How lighting can make buildings smarter

  • October 19, 2020
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Chris Irwin, vice president of J2 Innovations, discusses the role of lighting in smart buildings.

Lighting plays a major role in the infrastructure of a building and, with advances in smart building technology, energy efficiency and lighting control are easier than ever.

While building automation software (BAS) gives facility managers the ability to set lighting schedules, dedicated lighting controls systems also enable dimming control and daylight harvesting; turning off lights near windows when the outside light level is high enough. These are the most common ways lighting in buildings is managed to save energy, but the role of lighting in a smart building doesn’t have to end there.

IoT platforms provide lighting controls that enable the building to sense occupancy patterns, and become more smart-enabled. This new breed of lighting control features a small smart sensor that can be fitted into light fixtures and elsewhere. The sensor can track motion, power usage, ambient light and temperature, and act as a Bluetooth beacon. Apart from the obvious benefit of saving energy, occupancy monitoring provides plenty more.

If every light in a building had sensors, the data captured could help building managers make smarter decisions. Data from motion can show how often a space is used, typical pathways through the building, and how the ambient light and temperature changes throughout the day. It helps make an intelligent building more intelligent. 

Beacon technology can help track the way objects or people move within a space. In settings such as hospitals, nursing staff can spend a big part of their day trying to locate medical equipment; this can be significantly reduced by using Bluetooth transceivers embedded in the lighting controls, which enable the type and location of the assets to be tracked, so staff can be directed to the nearest required item.

There are multiple use cases for smart-enabled lighting amid the current pandemic. This type of technology can let people get in and out of the building in a contactless way, help analyse patterns of movement, and show areas of congestion or paths frequently used. It could also enable contact tracing to track people anonymously. If someone who uses the building tests positive, the system can track back all the people the infected person was in contact with and then send them alerts to inform them of the potential risk so that they can be tested.

Being able to track occupancy can save money on cleaning services. Instead of cleaning every desk at a set time, data collected from lights could inform janitorial staff of what desks or areas needed to be cleaned. This can be applied to toilets as well; sending alerts to clean after a certain number of uses rather than according to a set schedule.

Measuring and improving control of various aspects of the indoor environments for the well-being of a building’s occupants are becoming a greater priority for building operators. Occupant comfort is concerned with temperature, humidity, air quality, natural lighting and, during pandemic times, safety. Lighting controls that can detect temperature and ambient light levels can help create a more comfortable environment while also adjusting to circadian rhythms for a more biophilic environment, one that mimics nature. As noted, these sensors can also help inform occupants about the activity around them so they can stay safely social distanced or know if they’ve been in contact with a person who tested positive for Covid-19.

As with all the other services installed in buildings, historically lighting and its control have been handled as separate contractual package in a siloed way, with little thought given to how they can integrate with other systems in the building.

Even today, many of the lighting control systems supplied for large commercial projects are quite proprietary but do at least now use a standard luminaire level protocol called Dali, and offer open standard protocol interface to the BMS, typically Bacnet IP.

However, the use of a single point interface between systems can create a bottleneck and increases integration cost. In the case of lighting control there can be latency issues; a perceived delay between triggering an event, such as pushing a light switch, and the desired action happening. An alternative approach is to integrate lighting control with HVAC at room level, such as is offered by Siemens DXR or Distech Eclypse controllers. This approach offers many advantages and avoids the single system gateway.

Some lighting controls suppliers do offer more flexible integration options; in the case of Enlighted, its products support Rest-based APIs that support get, post requests and XML, JSon responses as well as a Bacnet integration. The value in tightly integrating lighting control is that the data provided by the PIR occupancy sensors and BLE beacons that are now almost standard on the smarter systems can then be used by the other building systems to inform their behaviour, with both operational and energy saving benefits.

It would be a mistake to view lighting as purely a refurbishment project where lights are exchanged for more efficient LEDs. IoT sensors can deliver so much more.

The future of lighting is more than automation, it’s expanding the role of the light fixture to be used as a means of communicating and collecting data. By leveraging light infrastructure and combining it with a powerful BAS, buildings can become even more smart enabled, and lights can bring more perception to the space within. In the future, wifi and Bluetooth connectivity will enable adaption of lighting to limitless applications and data capture requirements.