Guest post by Steve Mesh
Actually – this isn’t just for electrical contractors! Just about anyone can learn how to commission a networked lighting control system (NLC). To be clear, for the purpose of this article … when referring to NLC commissioning we are talking about start up and programming. The term “commissioning” is commonly used in this context. However, it is also used to describe the process of verifying that a building’s energy-related systems (including NLCs) are installed and functioning as intended.
There are four major groups of people who commonly commission NLCs:
- Installers (electrical contractors), although this is arguably the group that does the least commissioning of NLCs
- Integrators (such as those who deal with audiovisual systems, lighting, etc.)
- NLC vendors (or manufacturer’s rep)
- 3rd parties (this might be an electrical engineer, lighting designer, or a dedicated commissioning agent)
In the past, electrical contractors typically only installed the equipment and let someone else commission the system. Often, this was the vendor. This is still common for some of the more complex systems. However, in some cases it’s possible that a code requirement or LEED measure may actually prohibit the installer from also being the commissioning agent. However, in some cases, the installer can in fact be the same party that does the initial setup and programming.
This could potentially be a new avenue of business for an electrical contractor firm that normally only deals with the installation of hardware. If your company develops this capability in-house, you could presumably offer that as a standalone service even for projects where there is a different installer. Another benefit when incorporating this into your skill set is speed. Once you acquire the skill to commission NLCs, you’re not dependent on scheduling, paying for, and waiting for a 3rd party commissioning agent to visit the site. Often, the site may not be fully ready for a commissioning agent (because of incomplete wiring, IT needs, missing fixtures, sensors, wall control stations, etc.). If a commissioning agent has been scheduled and arrives on-site before it’s possible to commission the NLC, then this may require a costly return site visit. If you are onsite already, and you already have the skill to commission the system yourself, then you can complete the that process without additional cost or delay.
How complicated is it to commission an NLC? Systems today have become more intuitive and therefore are not very complicated. In recent years, many lighting controls vendors have gotten a lot better at making their user interfaces (UI) user friendly. This has been coupled with introduction of many simplified NLC systems. Older NLCs were notorious for being chock full of features and equipment. For many projects with typical requirements, some of these features and equipment aren’t needed. Some systems even have preprogrammed behavior based on which devices you plug into the network. This was even true 10+ years ago for things like room-based systems (e.g., room controllers such as a single 20-amp device with three integral relays) prior to the widespread development of NLCs. The difference is that, at least initially, these room-based systems didn’t allow for individual addressability of fixtures and other components. Anyhow, as of 4-5 years ago, many manufacturers realized that they could strip out some of the hardware offerings in older complex NLCs, and also drastically simplify the software (UI). This not only reduced the system cost for many NLCs, it also made them a lot easier to deploy.
So, how DO you commission an NLC? Well, every manufacturer’s UI is different. And there is no standardization about what software or hardware features a system needs to offer. So, you’ll have to talk with various manufacturers and ask to see how their systems work. This should even be possible remotely (e.g., over Zoom). In fact, for the past four years, I have been teaching a class on NLCs – even letting attendees wire and commission a simplified wireless NLC. Because of COVID, I figured out how to do that on Zoom, and attendees can still commission the equipment sitting on my dining room table (remotely, through Zoom; trust me, it’s pretty cool)!
Even though each manufacturer’s UI is different, most systems follow a similar logic in how you set them up. For example, typical steps involved in the initial commissioning (Cx) process are as follows:
- Discovery – This involves finding out what is on the network. Note that this is true for both wired as well as wireless systems. During discovery, the system will find things like luminaires, sensors, switches, controlled receptacles, etc. Obviously, they need to be powered first!
- Zoning – Zones must be established for things like groups of luminaires. However, keep in mind that energy codes require that you create zones for other things as well – such as automatic shutoff and also daylight harvesting. Those types of zones have specific limits or requirements on size, width, etc. For example, an automatic shutoff zone may be limited to 5,000 ft2. So that will automatically impact how fixtures are grouped as well. The width of primary as well as secondary daylight zones is typically equal to the window head height. So that will also impact the grouping of fixtures in response to photosensors. Makes sense, right?
- Assignment – Once you have discovered components on the network, and established appropriate zones, then you assign those components (fixtures, sensors, switches, etc.) to specific zones.
