Industry journalist Craig DiLouie recently had the opportunity to interview Thomas Leonard, Vice President, Commercial Controls, and Jeff Beyert, Vice President, Channel Sales & Service, of Leviton for an article about lighting control fundamentals to be published in the July 2023 issue of tED Magazine, the official publication of the NAED. The main question is: What does is the minimum every electrical distributor needs to know to begin to understand the lighting controls category? Transcript follows.
DiLouie: What are typical contact points with the lighting controls category that electrical distributors have during new construction and retrofit projects?
Leonard: Lighting Controls are part of virtually every space in the built environment, and distributor contact may span from ordering and managing materials of a specified project to physically playing a role in developing the controls solution for a retrofit or design-build. Distributors with personnel that understand the function and applications of the controls they carry can add tremendous value for the customer.
Beyert: End users may be planning renovations or new projects and will need assistance connecting with experts in controls and energy code applications. Contractors may be looking to bid specified projects or need assistance with design-build projects for both new and retrofit projects. Having good relationships with control specialists from manufacturers or agents will be beneficial to the distributor.
DiLouie: What are core distributor responsibilities and tasks related to controls, and what are opportunities for distributors to go beyond these? Are there any special responsibilities that go beyond or are distinct from lighting?
Leonard: Distributors should start with understanding the terminology and specifications of controls as a baseline. Learning about the operation and application of the controls they sell is a real business opportunity for distributors. Contractors deal with many different controls and being able to give some basic guidance as well as connecting them with manufacturer technical teams can turn an inquiry into a solution sale. Applying controls to meet code requirements can be technical, and leading manufacturers often have technical support personnel in the field to help with solutions. Distributors who bring these resources to their customers can create significant business opportunities.
Beyert: Managing the project communications is a key element in a complex controls project. A good distributor can keep track of all communications and documentation and ensure the proper chain of communication is followed. Staying on top of project milestones and including system start-up and owner signoff helps ensure a successful project.
DiLouie: What’s in it for distributors to understand at least the basics of the lighting controls category, and what are the things they need to know?
Leonard: Today, anyone can search the web for product data, and sort their way through it to come up with a solution. However, this takes time, and may end up with what you could find versus what would be ideal for any given project. This is the real value that a distributor who is well trained and oriented to controls can bring. Not only can they handle the fundamentals to provide immediate answers for basic applications, but they also know how to tap into manufacturers’ experts to handle more involved projects. Equally important is understanding the unique requirements of project management for a controls project. The submittal process can be complex and managing the documents and communication effectively can make a distributor invaluable to his customers.
DiLouie: It would be useful for newcomers to the category to gain a basic foundational framework to understand how controls work and how various products fit. How would you explain lighting controls as consisting of inputs and outputs that produce control strategies? How does this relate to any decision-making or tasks for the distributor?
Leonard: The easiest place to start with lighting controls is the switch. Lighting controls are fundamentally taking the place of a standard switch and replacing the manual operation with some type of automation. There is a device that physically turns the lighting load on, off, dims and brightens, a device to tell it when to do it and how much such as an occupancy sensor and a photocell, and a local control to allow the space user to make their own adjustments. These are the building blocks of most control systems. Understanding the fundamentals of controls systems can help a distributor have a basic understanding of how these systems operate. There are controls that combine several of these functions into a single device, such as an occupancy sensor wall switch or room controllers that contain the occupancy sensor, photocell, load control and wall station connections all in a single device.
Beyert: To best support customers, start by asking what they are trying to accomplish with their lighting controls. Are they just looking for basic code-compliance, or do they have more complex control requirements? Do they need a full building network with master and remote control, or will they just need simple standalone controls? Ask what lighting needs to be controlled, where they would like to control it from and what additional or special requirements they have, such as scenes, adjustable schedules, daylight harvesting, color changing, etc. This will ensure that distributors are setting up customers for success.
DiLouie: How would you explain lighting controls as consisting of devices versus systems? How does this relate to any decision-making or tasks for the distributor?
Beyert: Lighting controls systems are generally made up of a collection of devices that are networked together to create a complete system. The complexity of the customer’s project will determine if they need a networked system or simple standalone controls.
