Correction: See below.
Flipping off the lights does save power, particularly if you don't have to rely on humans.
A study commissioned by the Emerging Technologies Program at Pacific Gas & Electric has found that automated systems for dimming and turning off lights in commercial buildings could cut power consumed by lighting by 50 percent or greater.
Lighting controls from Adura Technologies did the best in the tests, curbing power by 51.4 percent to 72.9 percent. Technology from EnOcean, meanwhile, curbed power consumption by 63.6 percent, but the result varied with the technologies EnOcean was partnered.
The study should be welcome news for the ever-growing number of startups and established companies entering the market for building management tools. Building control, in short, is a mess. Although most large buildings have automated thermostat control, countermanding and overlapping commands often lead to situations where the air conditioner and heater operate at the same time.
The executive in charge of building ongoing management, according to Cimetrics CEO James Lee, is often the janitor. Waste is one of the reasons that building operations consume 39 percent of the total energy in the U.S.
And that's the upbeat portion of the story. Currently, dynamic lighting controls are only present in about 1 percent of buildings. With rising energy prices and a corresponding decline of the costs of these systems, the figure could boost that figure to ten percent. Interior office lighting consumes 4,331 gigawatt hours a year of electricity in California and accounts for 29 percent of the state's power.
These automated systems hope to provide buildings with "continuous commissioning" through hardware, software, sensors and routers.
"Energy to IT. That is the broad conversion," said Adura co-founder Zach Gentry in an interview. "We are looking at energy as bits and bytes."
Gentry, though, added that the lack of popularity of lighting controls can't only be attributed to companies skimping on their capital budgets. Often, employees find them irritating. One of the more common things you see attached to a motion sensor installed to dim lights is a screwdriver jammed in there by an irate employee to disable it.
Three different types of systems were installed in commercial buildings in California and tested in real-world settings over a two week period. Employees weren't plunged into darkness, but light levels were adjusted through sensors, dynamic dimming, human feedback (i.e., someone overriding the system and turning the lights up) and other techniques.
Adura has created controllers for fluorescent lamps that communicate through mesh networking and ZigBee. Soon, the company will begin to hold training sessions at union halls in California. The courses are part of an advanced lighting training program created by Southern California Edison last year.
Although Adura is only now coming out with its first products for lighting, it has already laid plans to port its systems to other appliances in buildings to provide comprehensive energy control.
EnOcean, by contrast, relies upon a wireless protocol that requires very little power. (EnOcean's technology is used to make wireless light switches: The kinetic energy from someone flipping a switch is large enough to send a signal on the network.) EnOcean's performance, however, depended on the type of ballast with which it was matched.
The study also examined a system that relies on power line networking. Although power line can potentially curb light power by 50 percent, the test results were in the 10 percent to 18 percent range.
Correction: we called Adura's systems in ballasts, a component that dims lights. They are controllers that interface with the ballasts.
Learn how to differentiate your company through greener product lines at Greening the Supply Chain on September 17 in Boston.