations of switches, dimmers and scene controllers, which themselves are hardwired but communicate with each other wirelessly. In wireless systems, commands are sent either via radio or power line carrier. In short, hardwired systems must be connected with additional low-voltage wiring to communicate commands, while wireless systems communicate wirelessly or via existing powerlines.

Again, the primary functions of the system are on-demand and programmable dimming and on-off control for designated rooms or zones of light fixtures. Regarding dimming, the core idea is to program “scenes,” or various light levels for fixtures on a single or multiple circuits, that are memorized and recalled at the touch of a button. The scenes are accessible through a keypad or scene controller, which consolidate the function of potentially multiple dimmers into a single device on the wall (eliminating “wall acne”), and can be overridden by a central keypad or controller. The scenes may be utilitarian (for daily living) or mood setting (to create a desired ambiance).

For example, with an RF system, when a homeowner presses a button on a system keypad, a command to turn on the light is sent via radio frequency signals to the dimmers and switches assigned to that button. Once the command reaches the dimmer or switch and the designated light level is reached, the device sends a confirmation signal back to the control stating that the command was implemented properly.

home automation - leviton - decora home controls

Partial view of Leviton’s Decora Home Controls (DHC) line, including the Toscana Deluxe Programmer, the “Green Line” Controllers, a plug-in module and an amplifier/repeater module.

For a hardwired system, when a homeowner presses a button on a system keypad, a command to turn on the light is sent via low-voltage communication wires to the dimmers and switches assigned to that button and in turn, a response is sent back to the controller to confirm the action.

In both types of systems, the time from when the homeowner presses the button to the lights reacting to the command is less than 150 milliseconds.

The best system is often dictated by the owner’s needs, budget and age of the home. Wireless systems offer advantages for retrofit situations by eliminating the cost and inconvenience of running wire through walls.

Enhancing Lifestyle
Lifestyle is the primary selling point for consumers; there are dozens of examples of how automated control can enhance comfort and safety.

“With automated lighting control, a homeowner can activate exterior and interior entryway lighting from the safety of a car using a remote control,” says Mark Cerasuolo, Director of Brand Development for Leviton Manufacturing Company. “He or she can go away on vacation and schedule some lighting to automatically turn on and off to make the home appear to be occupied. During an emergency, lighting can automatically activate to light a path out of the house. It can be programmed for child comfort based on children’s schedules.” Automated lighting control can also deliver a theater experience in the home, create varying moods and scenes, activate outdoor lights during an intrusion to deter burglars, and allow the homeowner to turn the entire home’s lighting off with a single button.

home automation - lutron - RadioRA

The RadioRA car visor control from Lutron lets homeowners turn lights on and off from the comfort and safety of their car.

After lifestyle needs and wants are confirmed, it is assumed that the homeowner, like all buyers, wants usability—the ability to easily understand and use these enhancements to their comfort and safety, and achieve them for an affordable cost.

Lighting automation systems are often integrated into home automation systems. A home automation system can control environmental systems such as lighting, heating, ventilation, air conditioning and blinds; communications systems such as email and Internet; entertainment systems such as stereo, TV, VCR/DVD and stereo; and security systems such as alarms, access control and CCTV. With a home automation system, the homeowner can control the lights, thermostat, security and audio/video systems from a single keypad. Microsoft and its Media Center, says Meshberg, will escalate lighting and other system automation in the home, as homeowners can achieve control their home systems from a PC or TV. “A home automation system acts as an umbrella for a lighting control system, meaning the lighting control system can be incorporated into the larger home automation system via an interface,” says Supran.

What’s In It for Designers
There are a number of advantages for architects and lighting designers to learn how to specify, and to actively specify, lighting automation systems for the home. They include:

  • Lighting designers can differentiate themselves by becoming more involved in one of the most rapidly growing home automation segments.
  • Systems integrators (high- and low-voltage installers) have little or no lighting fixture design knowledge. There is a need for lighting designers in home automation and the installers are looking for guidance, which generally comes from the electrical contractor, architect and manufacturers.
  • Lighting automation is a residential technology sales opportunity that is relatively simple. Every room in the house already has lighting—it has already been sold. A control system, whether local or whole-house, is a way to extend lighting’s utility or amenity.
  • More clients are asking for lighting automation; architects and lighting designers must be in a position to satisfy their needs to provide value and stay competitive.

Manufacturers offer advice to architects and designers about lighting automation for the home. “Any design must begin with a conversation with the homeowner,” says Taylor. “The designer should have a solid understanding of the experience the homeowner wants, their budget constraints, and the age of the home. This will aid in the selection of the technology (wireless vs. hardwired) and manufacturer.”

Supran advises, “Let the lighting control system guide your lighting design. Knowing that a home is going to have dimmers instead of switches may result in the use of additional task lighting or pin-spots or maybe even different sources of light throughout the home. In addition, you need to consider how the family uses their home, like knowing in which rooms they spend the greatest amounts of time. If it’s the kitchen and family room, you’ll want to offer them more points of control there than in other rooms.”

He adds, “It’s also important to be consistent with the functionality of the keypads. Select a keypad and use it everywhere. If every keypad around the home consistently has four scene buttons, plus ‘all on’ and ‘all off’ buttons, the homeowner will find it much more intuitive and will not have to think to turn on the lights.”

home automation - lutron

Lutron's HomeWorks seeTouch keypad allows convenient control of lights throughout a home. Its backlit buttons make it simple to find, and use, in the dark.

“You can’t have a good controls design without a good lighting design,” says Meshberg. “Start with the needs of the customer. What do they like now in the home they currently live in? Give them that plus more.”

He adds, “Controls let you use more lighting as you no longer need to run around adjusting dimmers. One tap does it. So go ahead and use several dimming zones and layer your lighting. ‘Layer it’ is the key phrase here. Break up your lighting so you can spot the silk flowers on the dining room table without lighting up the entire room. Precise lighting and control can add a lot of drama and elegance.”

Cerasuolo advises architects and designers to “learn the home applications where lighting is most valuable and tailor your solutions to the application. For example, bed and bath applications generally benefit from dimmers and timers for fan control. Living and entertainment spaces generally benefit from scene control for flexible lighting in large open areas, such as kitchen/family rooms and dining rooms.”

Meshberg adds, “You will learn several things about lighting control on your first project. We suggest that you do your own home first (accommodation systems are available from manufacturers). Like anything, specifying a system and living with one are two different things. Use your home and ‘typical’ lifestyle routines as a powerful way to talk and sell your system and service. Even if you are unable to live with a system, the ‘after’ installation flexibility encourages on-site changes, without taking off a faceplate.”

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