Leonard: Beyond an occupancy sensor wall switch, most controls are systems. Stand-alone room control systems are a combination of devices: load controls for each lighting zone or luminaire, light and occupancy sensing, and a local control station. Systems increase in complexity with networking, grouping, building scheduling, and interface to HVAC and other building systems.
DiLouie: How would you explain the basics of lighting control system architecture? Ideally, this would include the concept of the lighting controller(s) and where they reside. How does this relate to any decision-making or tasks for the distributor?
Beyert: Many lighting controls today are distributed systems. This means that the control devices are distributed throughout the building and generally located in the same room. Other projects may benefit from a centralized controls system in which the load control devices, often a lighting control panel, are located in a central location like an electrical closet. The type of project will dictate the appropriate solution. For example, large facilities with high ceilings and large open spaces often prefer centralized systems for ease of access to the control equipment and better management of many lighting circuits.
Leonard: As a practical matter for the distributor, having the products and orientation to provide room-based systems covers a breadth of opportunities and needs. For more extensive applications, having a partnership with a manufacturer with application, layout and technical services is a valuable resource to pursue the full scope of opportunities they develop with their customers. Having good fundamental knowledge and stocking support helps reinforce the distributor to be seen as a go to resource for controls and will bring greater opportunities overall.
DiLouie: Is there any other way you would use to explain lighting controls to someone with little background knowledge? Once they know it, what are they able to do?
Leonard: Controls are automated devices that take the place of standard switches in a building, and they are a requirement in most construction projects today. Once this is understood, start with the basics. Learn how occupancy sensors work and why they are used in specific applications. Learn the importance of timeclock control and then advance to understating daylight harvesting and architectural scene control. Understanding these basic concepts will allow you to work with any system or manufacturer.
DiLouie: What documentation is produced related to lighting controls during a lighting project, and how should the distributor use, produce, or contribute to it?
Beyert: Lighting controls documentation produced during a project includes a quotation/bill of material, a submittal and an operating and maintenance (O&M) manual. The quotation/bill of material is the list of equipment required to make the system work. It’s important to review it with the contractor to ensure that everyone is in agreement about what is required for the project. The submittal is the official documentation of what is being supplied and how it will meet the project requirements. The submittal must be reviewed and approved by the project specifier, and managing the review and revision process is vital. The O&M manual is the final, as-built version of the submittal that includes the latest drawings based on installation red-lines, along with all installation and operating instructions.
DiLouie: What checklists would you recommend a distributor use to ensure a proposed solution has everything it needs to go into a project?
Beyert: I would suggest the distributor create a customer survey that includes the following items:
• Project overview and customer’s goals
• Project location and applicable energy codes
• All relative project documents like specifications, electrical drawings or existing lighting plans that can be reviewed.
• A copy of fixture schedule for new projects or a list and description of existing fixtures for retrofits.
• Type of emergency lighting system being used and if they will be controlling any emergency fixtures.
• Additional special conditions or requirements.
DiLouie: What should distributors look for in product and manufacturing partners in this category?
Beyert: Distributors should look for stable companies with an established long history in the controls business. They should also look for partners that have multiple solutions to ensure the project doesn’t get pigeonholed into a solution that may not be right for the project’s needs.
DiLouie: What typical questions do customers and contractors ask distributors about lighting controls?
Beyert: Aside from the usual questions about price and availability, they want to know if the proposed solution will be easy to install and operate. Will it meet their requirements without needing a lot of maintenance and attention? They may also ask about how they can save energy with lighting controls or if the lighting controls can interface with other systems in their building.
DiLouie: If the entire electrical distribution industry could learn just one thing about lighting controls, what would it be?
Leonard: Don’t hesitate to get involved in lighting controls! A distributor’s team of professionals already deal with distribution systems and highly technical equipment, and they definitely have the skills to handle controls as well. Understand lighting controls’ basic functions, and lean on your manufacturers to provide the training, education and support resources you need, and together, build a product and support plan. There is a wealth of opportunity, and a distributor and manufacturer partnership can offer a real value-added service to their customers.
Beyert: Lighting control projects can be complex, but proactive communication can eliminate a lot of problems and delays. Don’t skip meetings with the installer to review proposals. This helps to ensure that the installer understands the system he is buying and helps ensure the manufacturer is clear on the specific project requirements.