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May, 2008:

Desing of location of controls:

I visit many very expensive developments programming lighting controls. When we are just contracted to do the programming we arrive on site after all the first fixing has been completed and sometimes even later than that at a very late stage when the project is near to completion.

You can understand control panels for a lighting control system being placed in the traditional spot near the entry exit point of the room. I don’t think this is the future of lighting control and comes from the old technology of electric light switches but that is for different rant!

On many of these sites I find Audio Visual control panels in the same place at the entry exit point of the room.

When I was 16 I bought myself a simple Sony Midi System ( CD , Tuner ,Cassette ) with a simple remote control. This allowed me my first glimpse into luxury control!!

From the comfort of my bed or from my easy chair or indeed from my computer desk I could quickly and simply control my music for the room from each location. Not rocket science I hear you say but really effective simple control.

Move forward fifteen years and you would think that the intervening years would have moved us forward especially with a large budget on a multi-room penthouse

project. However even with a well known control system and a huge budget the control in the bedrooms of theses projects have arguably a less flexible and overall a lower overall standard of control than my bedroom did fifteen years ago.

Why ?

Who does the design of these projects ?

(I often find myself asking mostly under my breath). There are generally three different answers; The Salesperson of the control system told us to put them next to the light switches, The Electrician or developer who had no drawings had to make the decision and went with what they know, The Lighting Designer or architect who spent hours of quality work on the fixture placement and selection and did the controls as an after thought.

Am I being a bit harsh on all these individuals?

The Salesperson should not be doing the design of the lighting or of the controls. For one thing if a salesperson designs anything they will always design with a bias to there products which may not be the best solution. Design is an involved process that requires interaction with other design professionals involved who a sales person generally does not have access to.

The Electrician who does not have a drawing goes back to what they know. Electricians are trained in electrical system design. This design is design of systems to comply with the wiring regulations and the training does not extend to anything but simple positioning of items for ease of use. If I am being really harsh the level of training for lighting given to most electricians is limited to two-way switching with a number of sparks struggling with an intermediate. In fairness as well a building site with deadlines and other contractors is no place to be making cool calculated design decisions.

Lastly there is our Architect or Lighting designer who as I said has spent hours of time making a really great (hopefully) lighting design for the project. On a number of occasions that’s where they stop. The Drawings are produced with no thought to lighting control whatsoever. On many occasions the design is produced with no thought to maximum loadings of control gear which is really unforgivable but I would say that not thought to lighting control is equally wrong. In this article today I’m only talking about the relatively simple design decision of placement of controls not even looking at the next stage of what these controls do and how they interact with other control in different positions. The limit for most designers is to write a multi-scene scene setting for a system in the form of a table giving circuit numbers and relative intensities. On the placement of the controls the designers all seem to have been to the same training as the electricians and cannot bring themselves to look out of the box and try and make the design better. Architects and designers talk about movement of users through a design as a very important concept in the design process. In the modern automated house the movement of individuals is dictated by control of the lighting and audio visual systems within the space and should hence get a healthy proportion of attention from professionals with suitable understanding in controls at the design stage.

Lighting controls can serve many purposes. In a commercial project they can ensure that the designers vision is maintained night after night, year after year hence realising the value of the design work maintaining the “look” In this application the placement of controls is usually quite simple but I still see horrific examples of getting it wrong. In Domestic properties the placement of controls is much more complicated. Modern designs involve open plan areas with many entry and exit points within large open spaces. The solution given is often to throw loads of controllers at these points and have them all providing the same functionality.

Neil Silver is the Technical Director of S I Sound and Light

He is an Electrical and Electronic Engineer with many years experience in controls, Audio Visual and Lighting Systems

Lighting Controls and Standards

Control standards in Lighting


This short document aims to present the common control standard used in the lighting industry today and give a short explanation of their development, uses, advantages and disadvantages.


Lighting can be switched on or of and it can be dimmed that is the light output of the lighting source varied to different levels in between off (no light ) and full on ( the maximum light output of the source)

Electrical Dimming

When halogen lighting is in use the dimming is simple and can be carried out either remotely or locally. A dimmer of this type (for a halogen load) achieves the dimming by reducing or increasing the level of the r.m.s. voltage and hence the average power.

