Control Without Wires

Comprehensive lighting maintenance is crucial in the operation and upkeep of any facility. Unfortunately, it often goes overlooked until a problem arises or a major renovation project is undertaken. Properly maintaining, or, more important, upgrading lighting can have important long-term benefits that improve the bottom line.

When lighting operates at peak efficiency, it uses less electricity. Obviously, decreased electricity consumption means lower energy bills. Apply this theory to a whole building or entire campus, and the cost savings can be considerable. From a strategic standpoint, a modern lighting system, complete with user-friendly controls and audio/video interfaces, enhances the educational process for both teachers and students. And, thanks to modern technology, specifying or retrofitting an up-to-date lighting system is relatively quick and inexpensive.

Evaluating the situation

One of the first things to consider about existing lighting is age. Older lighting equipment — fixtures, lamps and ballasts — tends to be less efficient and uses more energy. For example, many buildings were originally constructed with magnetic ballasts and T-12 fluorescent lamps. In recent years, these electricity-guzzling components increasingly have been rendered obsolete, thanks to newer electronic ballasts and smaller T-8 lamps, both of which consume significantly less energy. In fact, today the T-8 is by far the most commonly used lamp in new commercial and institutional construction because of its impact on operational costs.

Another crucial factor in planning a lighting upgrade is room usage. Any space used for instruction or presentations — classrooms, lecture halls, computer labs — should be equipped with lighting that can be varied and controlled. The primary complaint among teachers and students who use these rooms is that the lighting is too bright or otherwise inappropriate for their needs. Given the evolution of presentation technology in the past decade, this grievance makes sense. It is difficult to optimally use a video projector for presentations, videos, Internet access or other visual-based teaching aids in a room where the only lighting options are “on” or “off.” The lighting typically is too bright and washes out images on the projection screen, but if the lights are turned off, the room is too dark for notetaking. Dimmed lighting makes presentation screens easier to see, but leaves enough light for notetaking.

Of course, giving users control of lighting raises perhaps the most important issue — having controls that are easy to understand and operate. The second most common lighting-related complaint among instructors is that they just do not have the time or knowledge to familiarize themselves with a wall full of switches or preset lighting controllers that may be confusing. Most report that if the world were perfect they would like direct control of the lighting and audiovisual equipment at the touch of a button or two.

Controlling the controls

Wireless lighting controls are revolutionizing presentation spaces everywhere because of the myriad advantages they offer. Not only are they relatively inexpensive and simple to install, but also they are easy to understand and operate. Plus, they offer unprecedented flexibility and adaptability. As the needs of a space change, wireless controls can be reconfigured or expanded to accommodate alterations without the cost- and time-intensive process of tearing apart walls and ceilings for rewiring.

A standard wireless lighting control system for a meeting room consists of two simple components: a wall-mounted or tabletop transmitter and a fixture- or junction-box-mounted power controller. Installation involves replacing a conventional wall switch with the wall-mounted transmitter (connecting to hot and neutral) and mounting power controllers directly to the first fixture in a group of lights or remotely on a junction box. Because the controls communicate via radio frequency, the wall transmitters do not require any wiring directly to the power controllers. This makes the installation of additional wall controls in an existing room very easy. An optional tabletop transmitter can be placed on any surface or can be mounted to a podium, wall or other location, and can be used from any area in a room. The radio-frequency communication allows the user to control the lighting from any point in the room with no need to point the controller or aim it at a receiver.

The way the systems work is just as straightforward. The transmitters communicate with power controllers via radio frequency. In turn, the power controllers regulate the light level of dimmed or switched fluorescent lights, or incandescent or low-voltage lights.

Fluorescent dimming is becoming increasingly popular in presentation spaces. Some schools are finding that the installed cost of fluorescent dimming is less than switched fluorescent lighting with dimmed incandescent lighting. The maintenance and energy costs also are lower, and many find rooms with fluorescent dimming to be easier to use.

Each group of lights is operated directly by the user, which means that during a computer presentation, for example, lighting over a video screen can be reduced to a minimum light level for optimal viewing, while lighting above a conference table can be dimmed to a medium light level for notetaking, without washing out the image on the projection screen. A typical installation includes one master on/off wall control at each entrance and an individual control for each control zone at a location convenient to the presenter.

Wireless lighting controls also can integrate various multimedia components. Controllers can be configured to raise and lower motorized window shades and projection screens to establish the perfect environment for any presentation situation. Instead of going from window to window lowering shades, then to the wall switch to turn off lights and then lowering the projection screen to begin the presentation, the user can make all of these adjustments from one location simply by pressing a few buttons.

Also, most instructional spaces are used by various groups of people for different purposes throughout a given day, each of which is going to have different lighting requirements. In addition, each different instructor is probably going to have a different level of technical expertise.

For the future

Administrators give wireless lighting controls high marks because of comparatively low installation costs and their ability to adapt as facilities and lighting needs change, which reduces future expenditures.

For example, one year a school might have a room that is partitioned to serve as two separate rooms. The following year, an increase in enrollment forces the need for additional teaching space so the partitions are removed and the two rooms are transformed into one classroom. A year or two later, the trend is reversed, the partitions put back up, and the classroom turned back into two separate rooms. With traditional lighting, each conversion would require the expense of tearing apart walls for rewiring. Wireless lighting control allows the changes to be made easily and inexpensively.

Like their modern ballast and lamp counterparts, lighting controls — wireless or traditional — help to significantly reduce energy consumption and costs. Dimming lights even by the smallest increments uses far less electricity and can extend the life of bulbs dramatically.

Hobart is manager, education lighting systems, for Lutron Electronics Co., Inc., Coopersburg, Pa.


NOTABLE

▪ USER COMPLAINTS

  • Lighting is too bright or otherwise inappropriate for student and teacher needs.

  • Instructors cannot understand how to operate a wall full of switches or confusing preset lighting controllers.

  • Older lighting equipment tends to be less efficient and uses more energy.

▪ UPGRADE ADVANTAGES

  • A standard wireless lighting control system consists of two simple components.

  • Wall transmitters do not require any wiring directly to the power controllers.

  • Each group of lights is operated directly by the user.

  • The system can integrate various multimedia components.

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