New wiring for lighting controls is often prohibitively expensive and time-consuming thanks to the need to knock holes in the wall. Wireless lighting controls work in many applications, but just aren’t feasible in some situations.
But there’s a third option – lighting controls that use your existing power line in lieu of their own dedicated wiring system.
How They Work
As the name implies, these lighting controls send communications via the existing power line between lighting fixtures and power panels.
“Power line controls aren’t so good for thermostats or sensors that need to be wireless, but it’s perfect for systems that are connected to power panels, as lighting fixtures are,” explains Marshall Lester, CEO of vendor Powerline Control Systems.
Installation is typically simple, he adds, and doesn’t take much longer than changing a ballast. Users can set zones and schedules with a computer or over the building’s Ethernet connection.
“If you’re just looking at the controls themselves, power line models tend to be cheaper than wired because the power lines are already there. You’re not installing new wires,” says Jesse Foote, senior research analyst for Navigant Research, whose work includes forecasting and studying usage patterns for lighting control technologies. “In a retrofit, having to go back and run new wires can be a huge expense. If you can use existing power lines, that’s helpful. That’s also why we’re seeing the growth of wireless controls.”
Where to Deploy Controls
Indoor high-bay installations like warehouses, gymnasiums, and distribution centers are most likely to benefit, Lester notes.
Thanks to unique monitoring needs, emergency systems are also increasingly utilizing them.
“We frequently see power line use for emergency lighting due to their unique requirements,” explains Rich Blomseth, product management director at Echelon Corporation, which includes power line controls in its portfolio. “It’s important to know if an emergency light is burned out. If they receive notification when something fails, they can replace just the failed bulbs. It’s control and monitoring, plus power, over a single pair of wires.”
They’re even making headway in outdoor applications, even though the U.S. has been slow to embrace them compared to Europe, where grid design makes it much easier to deploy them outside.
Power line controls make useful alternatives when signals from radio frequency (RF) controls might have difficulty reaching their destinations, such as in tunnels, concrete structures, or underground installations, explains Sanjay Manney, director of product management at Echelon Corporation.
“As far as outdoor lighting, street lights are a good example of where the payback is,” Manney adds. “The other place we’re seeing power line controls is in environments where you need to use high-powered LEDs that aren’t easily accessible for maintenance. Having intelligent controls helps with energy conservation.”
In the future, Foote adds, you may even be able to combine multiple styles of control systems instead of having to install them separately.
“One vendor is starting to incorporate wireless controls and power line controls together so that a system could use both within one setup,” says Foote. “So even within one building, you might have some zones where power line controls are easier to install and other zones where using wireless controls makes the most sense.”
The Next Step
Development may soon start on a fourth lighting control option, Foote believes – a different type of wireless system that would send messages over existing cellular networks.
“That could be a cheap, easy, and ubiquitous way to network controls since cell phone networks are already everywhere,” Foote predicts. “I think that will become a strong competitor for networked lighting controls going forward.”