Bright Ideas: Understanding Lighting Control System Design and Operation

I learned first-hand "watt's watt" with the installation of a lighting controls system. Here's how it impacts you.

As an electrical engineer, I spend a lot of time deciding which systems to install in our clients’ spaces. Our team reassures them that these systems are intuitive and user friendly, but we hadn’t experienced an installation in our own space to really know if this was 100% true. In spring of 2017, Design Collaborative renovated and expanded its space, and I found out first-hand what is really required to install a distributed, networked controls system.

As designers and specifiers, we are required to meet energy codes. Most energy codes require automatic shutoff for almost all lighting in new or renovated spaces. Usually, we accomplish this automatic shutoff by specifying a lighting control system that incorporates local devices (occupancy sensors, wall switches, etc.) and time-of-day scheduling capabilities. These systems require the owner or building manager to undergo training in order to learn how to operate and manage their lighting and schedules.

First, we met with the manufacturer’s representative and factory-trained personnel to discuss in big-picture terms how we wanted our lights to work:
  • We wanted our general office lights to come on at business open and turn off at business close.
  • We wanted all conference room lights to be on occupancy sensor control only.
  • We wanted the lobby lights on as long as we are open.
This turned out to be harder than I thought – just thinking through how we wanted each zone of lights to work took a few meetings and lots of back and forth discussion with each user group before we landed on final procedures. This discussion was more thoughtful and time consuming than our team anticipated. We needed to think through how each of our future spaces would operate, and because these spaces didn’t exist yet, this was more difficult than we imagined.

Our office renovation was approximately 7,500 square feet, and we have over 50 lighting control devices in our system. When I first logged in to the system, it was an overwhelming task to figure out which control device was in what room and what lights we actually wanted it to control. This was a good realization for me, considering I design the systems for our clients.
If you work with the installer, they can identify the devices on your as-builts (these are the drawings detailing everything about the project that are turned over to the owner upon completion) and then the manufacturer can rename them accordingly in the software. At Design Collaborative, ours are named ROOM LOCATION – TYPE (for example, Conference 1-Switch or Conference 1-Pendant).
Plan a block of time for the training and include only the key representatives. Our training and setup took nearly four hours – twice as long as I’d expected. But it’s important that all end users understand the system and ask questions while the factory representative is present and readily accessible.

Once we put the system into action – surprise! There were some kinks to work out. First, the operating schedule and programming that we thought we’d completely ironed out didn’t actually fit our needs in all cases. We ended up tweaking when our lights sweep on and off, when the lobby lights turn on, and what our main conference room does during business hours. We also identified a few light switches that didn’t control all of the lighting zones that we wanted control of.
The beauty of the system, though? These changes were simple programming changes. Since our team was trained on and had access to the software, all we had to do was log in and adjust a few schedules in the computer and our changes were made.

In general, I found these systems and software options are pretty user friendly, as long as the proper steps are taken up front for planning and training. Now that we've lived through this process, we can help you direct your contractor, supplier, installer, and your team in how to best approach this process. We can specify that certain information and coordination happen at specific points of the project. We can offer suggestions and input on how to best utilize the system. We can even attend the training with you so you know the questions to ask and help navigate the initial set up.
With the apparent need for more up-front information, our team has since changed our drawing standards to include a Device Schedule that lists every switch in the space and how it should function. We also label each lighting zone with how it needs to operate – dimming, daylight control, occupancy control, etc. We include some minimum requirements for coordination meetings that need to happen during the construction process between manufacturer, owner, and engineer. In theory, by the time your lighting controls are ready to be programmed, all you need to do as an owner is establish the hours of operation for each zone and go from there.
Before going through our own renovation, we thought most of these steps took half the time they actually do. In a typical process, a lot of these decisions are left to the end of the project. However, by doing this earlier in the process, we can help our clients save significant time and consideration by being proactive about the process and tackling the challenges earlier.

Kelsey Rowe PE
Senior Associate, Electical Engineer