One of the most frequent conversations that I have with clients is whether to have light switches, dimmer switches, or lighting controls. Most clients have heard about lighting control systems. But many find it hard to decide if they can make room in their budget as they aren’t sure what they are going to do for them. So, if you’re stuck making this decision for your project or know it’s an issue that you’re going to come up against in the future this is the blog for you.
Here’s a list of what I think the main benefits you can get from having a lighting control system – just as they come to me. For lighting control system designers, electricians, etc. please don’t pull me up on the exact technical details of this – I am cutting corners to make it as simple as possible for the lay person to understand:
1. Silent dimming – rotary wall dimmers work by turning the lights on and off so quickly that our brains can’t perceive it. The more you turn the dial down the more off time is happening so the lights appear dimmer. The rapid on and off motion sets up an oscillation in the cables between the dimmer switch and the lights and that’s what causes the buzzing that annoys so many people.
Lighting control systems dim in a completely different way that doesn’t create that oscillation. Housing the equipment in cupboards or often in a dedicated plant room keeps any slight noise that they create away from the living spaces of a home.
2. Convenience – with a lighting control system any light or group of lights can be controlled by any of the lighting control panels. With light switches or rotary wall dimmers most often, they control the lights in the room you’re in. You might have a bit of 2 or 3 way switching perhaps in the halls, stairs, and landings but it’s more unusual for a switch to control a light in another room. The exception to this is if you have double doors where it’s easier to have them outside the room than inside.
Lighting control systems lend themselves to easily control lights in multiple rooms. For example, the panel by the front door could light the most common route through the house, e.g. the hall and open plan kitchen/dining/TV area to the utility room or larder. Master bedside panels could be programmed to turn off all of the lights in the house as you go to bed. One of the favourite convenience settings is the “last man out” switch by main doors that allows you to switch off all of the lights in one go – even the ones the kids have forgotten on the top floor!
3. Simplicity of use – a lot of people seem to think that they are going to be complicated and will take a long time to learn to use. Simplicity is in the arms of the designers and programmers. If the designer picks a control panel that provides just the right number of buttons and the programmer programs each panel consistently then they are easy to learn to use. I like top buttons to create the brightest combinations of lights and the lowest ones to be the dimmest. These pre-programmed combinations of lights are known as lighting scenes.
What is easier to contend with – a single light switch sized panel with a few buttons on it where each button sets the lights to exactly the way you want them. Or, a huge bank of light switches that you need to keep flicking on and off because you forget what they do?
I know which I’d prefer any day!
4. Panel size – the Rako lighting control panel above is the same size as a single light switch (around 85-90mm square). Others can be smaller or taller and narrower, such as the Lutron one below. The 8-gang light switch is around 150mm square and going to 12 gangs increases it to about 200mm tall.
5. Security and safety- many systems have the ability to record the randomness of every day usage of the lights so that the recording can be replayed during holiday periods (known as a holiday mode). If anyone is watching a house to work out if it’s occupied or not it’s a whole lot harder to work out than a couple of table lamps in the front room that gets switched on every night at 6.00pm and turned off at 11.30pm! This is becoming known as mockupancy (thanks for Paul Laventure of Indigo Zest for introducing me to this term which describes it perfectly!)
Panels by the master bedside can be set with a “panic button” – if you hear something outside or in the house this button could turn all the lights on it the house and garden (perhaps apart from the bedrooms) so that any intruders know they have been discovered (and are much more easily identified on the CCTV than when they are in night mode). They could also be used to alert the attention of neighbours or security guards if the lights flash on and off, for example.
6. Energy saving – when rotary wall dimmers dim, the power in the off period is transferred to a copper coil in the back – that’s why a metal rotary wall dimmer feels warm or even hot after prolonged periods of use. Lighting control system dimmers lower the current passing through the lights which simply uses less power. Whilst it’s true that the savings with LED lights isn’t as much as it is against halogen or incandescent lights there is still a saving and further you dim the more you save.
7. Lamp (bulb) saving – no lamp is going to last forever and most will blow as you switch them on. It’s the thermal shock of going from off/cold to on/hot very quickly that tends to be last straw and causes them to blow. Many lighting control systems can be set to turn the lights up from off very quickly but slower than a traditional on/off switch. That split second of longer switch on time is kinder to the lamps which means they last longer. With LED light sources being a lot more money than traditional ones who wouldn’t want them to last as long as possible (and who likes changing light bulbs anyway)?