jim benya
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.

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  1. Ted Konnerth says:

    While the concept of electrical distributors functioning as integrators for the construction project is interesting; it is impractical. Distributors ‘represent’ hundreds of manufacturers; most of which they have little to no training on. Lighting control systems become project materials, spec’d by a rep and shipped directly to a jobsite. The distributors ‘handles the paper’ and has almost zero influence on price or delivery or quality.
    The fact that reps are stengthening their expertise in controls reflects the fact that the liability for ensuring the right products arrive to a jobsite is the responsibility of the manufacturers’ rep. The rep is the proper medium for training, expertise and responsibility for accuracy for the products they are contracted to sell.
    Most larger manufacturers of controls (Lutron, Crestorn, etc) have their own technical reps in the field to assist as well. With the explosion of control companies, the need for technical field support will continue to grow; but the distributor can’t provide that. Even well-educated distributors such as Rockwell can’t be considered to be experts in 100+ manufacturers of electronic control devices. The integration between sensors, controls and now data management systems will over-burden the channel.
    We are at an inflection point where the trade influences of HVAC, Security, Building automation, Data/Com and Lighting are intersecting; who will hold the responsiblity to ensure that those system will communicate accurately across the trades?
    I envision a new channel solution will emerge… but the issues of standardization, interoperability, warranty and quality are going to be very difficult barriers ahead. And the electrical distributor isn’t the place to solve those issues.

    • James Benya says:

      I can’t dispute a lot of what Ted has to say, at least as it is today. However, I can see a future where the distributor offers a better deal because of integrated services and supply management. I have personally designed over 20 large scale integrated digital lighting control systems, wired and wireless, and my projects have suffered every failure, miscommunication and evolutionary change that i mentioned in my article. No one is doing the leg work now, except for major controls companies who are allowed to control the project. Even then, the fixture manufacturers create problems with incompatible drivers. A knowledgeable distributor, it seems to me, would be a service worth the cost. But if they are not trained and if they sell anything that is specified or worse, cheap, then they will make things worse. So Ted is right – but among the changes in the industry that could occur, I might be too.

  2. Mindy Haverland, LC says:

    I must beg to differ with a few of the views here, while respecting the many years of expierence and expertise being offered. Part of the problem is the dismissal of the distributors expierence. The distributor are the people who resolve the issues created by engineerers, rep agencies that “package:” jobs ( based opon the lines they represent) not what is the best solution for the customer. The only way the distributor has a chance of winning the job is by value engineering the “package” that they have no opportunity to actually win in the marketplace as many rep agencies control these packages, some providing bid pricing in less than 2 to 3 hours before a large bid is due , and there are other distribors who have a much larger window 24-48 hours to pull together their numbers for the same project. The distributor often have a better relationships with the people who have to deal with the “specified package” after everyone has collected their various fees and commissions. What looks good on paper or in legislation very often doesn’t work for the end user in a variety of ways, product availabiliy that isn’t from a single source supplier ( who doesn’t enjoy an exclusive product = $$$ for those in that channel selling) but we do need to remember the customer’s needs and budgets when trying to interpert the variety of roadblocks put in their way by phone calls not returned, lack of technical information available and the abiltiy to maintain their Real world expierence and customer relationships. One of the problems is the inability of those passing legislation , writing legislation not understanding the view at the street level, which is where it gets done, everyday. I know because I speak with them everyday and understand their challenges, I am proud to call them my partners and they may have one branch some have many but they are vested in providing the best solutions for their customers. We need to include them in the converasation as equal partners and allow them a voice that matters as much as everyone else in the process.

  3. Lee Bacon says:

    “Sophisticated” Reps and Distributors in my opinion should be capable of providing continued valuable resourcing through technical specification support to the Lighting Design, Architectural and Engineering communities.

    Mentioning both parties may open up a debate as to the true responsibility of each, but the reality is the “one” that ultimately provides the most value to the specification channel will ultimately be crowned. In some cases it will be both. and in other cases it will be neither.

    As we all would agree, contractural market based representation does nothing to guarantee technical competence. On the distribution side, having access to “all products” without a contract also does nothing to ensure any level of advanced technical support capabilities.

    On the flipside, we probably all know Reps that can write specifications to a Professional Engineering standard and Distributors that teach energy and building code compliance. If not, I will send you a few for the rolodex.

    Distribution in my opinion, has always been to some degree in the crosshairs of the industry by those convinced Distributors are soon to be extinct dinosaurs. Measured relevance is king for the survivors, regardless of one’s current role.

    Mr. Browns glimpse of an uncertain future must be applied to both parties and perhaps entertained for a moment with the uncertainty question partially applied to other disciplines connected to this industry, that is without fail, undergoing significant technical change for many gasping to keep pace. Will it ever be “take a number” at the dinosaur tar pit?

    With the rash of entrants (and departures) to the industry occurring, the only thing certain is that we are barely into the first cycle of disruptive change, and the technological innovations unfolding among us…and I stress us!

    Grab your popcorn, the show just started.

  4. EnergyWatchNews says:

    From Thomas Paterson of Lux Populi

    I value the opinions of both Jim and Chris on this one and I have to say, I find it hard to see them in conflict – more that they represent alternative, potentially viable, parallel solutions. The point in Jim’s message that I find most surprising is the positivity towards packages. In my experience, packaging by reps is in the interest of neither the end user, nor the product creators – it is non-transparent intermediation in the dominant interest of the rep alone. This is something that could be said of traditional model distributors too – as technology and improved logistics undermines the paper and warehouse value they once provided.

    To Chris’s point, with disintermediation a trend across the vast majority of industries, we will see changes and those who do not change will die. To Jim’s point, there is a need for specialist expertise that tracks projects through time and provides specialist support. These could be many different species of provider – the reps, the distributors, the contractors or the client’s own independent consultants (a group not noted in the above discussion). A model I see coming is also the independent consultant employed not by the client, but by the contractor, the rep or the distributor. The financial expectations of clients will have to change to accommodate this, whichever way the industry goes.

    Just as with the many different families of control system, we’re going to see a period of differentiation of commercial models, and Mr Darwin will see to it that a viable solution survives. In the mean time, the weaker members of the various packs will be eaten, or die of their own accord.

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