The Right Light: Design and Tech Changes Give ECs More Options
Until recently, contractors installing LEDs didn’t need to focus on the design—considering how the lighting will perform within a specific location and whether it matches the customer’s expectations. But electrical contractor roles have been changing as design-build projects bring contractors into the engineering and layout of facility lighting. Meanwhile, other technologies such as controls and even solar panels are being integrated into a lighting system.
For LED and control suppliers, and for the customer, contractors can now serve as the main line of defense in ensuring the lights are installed according the specifications while being balanced against the space they’re illuminating, technology needs and budget limitations.
Getting the end-user the product they want is paramount, but it is not as straightforward as lighting installations of the past. LEDs can last many thousands of hours, but many factors can compromise performance immediately or years ahead.
And today, companies are integrating a growing number of sensors into LED luminaires. They can include the basics (e.g., motion sensors) as well as detection for hazardous environments. It’s still in its infancy, but we can expect to see sensor technology become more ubiquitous.
Controls technology company Crestron is helping contractors overcome challenges in the installation of controls and lighting as the systems get more sophisticated. The company relies on its contractors, said Jim McGrath, Crestron director of engineering, sales and development. He said Crestron strives to help with design, installation and follow-through.
It starts with the basics, McGrath said. Any installer needs to understand the wiring between the controls and the fixtures, and problems still arise during installations on a daily basis.
The second challenge for installers is setting the right expectations. If they are replacing a fluorescent system with LED, for instance, the lighting just isn’t going to perform exactly the same way, and customers need to understand that. That includes the dimming capability and the ability to adjust to very low lighting.
“LEDs are a brighter light source,” McGrath said. A typical fixture will produce brighter light, and the end-user's ability to adjust lighting is going to be imperative.
Another point is ensuring the right color temperature, McGrath said. Typically a fluorescent or incandescent light provides 3,000 kelvin (K), which is on the warm end of the color spectrum, while LEDs average around 5,000K, which is the range of cooler colors (bluish white). Customers and contractors should reach an agreement on the brightness and the color temperature that they can achieve with any installation before it goes into place, McGrath said.
In the past, this was the kind of consideration contractors didn’t have to be concerned with, he said. They were able to focus on changing out ballasts and figuring out wiring. The control variations (brightness and color temperature) create a new set of considerations that make contractors a larger part of the project.
“Because there are so many variables, we have a whole design-assist team with local representation,” McGrath said, so contractors can get support before, during and after an installation.
This can all be good news for contractors. The changes in lighting challenges offer a new market. They are poised to partner with electrical engineers, work more closely with customers, and serve as experienced designers for both new and retrofit LED installations.
Companies like Crestron also offer education in the form of training sessions to help get contractors started or keep them up to date before they take on the next installation.
“It takes a while to learn a new technology, and things are changing very fast,” McGrath said.
In the next year, he said, the LED industry will move toward more granular controls with individual fixtures that can each have its own intelligence and can have a wireless connection to a network so that they no longer need to be wired together. Moving forward he said contractors can expect increasingly independent and intelligent light fixtures, with sensors to measure data such as the use of space in a conference room, down to how many people are seated around a table.
Similarly, Lutron Electronics provides as much direction as contractors require, before, during and after an installation.
“The LED solution shouldn’t be a puzzle for the contractor to solve,” said Brian Donlon, Lutron sales vice president, North America. He pointed out that control and lighting manufacturers like Lutron are dedicated to simplifying the process of selection, design, installation and setup. That, he said, ensures the system can meet the design intent, be installed and programmed easily, and be intuitive for the customer.
“We continue to develop and refine contractor-friendly, design and selection tools to simplify product choice,” Donlon said.
To meet the variety of deployment challenges such as dimming requirements, for each unique project, Lutron offers drivers with dimming ranges from 5 percent to 0.1 percent and compatible control solutions to guarantee smooth, flicker-free performance.
“Lutron LED solutions [provide] design freedom, offering its control technology in more than 80,000 fixtures from over 400 manufacturers to deliver guaranteed dimming performance,” he said.
Wireless solutions are increasingly making installations faster and easier as well, Donlon said, with reduced labor costs and simple programming. Wireless solutions also work with a facility’s existing wiring, he added, which allows contractors to add additional points of control and sensor capabilities, with no new wiring, while programming can be accomplished from any smart device using convenient system apps.
