If you’re interested in implementing smart technology into your commercial building or office space, switching out your light fixtures is a good way to get started. There are many practical benefits to smart lighting systems that will make them a staple in buildings of the future. It’s also easier and less expensive than you might think to switch from traditional LED light fixtures to a smart lighting system and to optimize your building’s energy consumption.
What Is Smart LED Lighting?
Smart lighting allows your LED lights to be controlled remotely. Before power is distributed to an LED fixture in a smart lighting system, the connected software communicates with the fixture to let it know what it should be doing and when. This software is controlled by an app, a smart home assistant, or with a wireless switch, so you can control or automate your lights remotely. There are many benefits to this kind of lighting:
- Lighting is the single largest consumer of electricity in a building at about 17 percent of power in commercial buildings. Smart lighting reduces energy consumption with automation and LEDs, bringing our commercial buildings closer to net zero.
- Less energy consumption means lower operational costs, and higher NOI (net operating income).
- Less energy consumption also means potentially being eligible for a green building certificate, and the rebates that come along with it.
- With smart lighting, you can track lighting systems with digital assistants to understand when and where lighting is being used, and when it doesn’t need to be.
- Automate lighting based on room occupancy. This saves energy in comparison to the unintelligent solution of putting lights on timers, or simply relying on switches.
- A comfortable indoor space (especially comfortable lighting, and temperatures) boost employee productivity.
- Control lighting remotely through the cloud or with a wireless switch.
Let’s take a look at three different methods to implement smart lighting into your commercial building. We will discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each so that you can select the best option for your use case.
Option #1: Power Over Ethernet (PoE)
PoE is a method of delivering both power and data/information over ethernet cables. These cables are also known as category cables or CAT series cables, i.e. CAT5 or CAT6 cables. Common devices that use PoE are VoIP telephones, Wi-Fi routers, and security cameras. It’s worthwhile to note that not all devices are compatible with PoE. Devices like LED lights need to be either PoE LED lights specifically (which are more expensive than generic LED lights) or generic LED lighting fixtures must be retrofitted to be compatible with a PoE system. This is part of what makes PoE the most expensive of the three options.
Benefits of PoE
There are several benefits associated with PoE:
- Cost savings in the long run due to an increase in energy efficiency across connected devices. PoE delivers DC power that does not need to be converted by devices at an individual level. It also saves on operational costs is because it makes it easy to automate and optimize connected building systems based on data.
- Safe and easy to install.
- Cuts down on cables required in comparison to typical electrical systems.
- With it being a low voltage power distribution method, conduit or mechanical protection is not necessary.
- Allows you to individually address specific devices, and manually or automatically control them.
Disadvantages of PoE
The main disadvantage of PoE is the cost to implement it. However, there are several others:
- You must retrofit non-PoE devices to be compatible.
- PoE only provides up to 100W of power, so in order for devices (such as lights and HVAC) to get the power they need, bundles of PoE cables are necessary, increasing cabling costs.
- PoE systems require expensive ethernet switches and injectors.
PoE is an energy efficient solution with many benefits, but its cost can be a limitation for many people. The next two options do not require the expensive implementation costs of PoE, such as ethernet cables, switches, and PoE-ready devices.
Option #2: Intelligent Low Voltage DC Power Distribution
Option #2 involves retrofitting a low voltage (under 60 volts) power distribution system to enable smart lighting. Both PoE and option #2 conserve energy because of their automation capabilities, and because they distribute low voltage DC power.
But how does DC power intrinsically conserve energy?
In short, standard building electrical systems supply alternating current (AC) power, but 80 percent of our devices need direct current (DC) power. Every device that needs DC power comes equipped with an integrated converter that converts the AC power they get into the DC power they need. However, every time a conversion is made, energy is wasted in the form of heat. DC power distribution systems convert energy by distributing DC power to devices that require it so that all unnecessary conversions are eliminated. For this reason, implementing a DC power distribution system can save a commercial building up to 20 percent in energy consumption (and costs).
