June 23, 2011
by Steven Castle
Flick a switch, and it’s easy to think that not much has changed in lighting control over the past couple of decades.
Or look at an issue of Electronic House from 1986, showing a Lutron Aurora lighting scene controller that can handle up to 12 individual zones of lighting. Sure, today’s lighting control systems can handle many more lights. But other that that, not much has changed, right?
But it has.
“Control systems then were good, but they were analog-based,” says David Weinstein of Lutron Electronics.” The systems back then had a lot of control wires, and single-room solutions like Aurora had to linked to additional systems to provide whole-house lighting control.
“Cost has come down, reliability has gone up, and the [current systems offer the] ability to integrate simply into many rooms,” Weinstein says.
Even in the early days of microprocessor-driven systems like Aurora, Weinstein says that custom electronics professionals had to define the loads, controls and scenes and reprogram the systems in the field.
Wireless technology, now in the form of radio frequency signals, has also been a big advance, opening the door for many to retrofit their homes with lighting control systems.
But the biggest change may be yet to come.
Weinstein says convenience has been a big selling point for lighting control systems through their evolution. However, the benefit of energy savings through efficient control of a home’s lighting is starting to take hold. “It’s more evident now to consumers that our products can manage their environment. I think it’s starting to take hold slowly,” Weinstein says. “Today people are thinking about it more and more.”
New and efficient lighting technologies like LEDs (light emitting diodes) are also starting to have an impact. Though dimmable LEDs with compatible drivers need to be used with various lighting control systems to be effective.
“We’ll see a ton of screw-in [LED] solutions that are controllable and growing base of recessed fixtures that [will be available],” Weinstein says. “LED lighting fixtures will be a major source, but I also believe that halogen will be popular. Many homes have recessed halogen MR-16s.”
Then there’s OLED (organic light emitting diodes) that promise thin-film lighting—as well as TV screens—turning perhaps an entire wall or window shade into a light in the next few years. That’s a long way from a one-room lighting control system of 25 years ago.
An early Lutron RadioRA controller from 1998
Steven Castle is Electronic House's managing editor. he has been writing about consumer electronics, homes and energy efficiency topics for two decades. He is also the co-founder of GreenTech Advocates