Rethinking How We Sell Lighting Control Systems

Lighting controls offer many benefits but have yet to become as widely adopted as was hoped.

Despite decades of promoting the energy savings that controls can provide, the DOE estimates that 66% of commercial buildings and 93% of industrial buildings lack any type of control beyond an on/off switch as of 2017.  It is time to try a new approach that encompasses everything that controls have to offer, according to Liesel Whitney-Schulte, Program Director, DesignLights Consortium, and Dan Mellinger, Principal, Energy Futures Group.

In a recent webinar hosted by the IES, Liesel and Dan laid out their plan for “A New Sales Pitch.”  Many first-generation LED fixtures are beginning to need to be replaced, so this is the perfect time to implement controls in retrofit projects.  As we rebound from the pandemic and infrastructure funding increases, the outlook for the construction sector is bright.  And, funding for energy efficiency programs remains widely available.  We must strike while the iron is hot, but we need a thorough and comprehensive approach.  As we have seen, emphasizing only the energy savings is not enough.

Lighting control systems can be thought of as existing on a spectrum.  On the simple end of the spectrum, you have stand-alone controls.  These are basic control systems that provide energy savings through processes like dimming and occupancy sensing.  They communicate one way with a luminaire or load controller and are not connected with other control devices.  On the more integrated end of the spectrum, you have networked lighting controls, where everything is coordinated, enabling a wide range of valuable new capabilities for building owners.

The DOE estimates that, currently, only 4% of indoor LED luminaires are associated with networked lighting controls.  If we could increase the adoption rate of these control programs, the savings would be measured in billions.  But in order to do so, we need to change our approach.  Our current track record suggests that, without changing our approach, we will fall well short of the DOE’s connected lighting goal, and, in doing so, waste billions of dollars.

At this point, the energy savings associated with controls are indisputable, but the non-energy benefits are often ignored, even though these benefits might be the most desirable to customers.  The 3-30-300 rule is illustrative here – companies typically spend only $3 per square foot per year for utilities, compared to $30 for rent and $300 for payroll.  So, previous sales pitches, focusing solely on energy savings, don’t seem very appealing to consumers.  If, instead, we emphasize benefits of controls that affect the $30 and $300 categories, companies might be more likely to get on board.  As Dan noted, “We have to speak to what is valuable to these facility managers, business owners, building operators, and contractors.”

Non-energy benefits include improved circadian wellness, space utilization, asset tracking, wayfinding, and emergency assist.  We are quickly moving toward a more digitalized environment in which everything connected.  Smart buildings offer centralized control of all of a building’s systems, and given its ubiquity and uniformity, lighting is well-positioned to be an integral part of this connected infrastructure.

Dan highlighted an example from Minnesota in which the lighting was coupled to the HVAC system.  This led to a dramatic increase in the energy cost savings of the building through processes like thermostat setbacks, ventilation resets, and VAV box turndowns.  The added cost of the HVAC/lighting control was recovered in less than a year by the energy savings.

So, what do we need to do moving forward?  We need to focus on the right value proposition.  We need to find a way to quantify the non-energy benefits so that they can be more easily understood and relayed to the customer.

To summarize, lighting controls have failed to achieve the adoption rates that many felt were possible.  The main selling point, so far, has been the energy savings associated with controls.  But, consumers have not been convinced by this, especially given how energy efficient LED products already are.  So, a comprehensive approach to the full range of benefits offered by controls is needed.  Lighting is well positioned to be a centerpiece of smart building technology as building systems become more integrated, so there is a great opportunity to see widespread implementation of networked lighting controls.  Doing so will lead to billions in savings.