Benefits of Low Voltage DC Power
- The installation is easy and safe, just like PoE. However, it doesn’t require CAT series cables, ethernet switches, and it’s compatible with most LED lights on the market with a remote or removable driver, making it less expensive to install.
- It transforms cheaper devices that are not natively intelligent, into smart devices.
- Certain DC Power Distribution Systems can communicate with BACnet on a building automation system (BAS).
- Its sensors and wall switches are wireless, so they are modular, and do not need to be installed by electricians, and can easily be reprogrammed or updated.
- This option can distribute more than 100W of power per cable (but requires mechanical protection when doing so).
- This alternative allows for simple daisy chaining, thus saving cabling costs.
Why is this Option Cheaper than PoE?
- A non-PoE DC power distribution system doesn’t require expensive CAT series cables, ethernet switches, or native PoE light fixtures.
- This alternative can deliver more power per cable.
- Wireless sensors and wall switches further reduce wiring costs.
- The ability to daisy chain also reduces cabling costs because homeruns are not necessary.
How to Implement
A DC power distribution system can be as simple or as complex as you would like. The simple solution is to connect a high efficiency AC to DC power converter to your electrical grid. This way power is converted at the source to DC power and distributed to all your connected building systems.
A bit more complicated approach would be to give your power distribution system smart capabilities. This can be done by adding intelligent control nodes to your new DC power distribution system. These nodes would have software integrated into them that wirelessly collect and transmit data via a mesh network. Next, connecting sensors to the system allows for data to be collected about your connected building systems, such as lights. And, of course, you’re going to want a user-friendly platform to monitor, track and analyze this collected data. This platform (sometimes called a digital twin) should also be interactive so that you can control, automate, and optimize building systems that you’re collecting data on. This way you can remotely control things like the brightness of your lights.
Option 3: Intelligent High Voltage AC Power Distribution
This is the least expensive method of implementing smart lighting into your building. This option doesn’t require any additional cabling, although it doesn’t save as much energy. If you’re just looking to get started with smart lighting and save money through its automation capabilities, this might be the option for you.
One way to go about this method is by replacing all your light bulbs with smart bulbs. However, if you use fixtures rather than bulbs (meaning that your lighting is in the ceiling controlled by a switch) you might be better off replacing the switches themselves with smart switches and dimmers.
Another way to choose between installing smart bulbs or switches is to consider that smart bulbs can be controlled individually, whereas if you decide to go with a switch, you can control all the lights on that circuit. The drawback with the smart bulb route is that it can be expensive depending on how many bulbs you plan to replace with smart bulbs. However, smart switches are far more complicated to install, as you must connect them to your main power supply. This means turning off the power and dealing with the exposed wire behind the switch (a job for a qualified electrician).
Another thing to consider is if you want to monitor, control and automate all of your connected smart devices via an app, or if you’re only planning on making your lighting system smart. If you’re simply looking to install a smart lighting system, a smart switch will probably suit your needs. However, if you also want to convert other devices in your home, office or building into smart devices, a hub would allow you to pull all of these devices together under one user interface. Just make sure the hub you choose is compatible with all your smart devices.
As a reminder, this option will provide you with the energy savings that come from automating your LED lighting system, but your building will still be wasting about 20 percent of its energy with unnecessary conversions from AC to DC power.
The Final Verdict
Both PoE and intelligent low voltage DC power distribution systems conserve energy through the use of DC power and automation capabilities. However, an intelligent AC power distribution system is the most widespread smart lighting solution, but it only saves energy through its automation capabilities. This means you would still be wasting about 20 percent in energy costs due to power conversions. On top of that, PoE is the most expensive system between option #1 and #2. It is for this reason that if you’re looking for a smart lighting system that allows you to monitor, control, automate and optimize your energy use, without replacing any of your existing building systems, option #2 would be the most simple and cost-effective to implement.