In today’s outdoor lighting applications, LEDs are being powered by solar panels, in some cases, presenting their own set of advantages and challenges. First Light Technologies provides wire-free lighting with intelligent self-contained solar luminaires and bollards which includes built-in solar panels, lithium-ion batteries, efficient LED Lighting engines, and intelligent controllers. These solar fixtures eliminate the need for trenching or cabled power installations while providing lighting all night, every night.
With traditional solar lighting, as with any other solar-powered systems, separate solar panels must be mounted to a pole and wired to the battery box and then the light fixture, with application of mounting brackets, cabinets, as well as equipment such as bucket trucks and cranes to get the installer into the air during installation. First Light offers a simpler solar power installation with its self-contained solar lights where the LED, solar module, battery and intelligent controller are built directly into the light fixture.
That enables a simpler installation with a product that provides more control for the end user.
“Not only are our lights super easy to install, they utilize a self-learning predictive adaptive control mechanism,” for instance, said Dan Szgatti, First Light marketing director, they learn the environment they are in and respond accordingly with the goal of delivering the most light on the ground where and when it is needed. No complete solar insolation modelling is required.
It’s not necessarily a no-brainer when it comes to design and installation, however.
“We often see a significant disconnect between the people specifying, and those installing the lighting,” Szgatti said.
By powering the lights with solar, a new level of considerations come to play, such as understanding how the solar units will behave in a given environment and ensuring there is adequate mid-day sun so the lights have enough power. As long as they are not under trees or in the shade, on the north side of a building, he said, there should be sufficient solar energy for reliable operation. For modern self-contained solar lights, panels need as little as two to three hours (on average) of direct mid-day sun per day.
But before the lights are installed, electrical contractors or engineers have to consider the light distribution required. It varies considerably from a parking lot to a walkway, Szgatti said, and by choosing the correct optical distribution, the optimal amount of light can be focused where it is needed.
“It is very important to use the correct optical distribution for your application,” he said
Installers need to consider the existing ambient lighting levels when installing their system, and whether those existing lights might interfere with the solar lighting system (for instance convincing the sensors that it’s still daylight, and therefore failing to switch on when needed). This is sometimes an issue with bollards (posts) because they are installed 2 to 3 feet off the ground. Modern self-contained lights, however, have wireless connectivity, which can enable field adjustment of these thresholds if needed.
The Illuminating Engineering Society (IES) has developed standards for lighting installations using the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) procedures. The IES also publishes a variety of handbooks and guidelines for lighting deployments. Of interest are the Recommended Practices, which provide guidelines for appropriate light levels for different applications. For example, the recommended lighting levels for pedestrian scale applications—such as bike paths, parks or sidewalks—are significantly lower than street light applications.
There is a number of considerations for designing and installing solar outdoor lighting, and there is also support from the technology source itself. Like other vendors, First Light Technologies offers engineering assistance.
“We’re trying to build a base level of knowledge around appropriate lighting,” he said, and providing upfront lighting layout design assistance and training to help installers understand the system and environment in which they’re working. “Our mission is to build a better, simpler solar light that requires minimal experience with solar installations to succeed.”
Often providing education to those who will be using the lighting is the first assurance the job will go well. When speaking with customers, Szgatti said, contractors need to ensure those end-users can balance their desired illumination levels against their own budget, so they understand the cost and the performance they can expect before the system goes live.
What’s reassuring for some installers is that lighting up an outdoor area with self-contained solar lights typically costs 50 percent less than a wired lighting system. With wire-free solar lights, no electrical design is required. There is no trenching or cabling and no connection to the electrical grid.
“Ultimately our technology enables end-users, such as municipalities and facility operators, to deploy more lights with their budgets,” he said, “Since no installer certification is required but factory assistance is readily available, contractors can feel confidant bidding on projects and succeeding on the installations. “
The benefits of wireless solar-powered lighting, Szgatti said, include the ease of design, specification and installation.
“We’ve seen people take our self-contained solar lights out of the box and install them in as little as 15 minutes with minimal equipment required,” he said, while traditional solar powered lighting could take three to four hours per light and require cranes or bucket trucks.