Author’s note – at the National Association of Independent Lighting Distributors (NAILD) conference in Denver, Bill Attardi, Chris Brown and I debated Chris’ blog about Illumigeddon, his prediction of massive change in the lighting distribution industry. In my presentation the next day about lighting controls, I shot back. Here is the gist of my comments.
Like LED’s, lighting controls today are the “wild west” – maybe worse, because there is no DLC, no Energy Star or any other standards to contain the explosive growth in this technology. Counting all possible digital and analog controls devices and systems in today’s market, there are at least two dozen different and mostly incompatible lighting controls product families that might be used to meet current non-residential energy codes.
Even worse, time is not on our side. A major project is designed 1 to 4 years before products are needed on site, a relative eternity in the screamingly-fast evolution and short life cycle of electronics. When it is time to ship products, it will be unusually fortunate if the lighting control system consists of the same products and wiring. More likely, the manufacturer, if still in business, has upgraded one or two generations of the product family, all with more features and capabilities – and entirely different product numbers, names, and system wiring requirements. And with changes to the drivers and ballasts throughout the building, it is possible that there will be incompatibility issues that, despite the best efforts of the specifier or contractor, will show up without warning in the field.
Most major lighting sales agencies started controls specialty groups years ago. This was wise, as on larger projects the lighting controls were part of the lighting package and it helped them lock-in to profitable projects. The agency then could either offer ongoing coordination, or at least, ensure that the manufacturers of fixtures and controls were ensuring compatibility and that installation drawings were up-to-date. But this system only works if there is a single, well-managed package.
In Chris Brown’s Illumigeddon, the distributor will lose control of the process of managing the supply of the proper products to a project. The allure of lower cost products directly on-line from manufacturers or Internet distributors will force contractors away from conventional distributors, because in order to compete, most distributors have long since reduced or eliminated expert technical services capable of ensuring that everything they sell to the contractor will work properly.
This places the burden of managing products onto the contractor. The big, sophisticated electrical contractors get this – they foresaw these changes in the industry and invested in better project management, in house engineering, and better training for their supervisors and electricians. In 2008, Southern California Edison joined NECA and IBEW in creating the California Advanced Lighting Controls Training Program (CALCTP) to help ensure competency among contractors and electricians in controls. CALCTP is now being embraced in a number of states and throughout Canada, but still less than 10% of the electrical construction industry is properly trained. Considering a training investment cost of over $4000 per person, it is unlikely that this level of training will happen quickly without state and federal aid or legislative mandate. So while expertise might be expected among a group of top contractors, the average electrical contractor is lost in the wild west of lighting controls. To a large extent, the same will be true with LED lighting in general.
The situation is only made worse by “value engineering”. Most VE solutions are hastily constructed in which the bottom line is all that counts. Other than finger pointing and threats of legal action, what happens when a light fixture shows up on the job with a digital driver, when the lighting controls have been VE’d to analog 0-10 volt? And what happens when the manufacturer of the value engineered lighting controls company, who increasing are small companies, fails to deliver or simply goes belly-up? Not to mention products that are so protected by patents and IP restrictions preventing standardization. Without standards for wiring, connections and interoperability, the contractor could be held responsible for a very big and very costly mess.
To ensure that products are properly updated to the latest version and that compatibility with wiring plans and controls is ensured, I see the immediate and growing need for product management services on projects of all size. This service is generally offered today by major lighting sales agencies whose package survived value engineering, and for which they charge engineering fees of 10-20%. But they don’t pay enough attention to projects where the package is broken, or worse, where VE has wreaked havoc with the entire design. And they lose interest as the project wears on. Who will step in and take charge?
It could be advanced services that define the future of lighting distribution. On most projects, the distributor and contractor stand alone as being in the position to constantly oversee and manage the products flowing into the project. Instead of paying the lighting sales company 10-20%, why not charge it through distribution? Since all materials must flow through the distributor, he alone can ensure the best last-minute services no matter what happens, and stands in the best position to protect the contractor from the painful complications of today’s technology races and lack of standards.
It will take an investment on the part of distributors to make this happen. They will in essence take over the detailed engineering of the lighting systems of a project from the contractor, specifier and sales agents. They will need to be capable engineers who have received training from a number of manufacturers, and they will need constant continuing education to stay current. And most of all, they will need to be present job sites to train electricians and owners, to test and troubleshoot installations, and to immediately redesign when manufacturers screw up or die.
Illumigeddon, as Chris describes it, does not necessarily address the need for someone to stay on top of lighting products and technology to make sure everything works. Good luck when you need technical assistance involving a control system from a small company somewhere in the US with Chinese luminaires bought on the Internet. I doubt either website will have useful FAQ’s, and the call center in India will probably not be of much use.