I had the pleasure of interviewing John Arthur Wilson, a lighting control and utility rebate consultant, about his 2021 market research into wireless lighting controls. That research resulted in a learning guide that can be used to support basic education around wireless trends in lighting. The Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance (NEEA) has published that document on their Better Bricks website, available to the public, here

Shiller: The wireless control guide that you created for Better Bricks is a great document about wireless lighting controls. It provides a simple explanation of load control devices, the protocols, frequencies, performance, topologies, proprietary versus open, and more. Who was the primary audience for this guide?

Wilson: The guide was purposefully meant to target a broad audience set, and that was largely because it was something that we wanted to be really accessible. We didn’t want it to go overly in-depth in any one area to where you really needed to have a technical background. The idea was that this is something that could be leveraged either in training settings or to educate end users. So, the idea is that this guide is something that any organization across North America could pick up and could incorporate into any sort of workshop they’re doing. For example, if we’re working with electrical contractors or a utility with a strategic energy management program, and they’re working with facilities people or key decision makers. It was meant to be something that they could incorporate into their curriculum and leverage it.

There was a big body of research that informed why the guide was needed in the first place. Over a period of six months, we worked in-depth with over a dozen lighting control specifiers. We had electrical engineers, we had lighting designers, and we had contractors that design, build, and commission. We asked a lot of questions about project specifics to better understand the lighting control specifier and the customer. One of the things that came up repeatedly, was that luminaire level lighting controls (LLLC) has a massive “value engineering” problem, due to their higher costs. If you’re just looking at first costs upfront, people are saying this costs more, but there are so many other benefits. One of the major benefits is the wireless aspect. It streamlines installation. Some lighting specifiers and their clients are concerned about cybersecurity with wireless controls. We ask, is cybersecurity an issue on your jobs? And for most projects, it’s not. There’s a disconnect between how much we talk about cybersecurity as this generic boogeyman and then how much it’s actually an issue. But 80% of the actual cybersecurity risk isn’t wireless devices in the network system. They pose a tiny risk, but it’s nothing compared to the way your gateway is connected to the Internet and how you have established user access and password protection. That’s where the overwhelming majority of cybersecurity risk is.

As soon as you say no to wireless, you’re negating all the other wireless benefits. Wireless was a pinch point that we identified. In working with these specifiers, we realized there is typically an opportunity to educate the end user. We created the wireless guide to be an educational resource that could be part of that conversation when specifiers are talking to decision-makers.

Shiller: The wireless guide was published last year, right?

Wilson: The very end of last year.

Shiller: What’s been the overall response to the guide. Is NEEA happy with the clicks, downloads, and attention that it’s getting?

Wilson: Yes, I think they’re very happy with it. People love that even though it’s ten pages, it’s not dense. We kept it high level including a lot of graphics.

Shiller: After the basic education aspects of the guide, it dives into three major trends with wireless controls:  data resiliency, automatic device reconnection, and latency versus simultaneity. I was wondering if you wanted to talk a little bit to those three trends?

Wilson: Yes, I think of it as properly addressing past problems. They’re not wrong and they’re not imagining it. They’re right. Resiliency was a real issue. It is important to validate that. Wireless has gone from mostly reliable to resilient. There was an issue with devices that would fall offline, or just wouldn’t connect, and that was an issue. The biggest improvement here is the mesh network. You’re no longer reliant on an individual node, so that if something happens to that node, the message isn’t going to get passed. Another problem is that when people hear wireless, they almost always conflate it in their heads with Wi-Fi, which is just one type of wireless, but it’s not really the type that matters in commercial lighting. In fact, Wi-Fi plays a tiny part in commercial lighting networks, overall.

Shiller: What about automatic device reconnection?

Wilson: This one really matters. It was incredibly common and just so unbelievably frustrating when a device would invariably fall offline and then come back online. Now, these devices can come back online, they know who they are, they know who they’re supposed to be talking to, what they have received in between, because there’s timestamps. Before, people had to open the ceiling and press a button and put it back into discover mode, and then you have to reconnect it to the part of the network it was in, which was just awful. So, that was a major improvement.

Shiller: Great. And the third trend was latency versus simultaneity.

Wilson: Yes. Latency versus uniformity, simultaneity or whatever you want to call it. It drove my lighting designer friends up a wall. When you have a large space, and the scene command would get sent out, you’d get this ‘popcorning’ of lights changing at different times, throughout the space. This problem has been solved with time-synched commands, which is very cool. You can have a mesh network that sends this command out over a space, with a time signature stamp on it. Then when it gets to individual nodes that are controlling that, it sends the synchronized command out to all the rest of the devices so that everything happens uniformly. It is one of the major macro trends that I believe is a big step forward.

Shiller: What do you think are the most important takeaways from the guide, that you’d like specifiers to know? 

Wilson: I think the most important thing in the guide is that every single one of these issues doesn’t matter for every single job. Just focusing on wireless as the cause of cybersecurity risks does nothing to address the actual cybersecurity risks. The most important thing is it’s a tool kit to help specifiers understand the advantages of wireless, to help support a solution that is best for the client.

Shiller: Were there any topics left out of the guide in order to keep it short, manageable, and digestible? I’m curious if there are things you wished you could have fit in, but you couldn’t?

Wilson: We got all the major topics in it. There’s always a risk when you’re an inch deep and a mile wide that you’re not hitting the important details. We could really nerd out on this stuff, but those conversations don’t actually matter for decision-makers. There are always areas that we could have gone deeper on. And one, I wish we could have gone deeper on is open versus not open. The truth is we don’t have anything close to open in lighting, even though 98% of products on the market are based on open but have been tweaked to proprietary. And then the way that these companies talk about their systems being open is very misleading. Similarly, the way that they talk about if you need a gateway or not is very misleading. It’s like you don’t need a gateway for the most basic functionality, but if you want something like scheduling, you’re going to need a gateway. Rather than trying to answer all the issues through this guide, we set the table and then say, don’t be afraid to ask, what is this? How open is it, or is this a totally proprietary solution? Is this the solution in the middle where we still have an open API?

Shiller: John, I really appreciate you sharing your expertise with our readers. Thank you. The NEEA Better Bricks Wireless Lighting Controls Guide can be downloaded here.

edited July 18, 2022