Let there be (intelligent) light

Smart lighting's greatest impact won't be in connected homes — it will be in commercial and industrial sectors.

New technologies often manifest their most dramatic effects through things that are commonplace, even prosaic. Consider the electric light: it’s ubiquitous and, well, boring. But meld it with some modern technology and you get intelligent lighting — wirelessly networked LED lights augmented by software and sensors.

Early adopters have included creators of Las Vegas shows and productions, but in the big picture, entertainment is a mere sideshow. Intelligent lighting’s greatest impacts will be in the commercial and industrial sectors: warehouses, office buildings, factories, cold storage plants, hospitals — any place that encompasses large spaces and employs a lot of lights.

That’s because smart lighting is highly efficient lighting. A PG&E study conducted at a 44,800 square-foot Ace Hardware distribution center in Rocklin, California, confirmed that an intelligent LED system used up to 93% less energy than the “dumb” metal halide lights that formerly lit the building. And an Escondido, California, brewery outfitted a new building addition with an intelligent lighting system that uses 86% less energy than the T8 fluorescent fixtures specified in the original design. According to the case study, the LED system will secure project payback in less than two years; avoids the re-lamping, re-ballasting and mercury disposal costs that are an inevitable corollary to high-intensity fluorescent lights; and contributes dramatically toward the addition’s LEED Silver rating under the U.S. Green Building Council’s standards.

“This is really about creating an ‘Internet of light,'” says Allison Parker of Digital Lumens, a smart lighting firm. “It’s about harvesting the huge amount of data generated by people working in a building where light is required, and using that information to both support their needs and maximize efficiencies at many levels.”

Digital Lumens, which has already installed smart lights in more than 100 million square feet of space, employs a proprietary technology called LightRules, which integrates power data from all other non-lighting systems and circuits for a comprehensive portrait of a building’s energy use. This information can be used to extrapolate the ways people interact with each other, the tools of their trades, and the buildings that surround them. Often, the data reveal errors in earlier suppositions — and provide unsuspected opportunities.

“One of our clients, Atlas Box & Crating, was contemplating buying a new baling machine,” says Parker. “That’s an expensive piece of capital equipment. While commercial spaces often have building energy management systems, most industrial spaces don’t. So having that capability in LightRules, which can serve as an energy dashboard, was invaluable to Atlas. A manager merely looked at the energy data from the existing system usage patterns and identified a shift when their baling machine was largely unused. Instead of buying more equipment, they were able to rearrange shifts to meet their goals.”

According to Digital Lumens case studies, a number of their clients have realized drastically reduced energy bills via data gleaned from the LightRules system. For instance, Creed Monarch, a Connecticut-based producer of precision-machined alloy components, reported an immediate 75% savings in lighting energy costs at its manufacturing facility, with ultimate savings projected at 90%. Likewise, Associated Grocers of New England and Ben E. Keith Foods in Fort Worth each saved 90%, and Vector Aerospace Helicopter Services of Richmond, British Columbia, reported 72% savings at its aircraft maintenance facility.

Energy cost savings are achieved through analysis of data gathered by the LightRules system, which measures key metrics such as localized energy use in an aisle, zone or room; occupancy patterns; and the temperature across the facility. Managers also have access to an interactive map of their facility that offers up insights such as high lighting-use areas, where daylight light is harvested most, peak activity times, and projected monthly savings that could be realized through various modifications to the lighting program.

As with many technology changes in the workplace, there are behavioral science considerations as well. Workers accustomed to “dumb” lights may need a period of adjustment to cope with an intelligent system, Parker observes.

“It’s a kind of red-carpet effect,” Parker says. “If the lights go on as you enter a room and go off as soon as you pass, it can be disconcerting. So we advise managers to program a two or three minute delay before the lights go off. That can be reduced as people get used to the system.”

Intelligent lights can also be tweaked to coordinate with existing ambient light from outdoor sources, and to dovetail with the circadian rhythms of company staffers.

“With our systems, you can adjust the light intensity and color spectrum to mimic the progression of natural light,” Parker explains. “For example, at the beginning of the day, the lights can be bright and clear white-yellow, like the morning sun. That’s stimulating, energizing light. As the day progresses, the lighting can gradually shift to the warmer, dimmer, more golden part of the spectrum — the part that corresponds to the afternoon sun.”

Further, intelligent lights can preserve more than your sense of well-being.

“Vaccines, beer, produce and meat can degrade under high UV lights,” says Parker. “So, you might adjust your lights to express more UV in the workplace, but minimize it where susceptible products are stored.”

Intelligent lighting has just begun making inroads into the economy. That presents great opportunities, in that there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit waiting to be picked. But it also poses challenges. For one thing, most executives simply don’t understand the full significance of lighting to their bottom lines.

“If you’re a technophile, it can be easy to forget just how un-instrumented large parts of the economy are,” says Parker. “What we’re really talking about is creating a new infrastructure. At this point, the biggest challenge is getting through the financial gauntlet, educating the top people in the commercial and industrial sectors and government so they’re willing to make the necessary investments. That means we’re going to have to frame the message in different ways to tailor it specifically for each segment — Class A office, deep industrial, health care. The data, after all, is unique to each sector, so the ways the message is presented will be different.”

Still, the core of the message — vastly enhanced efficiencies — translates across all sectors, adds Parker. As an example, she cites heavy industry.

“How do you get industrial production to come back to the United States? Practically speaking, by shaving pennies until it makes economic sense. And one of the best ways to do that is through lighting. To a very large degree, once you establish really dramatic energy savings, many other benefits follow.”

But refining messaging isn’t enough, Parker adds: the lighting industry itself must be willing to change.

“Lighting has never had a standards organization,” she says. “We’re not used to changing bits; we’re not really good at playing well with others across broad applications. Obviously, that’s going to have to change. I see the connected world as a wheel, and the lighting industry as a spoke in that wheel — one of many spokes. For that wheel to function properly, all the spokes have to be connected to it, and they all have to work in concert with one another.”

You can see the LightRules system in action at our Solid Conference demo pavilion.