- Programming – NLCs have many options that can be set in the software. That includes variables like time delays for occupancy sensors to turn lights off after they sense vacancy. Also, target light levels for illumination on work surfaces based on input to a photosensor (e.g., 30 footcandles). UIs have many other programmable features, even in simplified systems. Other examples include setting up schedules to turn lights on or off at specific times on specific days; or setting high-end trim (preventing lights from exceeding a certain limit, e.g. 80% of maximum output); or linking the system to an automated demand response server so it can automatically dim lights during a utility’s period of peak demand when they ask for help in load-shedding.
In some NLCs, the order of these steps may be different. For example, in some cases you can set up zones even before you’ve discovered actual equipment on-site. Some UIs are graphical, and some allow you to see the system’s set-up in both a graphical as well as tabular form. If the system allows it, it may be easier to input the floor or lighting plans into the software in your office, create appropriate zones, then head to the job site. Once you’re on-site, you can discover components on the network and then assign them to the appropriate zones. It may even be possible to do some or all of the programming work ahead of time – such as setting up schedules, entering variables (like occupancy sensor time delays, target light levels for daylight harvesting, etc.).
Whatever the order, all of these steps are required in order to set up an NLC. Is that all? Not always! Remember that some NLCs are designed with lots more options for hardware or even additional bells and whistles in the UI. For example, some systems may have options for any or all of the following:
- Interfaces with audiovisual systems (such as for use in a conference or videoconference room).
- Automated window shading systems.
- Tunable-white (or other color-changing) lighting systems.
- Interfacing with Building Management Systems or true IoT (Internet of Things) systems.
Some of these require additional hardware, software, and/or training. So, any system you may be dealing with could be relatively simple, or possibly a lot more complex. Regardless, most of these still do not rise to the level of rocket science. Will it take extra time and commitment on your part, however, to develop proficiency in commissioning some of these systems? Yes. Is it worth it to develop that proficiency? If it’s a potential new source of revenue for you – I would say a resounding, “Probably yes!” It’s also worth noting that codes and regulations are steering our industry more toward these types of systems, so the business opportunity should only increase moving forward. This is why many manufacturers reps (lighting agencies) have dedicated departments to assist with the Cx process.
Where and how can you learn about commissioning an NLC, or try your hand at it yourself?
Some manufacturers also offer training sessions on their specific systems. Since every system has a different UI, you’d have to learn how to commission a specific system anyway. Some manufacturers even offer some form of certification that shows that you’ve gone through the official training. It’s likely you can commission an NLC – particularly one of the newer simplified systems – on your own, or with minimal input from an expert, in a short time.
What else do you need in order to successfully commission an NLC? You’ll probably need the following:
- Code requirements – You’ll probably need to know what the applicable code requirements are because, as previously noted, some impact things like zoning. For example, there may be limits for things like the size of automatic shutoff zones, or the width of primary and secondary daylight zones. There will be other ramifications on how you program the system in addition to zoning based on controls requirements in most current energy codes.
- Control narrative – This is a document that essentially says what you want the system to do, including every component. For example, if you write … “The NLC shall turn lights OFF after occupants have left the room, and after a 5-minute time delay” … then you pretty much know that means that you’ll need to install occupancy (or vacancy) sensors, then adjust the variables for a 5-minute time delay. The point is that you write this out in plain English. Therefore, you don’t have to know anything about NLCs in order to create this document! It is important, however, for you to be as detailed as you possibly can – because the equipment that you order will be based on the needs you identify in this document. Besides, a “control narrative” is actually required for LEED and other projects (for example, projects in California that have to comply with Title 24).
As you can imagine, the control narrative is a document that needs to be developed with input from the owner and/or occupants as well as others. It’s not appropriate for a contractor, designer or engineer to assume that he or she knows what the owner or occupants want (or need). You can create this document, but make sure to review it, edit as necessary, and get buy-in from the owner and occupants.
Does this process sound complex? Maybe a little? Hopefully not too much? Just remember that – by definition – any system is “complex.” But these truly are at the low end of the complexity spectrum. Successful commissioning takes practice and repetition to increase speed and accuracy. That depends on the system and what it’s intended to do. Installers should evaluate the system demands and then decide if it makes sense for the manufacturer to provide this service or if the installer can effectively deploy the system on their own. Remember that you need to verify whether codes or LEED will allow the installer to be the same as the Cx agent. Trust me you can learn to do this. It’s actually pretty cool stuff, and you’ll be amazed at what these systems can do once you get your hands on the actual equipment – and the UI. Happy Cx!