Remember how fast computer-aided software programs became construction's design tools of choice for creating detailed drawings and photo-realistic project presentations? Now it's time you gave lighting-design software programs another look. Lighting designers have used software programs for years to help them achieve just the right look and lighting levels. Thanks to lower-priced software programs, contractors now often turn to software to do rudimentary lighting designs.

For electrical contractors and engineers, lighting software programs can calculate lighting levels quantitatively, speed the design process, and repeat common design elements quickly. Today's powerful desktop computers allow users to consider shortcuts and avoid redo work to save time and money. You may say, "Do I really need these sophisticated programs to do rudimentary lighting designs?" Consider these factors.

As lighting installations become more complex, designers study ambient, task and security illumination solutions. New light sources and technologies (such as remote source lighting) also complicate design issues. State and federal energy requirements often define a maximum power density for lighting in new construction.

The industrial plant lighting market is ripe with opportunities. Generally, each facility has its own spatial conditions and task requirements. With a lighting design program, you can prepare several design solutions using different lamp/system combinations to determine variances in performance and economics. Each design solution should include a return on investment (ROI) evaluation.

The growing use of these programs by contractors is already speeding and simplifying the process of handling bid work, design/build contracts and retrofit projects. Many lighting installations are coming into the second or even third generation of lighting retrofits. Although previous retrofits may have saved some energy dollars, many have also caused a diminished visual environment. In some cases, they've simply provided poor quality lighting.

The biggest opportunity for contractors today is high-efficiency, high-quality fixtures and lighting controls for a complete relighting effort. This is especially true for fluorescent and metal halide applications. In this case, a software program can help turn a proposal into a real sale.

Don't forget about the increasing importance of lighting controls in today's market. You can use lighting control software to cut the time required to specify, design and document preset dimming control. Modern lighting control schemes can help create "just the right atmosphere." Well-integrated controls can also enhance security and reduce energy costs. An electrical contractor doing design/bid work has a competitive advantage in selling the whole bid package.

Using a Windows format, the latest control software program can automatically evaluate the electrical requirements and loads for each room and select the best solution. The user enters load information and control points that the program uses to create a one-line diagram, equipment schedule, bill of materials, specification and (if needed) a dimming panel schedule. The program also refers the user to a ballast and controls section to ensure that these elements of the lighting design are considered.

Still think you don't need any kind of lighting design program? Suppose you're involved in lighting renovation/energy-saving upgrade projects. If you need suggestions or ideas for doing such work, two free software programs are available from U.S. government agencies.

1. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offers a program called Project Kalc, which is available from its Web site (www.epa.gov). This program provides a full analysis of a planned lighting upgrade, including relamping, controls, tandem wiring and more. Itincludes a user modifiable database of costs, labor time and performance for more than 8000 hardware components.

2. A public domain software program called Federal Lighting Energy Expert (FLEX) is available from the Federal Energy Management Web site: www. eren.doe.gov. This program allows you to evaluate an energy-saving relighting project, using a number of efficient lighting products. Designed for Federal relighting projects, the program runs under DOS and can be hosted by Windows, Windows95 or OS/2.

Now, do you think that maybe a lighting design software program could make things easier in your business, and serve as an effective tool in refining and analyzing a project? Let's go on.

Evolution is the keyword for lighting design software programs. In the old days, we used rudimentary lighting design programs only to do complex calculating functions rapidly. Today's modern programs can take you on a virtual 3-D color tour of the lighted space. This makes your computer or workstation a video tool that allows you to see how a proposed lighting design will look when the lighting equipment is actually installed. The result: a better design solution in less time with greater assurance of accuracy.

An important development spurring the use of these software programs is the easy availability of photometric data files. Major lighting fixture manufacturers and photometric laboratories archive luminaire photometric data in accessible databases, using the most popular formats.

A useful survey table for comparisons The best source of information on computer lighting software is the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America (IES), which conducts an annual survey on currently available products. The latest survey result (printed in the October 1998 issue of the association's monthly magazine, Lighting Design and Application, or LD+A) includes 27 lighting design software programs.

A table with nine major headings shows the survey results. Headings include, "Price," "Applications," "Hardware Requirements," and "Types of Analysis." The table lists some elements as acronyms. For example, the required Operating System elements include Win95/NT, Unix, or DOS. The survey defines system memory required in megabytes (Mbs) or kilobytes (Kbs). Other features use letter designations.

The first heading of interest is perhaps price. One fixture manufacturer has two free programs and one costing only $100. Programs offered by other fixture manufacturers (or the Electric Power Research Institute) cost only a few hundred dollars, and should satisfy most contractors and engineers. Programs sold by independent software firms range in price from the same few hundred dollars up to $10,000. Of course, the higher priced products are for very detailed analysis in this field.

Other information to look for in a lighting software package includes:

If it operates inside of (and requires) a CAD program to function.

If you can enter data into tables on the screen.

If it accepts input from a digitizer,

keyboard, mouse, pen, or voice commands.

If it has provisions for multilingual

support or CIE calculations (which are European standards).

If graphic views of photometric

distributions can be seen on the screen.

If light meters can be tilted.

If the Zonal Cavity Method or the

Lumen Method for indoor calculation for average illuminance value is used.

If roadway luminance, and daylighting capabilities are offered.

If technical support is available, and if documentation is provided online or available in a printed manual.