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Connecting the Dots, Part I

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Connecting the Dots, Part I

Distributors discuss the extent to which connected lighting is truly penetrating the contractor and end-user markets.

 

Color tuning, daylight harvesting, asset tracking, remote monitoring, scene control, dimming, energy metering, and LiFi—these represent just some of the impressive and beneficial features available in today’s connected lighting systems.  But are contractors, end users, and even distributors actually getting the message and embracing the opportunity?

In this first of a special two-part series, several distributors argue that it still remains a rocky road to the promised land of connected lighting.

A Technological Mismatch

“Today’s marketplace is replete with options for connected lighting, but matching them with an end user isn’t as easy as it would seem,” says John Tull, director of infrastructure & industrial solutions at Facility Solutions Group in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. “There are many roadblocks to implementing these systems, including end user resistance, low pricing on electricity in many parts of the country, and A&E specification bias.”

While getting end users to grasp the benefits of connected lighting is challenging, Ryan Kuchenmeister, sales representative at K/E Electric Supply in Mount Clemens, Michigan, says that understanding these systems at the channel level is just as tenuous. As for whether contractors understand all of the features in connected lighting systems, for instance, he contended that “some do, but just when I’m encouraged by a contractor’s knowledge of connected lighting capabilities, another one comes along who has no idea what’s going on. The fact is, contractors aren’t salespeople and there aren’t too many contractors that ‘upsell’ on connected lighting. Occupancy sensors and dimming, sure, but a ‘system’—I would argue not.”

According to Kuchenmeister, end users definitely understand the energy savings associated with the installation of LED fixtures, but if contractors don’t push/offer their clients a system approach to lighting, building owners won’t buy it—unless it’s required, and not always then either. “End users don’t attend our conferences, get our product news, or read our industry magazines and only know what people tell them,” he explained. “From our experience, most contractors are either afraid of selling connected lighting or aren’t properly educated in it. As soon as contractors realize that they’ll be more profitable installing more on each job rather than racing from jobsite to jobsite, they’ll catch on,” he said. “Until then, the market will only move as fast as the energy code requirements change.”

Brad Sanders, lighting and building products category manager at Elliott Electric Supply in Nacogdoches, Texas, confirmed that the nuts and bolts of connected lighting systems remain challenging for more than just contractors and end users. With their often-sophisticated features and complex commissioning requirements, “I don’t know that I fully understand all of the capabilities of connected lighting,” he admitted. “Because the technology is so new, it’s improbable that all contractors know everything that connected lighting can offer. And while I think that end users are getting more and more informed about connected lighting,” Sanders said, “energy savings are likely what’s currently driving a majority of their investment decisions.”

Tull agreed. Observing that decision-makers in the retrofit market are largely focused on energy savings and often opt away from connected lighting systems due to poor ROI and resistance from operating staff, Tull said that new construction is currently where most of today’s connected lighting system installations are occurring. “This market is driven by three primary considerations—regulatory requirements, cost of energy, and sustainability goals,” he said. “When these three drivers are present, you’ll find a connected lighting system—for example, the installation of these systems is much more likely in Massachusetts, where all three drivers exist, than in Nebraska, where only one or two may exist. At this point, most end users stop,” he said, “unless there’s an ROI-based case for advanced functionality—such as a large retailer who wants to use the fixture infrastructure for customer heat mapping, customizing product placement, or promotional push-outs, or an airport that wants to use the connected lighting system to track wheelchairs and unauthorized access.”

Kuchenmeister noted that even so-called ‘requirements’ for connected lighting have failed to move the needle in many areas of the country. “In Michigan, for instance, the state enacted ASHRAE 90.1-2013 standards almost two years ago, but local inspectors are hardly enforcing it,” he said. “The opportunity for electricians to leverage the ‘it’s required’ argument is right on top of us, but it’s just not happening; the lighting controls capabilities they’re utilizing include occupancy sensors, dimming, and even the occasional old-school mechanical timers and contactors—technologies that have been used since fluorescent high bays were all the rage. With a few more minutes spent selling the system to the building owner,” he said, “a small business could be auto-scheduling scenes, setting security parameters with bi-level dimming, and monitoring their energy usage, and all the while it probably won’t cost a ton more money, is likely easier/faster to install, and can be controlled from a smartphone. How is this not a no-brainer?” he asked. “Again, the message is getting lost somewhere.”

Communicating Value

Based on this reality, FSG’s Tull said that a new go-to-market approach is needed. “Times have changed and the market is continually evolving—contractors and distributors must do the same,” he said. “Distributors must continuously keep up-to-date on the latest technology and its successful deployment, and contractors must master not only the installation, but the integration and ongoing operation. Overall, the channel must gain a deeper understanding of the market segments they plan on serving, develop refined tools for this segment, create a highly effective customer support structure, and not peddle phantomware.”

K/E Electric’s Kuchenmeister agreed. “Why is it that building owners will spend extra money on special imported floor tile from Spain, or Amish furniture that’s handmade from local wood, but not a dime extra on the electrical system?” he lamented. “The industry and its contractors are somehow not effectively sending the message that there’s value to connected lighting. As distributors, we have no choice but to be the voice of change.”

Elliott Electric’s Sanders also concurred. “I think that more and more customers are adapting to connected lighting, but it’s still only a small part of the market,” he said. “Some markets are quick to jump on new technology and will make every effort to be as efficient as possible and then there are markets that are slower to adapt and still buying T12 fluorescent tubes and traditional HID fixtures. Connected lighting is the future,” Sanders concluded, “and contractors and customers are going to have to learn to adapt to technological advances in lighting.”

 

Tune in to lightEDmag.com on Monday, September 23 for Part 2 of this series, which will spotlight how end users are capitalizing on their connected lighting system.

 

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Susan Bloomis a 25-year veteran of the lighting and electrical products industry. Reach her at susan.bloom.chester@gmail.com.

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