We’ve heard about the benefits of wireless lighting control for a long time now. Years. Maybe even decades. But somehow the reality never seems to quite live up to the promise. It’s too expensive, too hard to specify. And let’s not get started on installation and commissioning. Smart buildings with intelligent connected lighting systems are just too costly and too difficult to operate.
In the last couple of years, however, a number of Bluetooth® mesh-based solutions have emerged in the marketplace that seem to be capable of living up to the promise. Could it be that a Bluetooth based system really can do what all the others haven’t been able to?
We all use Bluetooth devices everyday, multiple times a day usually. Our mobile phones, our cars, our Alexa-enabled homes, our Fitbits, the list goes on and on. And that’s really part of the strength of the technology, its ubiquity. Harnessing this communication protocol into a control platform creates a flexible, versatile system capable of delivering old-fashioned code-compliant control as well as a range of new capabilities. For instance, circadian and RGBW control throughout the daytime is possible. Daylight harvesting, high end trim, multiple simultaneous scene control, coordinated indoor/outdoor control, occupancy monitoring, heat mapping. The list goes on.
The game-changer of these systems isn’t necessarily the control functionality, although that is impressive. It’s the ease of design, installation and use that makes an impression.
“The real difference between a Bluetooth mesh-based system and a ‘legacy’ system is that the Bluetooth based system is software driven,” notes Tyler Jennings, North American General Manager, Casambi Technologies. “Most of the legacy systems are hardware-based, with everything that implies: the need to design and construct intricate wired zones and circuits to maximize the functionality of the network.” Even hybrid systems, typically offered by legacy providers trying to get in the wireless game, have extra hardware planning and requirements. All that disappears with a softwaredriven system. The components can be embedded in the fixture and share the same power supply. Wireless wall switches and even sensors can be positioned or added virtually anywhere. Because the control platform is software-based, the designer can concentrate on how to light the space without worrying about how to wire the space. Project drawings can be uploaded into the app so that control design becomes a seamless layer in the design process rather than a tedious process passed to an electrical engineer.
In terms of specifying, the flexibility is even greater. Because any fixture capable of dimming can easily be made Bluetooth® ready, the ecosystem of available products is expansive. “There’s a great deal of choice involved,” notes Jennings. “A specifier can select the best-of-breed components, whether that is a specific fixture, driver, sensor, controller or switch.” Interoperable components enable the specifier and designer to focus on the project rather than the elements.
Installation becomes more fluid as well. One fast-track project in Southern California risked being derailed by the COVID lockdown in the spring of 2020. The project team devised a method of commissioning the system components remotely, each participant in his own garage with his app and the devices. When the onsite installation finally occurred, the commissioning had already been completed and only minor adjustments needed to be made.
In addition to installation flexibility, hard costs go down with this type of system since there is no need for extensive layout design of control wiring or the associated labor costs of implementing such designs. These cost savings can extend throughout the system lifecycle as well. Typically, with legacy wired systems, a network failure can require significant troubleshooting and identifying the location of the fault. Very frequently, the problem is a faulty network wiring termination. With the wireless network, intelligence is embedded in each node, or device. A device failure will only take down that specific node, not the entire network or the portion of the network that is ‘downstream’ from the fault.
The user interfaces on these systems are usually quite intuitive. Running on iOS or Android platforms, they can be accessed from virtually any smartphone or tablet. Multiple levels of access afford a project team flexibility in collaboration. For instance, the specifier might require a comprehensive level of access while the electrical contractor installing the devices might require a different level of access. The end user might require yet another level of access.
Ultimately, the end user experience can provide the tipping point for marketplace acceptance. A sophisticated control network can offer a comprehensive range of capabilities, but if it’s too difficult to use, or perceived as too difficult, the user will take away an impression of failure. This has been one of the principal reasons behind the hesitation to implement connected lighting networks.
The apps that drive these systems, however, are accessible to all types of users. One recent project involving the magnificent Historic Trinity Lutheran church, a national historic landmark in downtown Detroit, illustrates the ease of use. The system, consisting of retrofitted historic fixtures with embedded controls and custom-built 300-500W equivalent LED lighting, delivers the control capabilities to the liturgical team. The pastor can access the scenes from his tablet during a worship service to activate specific scenes, for instance, a scene involving the baptismal font during a baptism. The pastor can also program new scenes on the fly. With the right system, this kind of complex control can be as simple to the end user as flipping a switch while in the background the software is determining which scene to play based the time of day.
In many ways, the sky is the limit for the Internet of Lighting with Bluetooth mesh. Not only do these systems afford the stakeholders throughout the construction process with numerous benefits, but future possibilities also mean lighting truly can become the hub of an intelligent building. We don’t know right now what new capabilities could be delivered via Bluetooth. We do know that new capabilities emerge every day. Occupancy monitoring, heat mapping, indoor navigation and wayfinding, these are all existing capabilities that extend beyond lighting now.
Some challenges remain, but many of these are inherent in the design and construction process. For instance, professional engineers and designers are accustomed to thinking about controls from a hardware perspective rather than a software perspective, so attitudes about construction budgets and planning will need to develop.
While the technology appears to be battle tested with the sky being the limit in terms of Bluetooth capabilities, the knowledge and experience base across the industry still needs to catch up. It will be an interesting next couple of years to watch.
This article was originally featured in the June issue of designing lighting (dl)