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Opinion: beware the wireless hype

Wireless control has many benefits, but installers should also be aware of its limitations, says Lutron Electronics’ Sam Woodward.

By the end of this decade, one in three UK households will have become a so-called ‘smart home’, while the global smart home market will reach US$100 billion by 2018. The future is clearly connected and many people are turning to one family of technologies to support this revolution: wireless control. From our laptops and TVs to our heating and lighting, everything is becoming more interconnected; home automation is one of the biggest global trends right now. There is strong demand from consumers for the integration of innovative smart devices – particularly in the lighting industry – into their everyday lives. And while using them is often as straightforward as pushing a single button, installing modern interconnected systems brings with it a series of new challenges and opportunities for installers.

Advanced lighting solutions nowadays enable users to control light and window-blind levels individually throughout the whole house straight from their smartphone, or even their wristwatch, regardless of whether they are actually at home or not. Within the home, the key is convenience. Whether using wall-mounted keypads, or a variety of wireless devices, from smartphones or tablets (connected via WiFi) or dedicated lighting control interfaces (connecting using other protocols, such as Lutron’s patented ClearConnect), the user’s smooth and swift interaction experience should be the same regardless of whether it is wired or wireless. To achieve this, it might sound as if all installers have to do to set up smart lighting solutions is substitute cables with wireless technologies but, despite the hype, this isn’t necessarily always the best way to go.

Not all are equal

Although they all share the common characteristic of connection without cables, not all wireless devices are created equal. Many use the busy 2.4GHz part of the radio spectrum, which is often prone to connection issues as it’s shared by WiFi along with many control protocols (including the majority of Zigbee devices) and even microwave ovens. Media streaming often saturates available bandwidth and so maintaining a 100% reliable connection from a phone or tablet is often not possible. Other lighting control protocols (such as ClearConnect) overcome this challenge by using an entirely different frequency, which doesn’t suffer from interference in the same way, and is tightly controlled to use minimal bandwidth. However despite the availability of such reliable communications, it’s always advisable to have a wired solution in place as well. The eventual inevitability of a user’s smartphone having a flat battery should not lock them out of the ability to control their lights.

Deploying wireless technologies also brings an additional cost saving benefit for installers, who will need to buy fewer cables, and less containment, which would have been required to put wired connections in place. Likewise, there is a considerable labour saving with wireless systems.

Guaranteed range?

However, before installers can recommend new products to their clients, they need to ask themselves a series of questions. One aspect of wireless products to be rightfully sceptical of is the claims over a product’s wireless range. While many manufacturers’ spec sheets indicate a device’s range using an ‘up-to’ distance, which is often measured under ideal conditions such as direct line of sight, you should choose instead those products where the manufacturers give installers a guaranteed connectivity range in real-life conditions. Many factors, including the materials in a house’s walls, the furnishings, or even the presence of people, who will absorb radio signals, can impact radio range reliability; installers need to ascertain the guaranteed connectivity range in order to build strong, reliable and durable smart lighting systems.

Wireless technologies might be the talk of the town at the moment but they are far from new. In fact, some companies offering wireless lighting solutions today submitted patents for these technologies as far back as the early 1990s. However, while the world is clamouring for wireless as a quick-fix for retrofit installations, installers need to build their knowledge about the technology to make informed and sensible decisions when setting up lighting systems for their clients. The success of a project will still largely depend on the quality of the wired infrastructure to which the products will ultimately connect. However, despite all these advancements there is ultimately no such thing as a completely wireless future for our industry.

Sam Woodward is customer education leader, Europe and Africa at Lutron Electronics.