ONE OF THE BIGGEST ADVANCES in home automation and whole-house control has been the development of wireless lighting control. The availability and price associated with this piece of home technology has made it accessible to just about anyone. While I have been a huge proponent of wireless lighting control due to its flexibility, retrofit applications, and the ability to easily adapt to consumers’ growing needs, there are some things that you should know before investing in a system.
First, you’ll need to decide if you should install the system yourself or hire a professional home systems integrator to do it. A DIY product can be tempting, but before you purchase one be sure to consider the following:
Are you comfortable working with and troubleshooting electricity? Considerations include manufacturers’ watt/voltage specifications and, of course, your good grasp of basic electrical wiring schemes.
To create a functional lighting control environment, you should have a good understanding of wireless technology—signal range, interference, and signal strength should all be in your repertoire. Transmission distances can vary by product and interference points can include everything from electrical and radio interference to the physical construction of your house. For large-scale and complicated installations, a pro can save you money and headaches on troubleshooting and maintenance issues.
Are you sure which lights you want to tie to the system? Will this ever change? Today, the type of control device required to dim an incandescent light may be entirely different from the type of device needed to control an LED light, or a halogen or fluorescent fixture. Some manufacturers like Control4 have recently addressed this issue by developing an Adaptable Phase dimmer that can adjust to the type of lighting source that is being controlled. However, the process of matching controls to light sources can be confusing, and may be best left to a pro.
In addition to deciding whether or not to DIY, be sure to nail down the scope of your project. What are you trying to accomplish and will the lighting system be tied to other systems in your house? Your goals will impact the type of system that should be installed.
Are you adding lighting control to your house for convenience, energy efficiency, aesthetics, or safety and security? If convenience is your main focus, a simple system with its own self-contained mobile device application may be the most affordable option. If energy efficiency is your primary reason, you can often reap significant energy savings by simply switching from incandescent and halogen to LED lighting. Then there’s the aesthetic value of lighting control. If the ability to replace individual light switches with decorator-style keypads and altering the intensity and color of the lights to accentuate your home’s design is important, most likely, you should buy a more expensive architectural lighting control system. If security and safety is your reason for exploring lighting control, many manufacturers of security systems offer solutions that integrate basic lighting control with security settings.
Will the lighting control system be a part of a bigger system? If this is the case, interoperability should be your primary concern. Many wireless lighting control systems employ proprietary wireless communications standards or adapted wireless standards. While most home control systems have plug-ins and gateways to facilitate the integration of third-party wireless lighting control systems, nothing integrates as flawlessly as a manufacturer’s own wireless lighting system.
One of the last pieces of advice I can give is choose your wireless protocol wisely. These days there are so many to pick from and more are popping up daily. Look at proven standards first and keep your eyes peeled for “mesh networks.” Mesh networks like ZigBee Z-Wave, and a new upcoming Bluetooth standard, allow devices to communicate with and through each other, precluding issues of signal distance and communication speed. A mesh network becomes stronger as more devices are added to the system. The other benefit: A mesh network does not interfere with the overall bandwidth, or throughput, of your home’s Wi-Fi network. Mesh network devices also generally consume very little power.
“Gateway” type wireless lighting control devices are another good option. These can range from Wink-compatible devices, Philips Hue wireless lighting, or Lutron’s wireless lighting systems. These solutions all require the addition of a proprietary wireless gateway device to your home’s network, or possibly a few gateways if your home is large.
Another wireless lighting control method to consider is Wi-Fi lighting control, however these types of systems can potentially suffer from distance and speed issues due to inherent aspects of your home’s Wi-Fi network. If Wi-Fi lighting control is your choice, make sure your home’s Wi-Fi network is up to snuff first by hiring a pro to analyze your network and, if necessary, add devices to strengthen it. EH
JOE WHITAKER has more than a decade of experience in custom systems integration and design. As a professional home systems integrator, Joe has implemented a wide variety of technologies into homes of all sizes and styles. Joe has also contributed his expertise to the development of many home technology products.