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Customers asking for lighting controls that work? Write a control narrative

Image of room control unit
You can have the best lighting controls in the world, but they won't deliver benefits if your end users don't accept them. A narrative can help get you there.

Training session dives into importance of design and communication

In theory, today's advanced lighting control systems deliver energy efficiency, lower operating costs, tenant satisfaction, and improved security. But these systems are sophisticated, and benefits can be literally lost in translation.

The risks associated with not getting advanced lighting controls right include poor design, improper installation, and a lack of user acceptance.

"Careful design and documentation are needed, including a room-by-room narrative that explains how the sensors should work in specific areas and under specific conditions," says Cristian Suvagau, a senior lighting and energy efficiency engineer with BC Hydro. "That kind of stuff isn't always done properly, and you can end up with a lot of dissatisfaction because of that. You don't want an office where the lights turn on and off each time a cloud passes by."

Alliance members often play the key role as consultants on advanced lighting control projects. And in January, 20 Alliance members from across B.C. attended an intensive two-day lighting controls workshop sponsored by BC Hydro and led by Shaun Darragh, a senior lighting specialist at Seattle's Design Lab.

Darragh not only brought more than 25 years of lighting industry experience to the training session, which covered everything from controls hardware, to controls strategy, wiring, and programming. He also brought along four different systems, from four different lighting control vendors, to allow each Alliance member to play-and-learn on each system.

Judging by what he heard in the Q & A at the close of training, Suvagau believes the Alliance members who attended are now much better equipped to bring design to the table as advanced lighting control consultants. "I think their knowledge and understanding of these systems has reached another level," said Suvagau.

While there's no substitute for training – and BC Hydro hopes to hold another training session in the near future – here are a few key themes from the two-day course.

Know the site, know the tenants, and write a narrative

Consultants at the workshop were split between those who did retrofits and those who were more involved in new construction. Both benefitted from a focus on getting the design right.

"You have to understand the customer's business," says Suvagau. "An office is different from a hospital and from a school. While the distinction between building types may be obvious, how much do you understand the pattern of use by the building occupants? It can be easier when you have an existing scenario, but sometimes you don't' have that."

A sequence of operation narrative built on room-by-room specifics and the way tenants use the space helps contractors understand and install the system correctly, and it helps ensure that in the commissioning stage, the system is set up properly. "If the design concept isn't properly conveyed to the installer and to the end user, all those settings are just lost in the wind," says Suvagau.

Don't leave the design up to the vendor

Vendors are well aware of the complexity of their systems and how they work best, but it can be a mistake to leave the design and specifications of a system up to the vendor.

"There's nothing wrong with getting vendors' help, but that can lock you into one design approach," says Suvagau. "The consultant has the duty to communicate. Talk to the controls vendor and the customer, who may be able to provide the particulars of what has or hasn't worked in the past."

Ensure installation and commissioning are rock solid

A post-installation checklist that only ensures that all the system controls are in place isn't going far enough. The system needs to be set up to ensure everything – from light level set points, to time delay and sensitivity adjustments, to integrated dimmer presets – is done according to the design.

Again, this is where the controls narrative plays a starring role. It should provide clear direction on performance-testing criteria during commissioning, and explain to the owner how the control system operates.