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The long-awaited solution to pulling control wires: wireless lighting control systems

The built world is going wireless, and there may be no wireless opportunity offering a greater benefit to the design and construction community than wireless lighting control.

These new lighting control systems replace obtrusive and increasingly complex control wiring with a secure and reliable wireless signal. While there are many benefits to this swap, the basic ability to provide the enhanced, code-mandated control functionality, without running the cumbersome and costly control wire, is a long-awaited improvement in the world of lighting design for both new and retrofit projects.

Today’s code-compliant commercial lighting control system often consists of, at a minimum:

  • Lighting fixtures
  • Occupancy sensors and vacancy sensors
  • Daylighting sensors
  • Wall stations
  • Controlled receptacles.

In a traditional wired lighting control solution, separate control wires are physically run to connect every light fixture, sensor, wall station, control station and controlled receptacle. This creates an expansive and expensive infrastructure of control wiring that must be pulled through the walls and the plenum of the building.

Wireless lighting control systems eliminate the physical control wiring from the design and installation of the code-compliant lighting control system, saving an extraordinary amount of time and money. While basic power wiring must be provided to the components that are not battery-powered, the lighting control system communicates wirelessly.   

There are various wireless control systems now available on the market. While there are important differences, this article provides a basic overview of the general structure of these systems, which are similar in their fundamental parts and pieces.

Each wireless lighting control system is comprised of three central elements:

  • Wireless lighting control devices
  • Wireless communication standard upon which the devices talk
  • Wireless network topology, which describes how the wireless system is organized and how communications flow from one device to another.

Wireless devices

The devices refer to the lighting control equipment that will operate on the wireless system. These normally include, but are not limited to:

  • Luminaires
  • Various configurations of occupancy and daylighting sensors
  • Wall stations
  • Controlled power receptacles (if available)
  • Often a central area controller (also called a gateway) that will manage the devices installed in its dedicated area.

The depth and breadth of the device offering supported by a wireless control system can differ dramatically from one manufacturer to the next, as can the performance of the individual devices, applications they can meet, and the capacity and range of the area controllers. The latter directly affects the number of area controllers necessary for a project and the overall system cost.

Wireless communication standard

The wireless communication standard identifies the language that devices use to speak to each other. These wireless standards can be categorized as open or proprietary. Open standards are developed by a team of industry experts and interested parties. The standards are publicly published and available for all product manufacturers to use, allowing devices from different manufacturers to be incorporated into one wireless system. Proprietary standards are privately developed and privately owned. Wireless lighting control systems using a proprietary communication standard are restricted to include only the few available components that have been developed to speak this privately owned wireless language.

Wireless network topology

The network topology describes the architecture of the wireless network and the way in which the messages travel through the system.

There are three common wireless system topologies:

  • Point-to-point
  • Star network, where every device has a direct connection to the central controller
  • Multi-hop topology organized into a mesh structure, where the devices send, receive and retransmit messages through the wireless system to the dedicated area controller.

The network topology can impact:

  • Overall scalability
  • Robustness
  • Design complexity
  • Latency (the time it takes for a message to travel from a node to an area controller)
  • Power consumption
  • System cost

Benefits of wireless systems

These wireless systems can create significant savings in the time and materials necessary to complete the design, installation and commissioning phases of a project, while satisfying code-mandated performance requirements, improving operational efficiencies, and offering a greater flexibility to better adapt to the evolving needs of space and the codes that regulate them. The wireless characteristic makes these systems an advantageous solution for both new construction and retrofit projects, enabling any space to be equipped with the new controls and functionalities now required by code. At the same time, wireless systems do not require any additional control wiring or expose the project to any of the delays associated with control wiring mistakes. System flexibility improves, because the functionality and configuration of the control system is no longer determined by the physical wiring of the system, and changes may be easily made through software.

Wireless lighting control systems enable designers, installers and building owners to do more with less:

  • Designers can design code-compliant systems more easily.
  • Installers can complete system installations more quickly with fewer potential mistakes.
  • Building owners have the improved energy efficiency offered by the latest control technologies and increased flexibility to meet future demands.

In the end, these systems deliver greater benefits simply by requiring a lot less wire.