Although the kaleidoscope of green options available to those who design and build commercial buildings can be confusing, one fact is clear: Going green is not just a passing trend. Sustainability, particularly with regard to energy efficiency, is now the standard de rigueur for design professionals and building owners.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (an office within the DOE), based in Washington, D.C., lighting alone accounts for 44% of a building's energy usage — more than any other source (including HVAC systems or office equipment). For educational buildings, that figure rises to 56%. Therefore, the installation of energy-efficient lighting systems and controls can reduce the electric bill considerably. It's not uncommon for buildings and campuses to report an energy savings of 60% or more after installing these types of systems.

For the electrical contractor interested in better serving his customers, the first priority in making a lighting choice should be the desire to help the client's business perform more profitably. Whether they want fluorescent lighting, LED lighting, halogen lighting, or any other type of luminaire technology, the means to rendering a client's workspace more valuable should be your main goal — profitability will follow.

Numerous studies have shown that workers, when given the right tools for a job (including the right lighting levels), tend to be more productive — and absenteeism falls dramatically. Independent studies, including those commissioned by Sacramento, Calif.-based California Energy Commission's Public Interest Energy Research (PIER), find that people are 4% to 7% more productive in their preferred light level, which equals 10 to 17 extra work days per employee per year — a significant economic benefit for any business.

Advanced lighting systems can easily accommodate the needs of a workforce. For example, if an office employee is using his computer screen, he might want a low level of lighting. If he begins to spend time reading through a paper document, however, he might want a higher light level. In each case, with the simple click of a mouse or the push of a button, he can adjust the lighting level to suit the task at hand. Other workers in close proximity to this employee can also exercise the same flexibility, contributing to increased productivity and occupant satisfaction.

The electrical contractor who understands these dynamics will be able to offer the best advice to clients — building owners, architects, specifiers, etc. Today, lighting control systems, at a minimum, should be able to integrate automatic energy-savings response to daylight, occupancy sensing, personal control/dimming, timeclock automation, tuning, load shedding, and whole-building energy management via a single PC. Each of these technologies and strategies is energy-efficient in and of itself but, when integrated, they realize their full potential, causing the level of energy savings to skyrocket.

Capabilities of today's systems

Energy efficiency alone is important for building owners, tenants, and for environmental stewardship. One of the obvious solutions is to turn off unneeded lights, a task easily performed by occupancy sensors. However, it's also vital to turn down or reduce overlit areas. Spaces are overlit by lighting designers to make sure adequate light is available — even in poor lighting conditions, dark furnishing, etc. By reducing the high-end light output, energy is saved anytime the fixture is on. Another option is to take advantage of natural light. By reducing electric light levels proportionally to sunlight, a lighting system can harvest the sunlight, increase comfort, and reduce the consumption of electricity.

One breakthrough in technology that allows for this all-in-one approach is the digitally addressable ballast. By equipping a ballast with a microprocessor, it's now possible for any combination of sensors or wall controls to be connected to a lighting control system's ballasts. And, because there is no need for interfaces or power packs, sensors and wall stations can be removed or added with simple Class 2 connections at any fixture. Maintenance is greatly simplified as replacement ballasts and bus supplies instantly “learn” their programming when they first communicate with already installed devices. System settings and individual device information are stored redundantly: The ballasts back up the power supply programming, and the power supply backs up the ballasts' information.

In addition, the structure and versatility of a system can remain intact as it grows from one ballast to several. With one particular system, for example, a single lighting control network allows users to connect up to 64 ballasts and a power supply with a simple 2-wire communication wire. Larger systems are constructed by connecting multiple 64-ballast loops. Within this lighting control network, any sensor or wall station can speak to any or all of the other ballasts on the loop.

These types of systems provide control wiring options that allow you to customize each installation. The control wiring can be either Class 1, which runs in conduit with the power wiring, or Class 2, which is wired in a cable tray or with other communication wiring. You can use modular cable to quickly connect fixtures and drastically reduce overall wiring time in new construction. If desired, you can route the control wiring in cable tray or with other harmless communication wiring (ideal for retrofit applications).

In addition, you can select your preferred wiring format, such as daisy chain, star method, or T-tap, because the control wiring is topology free — and polarity free. If the control wiring is reversed when connected, the ballast will still operate. Whether the control wiring is Class 1 or Class 2, the sensors and wall stations are easily added or removed with simple Class 2 connections at any fixture. Free from interfaces and power packs, there are fewer parts and pieces to install.

Customer benefits

The ease of maintenance and overall flexibility these systems afford customers means that common office issues of churn and repurposing spaces are no longer problematic. Once installed, facility maintenance personnel can re-assign lighting fixtures and shades to match furniture layouts with the touch of a button. As a larger room is split in two, no conduit changes or rewiring is required. Lighting levels can be modified to match the needs of a new client or department. As a result, today's conference room can be easily transformed into tomorrow's open office space.

Additionally, the management software for such systems allows a facility manager or business owner to monitor each individual lighting fixture in a building. They can easily oversee and make changes to the following:

  • power use;

  • operating hours;

  • whether or not the lamps are working in that particular fixture; and

  • how long lamps have been in use to better plan maintenance.

The intelligent lighting system translates into smart facility management. In some cases, as long as there is an Internet connection, the software can be used remotely for an entire campus or across multiple locations.

You should also work hard to sell your clients on the value of a networked power metering system. The metering system will verify the value of the lighting system upgrade and reveal any deficiencies that may require your attention. It's a logical, common-sense step electrical contractors should recommend to every building owner.

Businesses and building owners are under increasing pressure to be as sustainable as possible. The pressure comes from all directions, including government mandates, stricter building codes, and company stakeholders who recognize that energy efficiency is healthier for the bottom line. Green lighting is one of countless eco-friendly actions you can market to Corporate America. The electrical contractor who has educated himself about everything green, especially lighting, will eventually shine the brightest among the competition.

Cash, who holds a B.S. in computer engineering and an MBA, is a product manager for Lutron Electronics Co., Inc., Coopersburg, Pa.