Technology – Lighting
Lighting Controls for the Home
tips on implementing lighting controls for the home, including dimming and other functions
By Stephen Margulies
HOW OFTEN HAVE YOU GONE INTO A HOME and seen a bank of four to six light switches or dimmers on a wall at an entrance to a room? Who could ever figure out what the first or fourth switch controls! Add 3-way and 4-way switches or dimmers, and the task becomes even more complex. Historically, most people provided switches in their rooms for all of the lights. Dimming has been available for decades, but surprisingly not implemented as often as you might imagine. Most high-end residences take advantage of the beauty of dimming.
Dimming instantly changes the aesthetics of a room and creates the right environment for the required function—bright lights for cooking, dim lights for dining, theater type levels for movie watching and dramatic levels for a party.
Adding dimming to a residence is the least expensive method I know of to create amazing environments in a home for specific uses. And I have to admit that dimming even helps “bad” lighting in a home. But for our discussion, let’s say that it is a pre-requisite that we start with a good lighting design for any home or space.
Once you have determined that you will be implementing dimming in a home, then you must make the homeowner understand the difference between individual “Zone” control, or room “Preset” control. Both are appropriate—one may be more appropriate than the other for different room types.
“Zone” control is having a single dimmer that controls a single group of lights. Some rooms may have more than one dimmer controlling individual groups of lights. We do not recommend more than three groups of individually controlled groups of lights within a space, otherwise it gets too confusing for the homeowner.
“Preset” controls are similar to what you see in a theater. Multiple groups of lights can be pre-programmed to create a “look” or “scene” that can be initiated by a single press of a button. Once programmed, the system remembers the “look” and the same look can be recreated at any time. For an open plan residence where dining, living and kitchen may be open to each other, the preset scenes may be “Day”, “Night”, “Dining” or “TV”. The lights for these various scenes can be set to emphasize the specific activity and can be easily replicated with a simple single button press. This is much easier than controlling six to eight individual zone dimmers and having to reset these dimmers each time one of these activities takes place.
Some of our clients insist on having the ability to do both. As I stated in a previous article, we had a client where the husband wanted preset control and the wife wanted zone control. You can locate all preset keypad controls next to the individual zone dimmers and give the homeowners the ability to have both, or alternatively you can provide preset control stations in the rooms exposed to view and hide the zone controls in an adjacent closet. This gives the homeowner the ability to override the preset controls if desired and avoids a bank of dimmers on a wall that are typically unsightly.
There are a variety of lighting systems now available. The major players in the high-end residential marketplace are Lutron, Crestron and Savant — however there are many other companies that make systems for residential applications. All of these manufacturers make systems that provide local wall box zone control, as well as room preset control. They all offer a variety of tablet or phone app control and whole-house automation compatibility. They are also very dependable and provide great support on the design side, as well as the startup and commissioning side. You can have the best control system in the world, but if it has not been commissioned properly to meet the needs of the homeowner, the system will have failed.
We have found that some of the control manufacturers are better versed in load type compatibility than others. We are almost exclusively using LED light sources for our residential work. Controlling these light sources are not as simple as controlling incandescent lamps. The power supplies for the new LED light fixtures offer several control options – 0 to 10v, ELV, MLV, DMX, Forward Phase, Reverse Phase, Universal Phase, Dali, Ecosystem, Zigbee, etc., etc. The entire array of control strategies can be confusing and impact dimming quality and wiring, so you have to carefully coordinate your design.
intuitive control design
Control stations (voice, touch panel, keypad) within a home need to be intuitive. We have seen touch panels where you need to be able to read ancient hieroglyphics in order to know what you are controlling. The simpler the control station, the simpler the homeowner will know what to do.
In the case of wall box individual zone control, we believe that if you have less than three zones of control the devices are self-explanatory, once the user knows how to use the dimmer. For example, the Lutron Maestro dimmer has a toggle and a raise/lower lever on the side. If you double-tap the top part of the dimmer, the lights will go on full. If you single-tap the top of the dimmer, the lights will go to the level set by the raise/lower lever on the side of the dimmer. If you single-tap the bottom part of the dimmer, the lights will fade to off. It is simple and intuitive once you know how it works. Guests might have to figure it out at first, but get used to it quickly. These devices extend to Lutron’s whole house product lines like Homeworks and Radio RA2.
In the case of “preset” control stations, there are many types to choose from. Too many buttons and you end up with confusion. Too few buttons and you have not given your client enough flexibility. We have found that four preset scenes for most spaces are adequate. We have also found that having a raise/lower button on the control station gives the user even more flexibility. Once in a preset scene you can raise or lower all zones within that scene together. This is an extremely powerful tool for the homeowner.
Control stations can be engraved with scene names or zone names, however I am always cautious and uncertain what to call scenes. Engraving seems so permanent—useful if all can agree to what scenes are called. Sometimes we just engrave scenes as A, B, C, D and OFF. That is often enough to know which button to push.
The other manufacturers’ products have their own logic—some better and some worse, and it is worthwhile to spend some time with the homeowners to understand their preferences. Having samples and explaining how they work is always useful.
wired vs wireless
In this world of wireless technology, we now have the benefit to use wireless for lighting controls. Lutron has a series of wireless control stations that come in a series of different button styles. 2-button, 4-button, and raise/lower button configurations allow for various room functions. The advantage of these types of control stations are that they can be located anywhere and be moved at some point without rewiring. They can sit on a night table, a credenza, or be mounted onto a wall and look like a standard wall dimmer switch. They can be used for 3-way and 4-way dimmer applications without the need for complicated wiring between devices. All in all, they can simplify the wiring of a project and allow for owner changes and adjustments in the future, by just recommissioning control stations. The batteries are designed to last 10 years and the styling of these devices are pretty neutral and unobtrusive.
Floor lamps and table lamps are often used throughout a home. They provide a sense of scale and enforce any design style. They also can be used to provide the functional lighting within a space. These devices are often forgotten when it comes to control systems. It is unfortunate to go to the living room preset control station and actuate the party preset scene and then have to go and individually turn on floor and table lamps as well as set the intensity if they happen to come with an in-line dimmer. Control companies make control modules that can be used for these load types and can be added on to the preset controls for each space.
integration and commissioning
Often the technology designer is required to provide integration services of many home systems. A/V, lights, shades, security, and HVAC are the most common systems that require integration. Lighting is just one of these systems, however in our mind the most important. It is rather complicated that an owner of a 5,000 sq. ft. house would have to go around and turn on or off nearly 100 switches or dimmers in a house to control all of the lighting in their home.
Intelligent lighting controls allows for whole house “shutdown” or “turn on” at entry points and next to bedsides. Intelligent lighting controls, properly designed and commissioned, allow homeowners to create great spaces and have those spaces easily change their aesthetic with a simple push of a button.
As discussed in previous articles, we are seeing the introduction of tunable and color-changing light sources for residential environments. This unleashes an incredible power in the ability to create unique environments—tune the best color for a specific piece of art or stimulate health and wellness as just two examples. The controls that are required for these lighting systems are exponentially more complex. The user experience is difficult to predict and quantify, however it is the future and all of us have to prepare for it because the future is happening now!