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Bonus online feature: Changing The 19th-Century Wiring Topography for Buildings

October 29, 2008
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With the invention of the light bulb by Thomas Edison in 1879, and its subsequent installation in Menlo Park in December of that year, electrical engineers and contractors have laid out and wired buildings the very same way since that winter day. Sure, there have been some changes in the application with the advent of flexible zone-cabling and multi-user telecommunications outlet assemblies (MUTOAs), but the standard home-run used to create zones is still fundamentally, after all of these years, the same process used to lay out the wiring in a building. Today’s new lighting technologies, especially those within the wireless realm, have the potential to alter this long-used practice.

A New Opportunity

There is a paradigm-shift taking place in today’s lighting environments. Real, true wireless lighting applications are becoming more and more available to the average consumer and business. The benefits of wireless lighting are numerous and easy to communicate and demonstrate: individual addressability; granularity of control ( e.g., dimmability and scheduling); energy saving applications vis-à-vis real time usage, peak shaving and demand response; and open-systems integration which can tie into other BAS are a few that come to mind.

The true game-changing technologies, however, bring another level of benefit to the table - those benefits that lurk beneath the surface, but which in many cases have an importance all to themselves outside of the technology itself. Imagine, if you will, the ability to eliminate home-runs, circuits, panels, j-boxes, and time and installation costs. What does that do to the first cost of building a new building?

Recent accounting examples demonstrated by the DOE state that if done properly, it equates to a first-cost savings of 40%. Continuing this train of thought, what if the need to rewire for moves, adds, and changes disappears altogether - what’s that value equate to in terms of costs? What’s that value equate to in terms of time and savings?

The deep-dive realization that comes to mind in choosing a wireless lighting control system is that wiring a building based on traditional home-runs can be eliminated. Reduction in materials is achievable through applications and paradigms shifted with the acceptance of new and different parameters. This new fact being dialed in to three simple words - zones don’t matter - and basing the new design on load variances becomes the tantamount new thought process. Homeruns aren’t necessary anymore. This statement may disturb a great many people, but the fact of the matter is traditional wiring design will change by necessity and as a by-product of the wireless lighting revolution that is currently underfoot.

Keeping Up With The Changes

What does this really mean? When a traditional building is laid-out, the basis for the wiring design lies within the number of zones that the occupant wants to control. For the purposes of this article, assume that the building occupant wants to have 14 zones that they can control. With that being the case, normal applications require specific home-runs and circuits laid out for individual control of these zones; in this case, 14 home-runs and 14 direct circuits to create 14 controllable zones. Associated with all of this is the time and personnel needed to install this wiring. This is the tried-and-true way of laying out electrical to meet the zonal needs of the occupant to attain the control of these zones.

Wireless lighting control relies on the usage of a graphical user interface (GUI) to control the overall system: the ability to turn lights on/off, dim, and schedule, to name a few functions. The GUI is also used to determine and create zones within the building - zones that can be changed in most cases on a whim by dragging and dropping icons within the GUI interface, which in turn regulate the actual real-world control of those specific fixtures.

This type of application is a huge benefit for organizations that are in a constant state of flux or see a large amount of moves, adds, or changes within their building footprint. Sending people into the ceiling to rewire to make these changes becomes a thing of the past - saving the tenant considerable money that can be redirected to their bottom line. Returning to the 14 zones in the previous example, if this new technology is employed in the construction of the new building, the zones become unimportant; the GUI interface allows the enduser to create zones on a whim - 7 zones, 14 zones, 50 zones - it is dependent only on the needs of the space and the users of the space.

As that is the case, the building’s wiring footprint then needs a rationale for its existence. Since home-runs lose their importance because zonal applications fall to the GUI, the load of the circuit now becomes the focus. Instead of 14 home-runs, the builder can now utilize 8 home-runs for the layout - reducing the number of runs by six by maxing out the load and saving on wiring, circuits, time and labor; from a first cost perspective, these reductions equate up to 40% savings over traditional building construction using home-runs.

These eight runs are based on amperage load and rely solely on the electrical capacity that these runs establish. The load becomes the driving factor within this new paradigm - not the zone control - as the controllability now lies within the GUI. As building tenants grow and change, the need to expand or contract the number of zones that are controllable lies within the interface - the need to rewire or add new home-runs is eliminated.

Cost And Energy Savings

This new type of thinking adds to the considerable savings that wireless lighting systems bring to the table in terms of energy usage. This conservation of energy, which is driving the need for this type of technology, can equal 40% to 60% savings over buildings that don’t employ this technology. Adding an additional 40% savings in construction materials and labor, only adds to the overall rationale for installing these types of systems.

There is no doubt that these new technologies are leading to significant changes in how controllability is defined and utilized within new building construction. The greening of buildings is the way of the future allowing for the balance of conservation with controllability. The creation of a building that responds to the needs of its occupants instead of the occupants responding to the building is truly a change that workers across the globe have been anticipating for years. In addition, the fact that hidden beneath the skin of these technologies lay additional benefits that at first glance aren’t instantly obvious is icing on the cake.

It is important to note that with these radical changes in technology, the way we think about how we do things need to change as well. Almost 130 years of doing things the same way is a very long time and has become imbedded in our construction DNA - and getting people to change their habits is not an easy thing to do. Evolution is a constant, however, and change does eventually happen. Mutating that change by incorporating significant first-cost construction savings will only further this technology along at a more rapid pace.

Edison may have invented the light bulb, but Darwin’s influence on (wiring) evolution has made it better. It’s time we leave the 19th century where it belongs - in the past. GIB
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