Traditional Triac or thyristor dimmers use switching techniques to achieve this varying voltage. Inductors are the other main component of the dimming circuit and these are used to suppress interference caused by the switching. When a dimmer is at 50% they are switching the greatest voltage and the interference in the circuit is at its maximum. This is the cause of the vibration in the inductors that causes a buzz to be heard near to the dimming units. The inductors add weight to the dimmers and the suppression provided is often not sufficient to prevent the buzzing being heard on audio systems that share a closely related power supply.

Although the most simple form of dimming this type of dimming is not without it’s problems:

Low voltage lighting is now in very frequent use in projects using a wirewound or electronic transformer to provide a 12 v voltage for the lamps.

Traditional wirewound transformers provide an inductive load to the dimmer and the current of the load lags behind the voltage. Once triggered a triac requires the flow of current to the load through the device to maintain its operation. When the current falls below this threshold the device will switch off. If the current lag from an inductive load is sufficient the current flow in the circuit will not reach a sufficient level to maintain the triac and the device will turn off giving flashing and unwanted effects.

To avoid this effect the length of firing pulse on the dimmer can be varied to last long enough for the current to ‘catch up’ .

When using electronic dimmers only dimmers designed for use with a dimmer should be used although others may work they will not work for long.

Electronic Dimming

Electronic ballasts

Fluorescent and High intensity discharge lamps are frequently used in both residential and commercial projects. These use electronic ballasts to provide the supply to the lamp or lamps. Electronic ballasts usually change the frequency of the power from the standard mains (e.g., 50 Hz in uk) frequency to 20,000 Hz or higher, substantially eliminating the stroboscopic effect of flicker (100 or 120 Hz, twice the line frequency) associated with fluorescent lighting (see photosensitive epilepsy). These devices are often based on SMPS topology and allow dimming via pulse width modulation.

Generally these ballasts will be permanently connected to a mains power supply and also have one set of control connections either two or three core dependant on the type of control.

LED Electronic controllers

Led lighting is more and more popular due to the energy efficiency and the colour change possibilities without the need for filters.

LED units are however more complicated to dim than halogens. Dimming using a traditional dimmer above at best will not work and at worst will cause damage to your control gear and your dimmer.

Electronic controller specifically designed for controlling LED’s exists in both single channel devices and most commonly in three or four channel devices to accommodate colour change.

These devices provide a constant current supply to the LED and vary this supply using pulse width modulation to lower the duty cycle of the led and create a dimming effect.

These devices come in many shapes and sizes depending on what you wish to control. They also come as either integral units with LED power supplies or stand alone units which are connected in conjunction with and LED power supply.

Control either local or remote and if remote using 0-10V DC, DMX generally.

Cold Cathode Electronic controllers

The term Cold cathode is usually used to describe concealed lighting in coffers of cornices and is often used as an indirect up lighter. The name is in fact a description of the technology (fluorescent lighting for example is known as hot cathode). Cold cathode tubes are usually divided into two groups, those filled with Neon (red) gas and those filled with Argon (blue gas). The range of colours available is created by the use of different phosphors on the inside of the tubes which react with the ionized gases and emit the particular colour light.

Control Standards –

0-10v DC (also described as analogue)

The most basic of these control signals is 0-10V DC (the same as is used as the basis of most Triac dimming systems!) However small electronic ballasts are always located locally to the fitting and hence the DC control pair must travel from the processor to the fitting and may be susceptible to interference.


· Simple to wire and understand

· Simple to test with simple test equipment


· Most common fault is inverted +/- wiring

· Susceptible to noise

DSI – Digital Serial Interface

DSI is a digital protocol for controlling lighting in permanent installations. The standard uses uses a single byte to communicate the lighting level ( 0-255 or 0x00-0xFF).

In a DSI system each lantern or group of lanterns has it’s own control cable running from the processor or controller. There is no addressing of lanterns to be set.


· Simple to wire .

· Relatively simple to test with relatively simple test equipment


· Large systems have many control pairs running back to central system

· Initially a proprietary standard exclusive to Tridonic

DMX-512 –Digital Multiplex

DMX is a well know control protocol based on RS485 standard. The standard was developed for use in the entertainment industry to control multiway dimmers and intelligent lighting. Until recently the standard was never used in construction applications however due to the advent of RGB LED and cold cathode systems requiring more detailed control DMX has become the protocol of choice in these situations.

A DMX512 controller is connected to fixtures or devices in a multi-drop bus topology commonly called a “daisy chain”. 512 fixture attributes can be controlled on each DMX universe and if control of more is required additional universes can be added.

A fixture attribute may be a single channel of a dimmer.

Or a single colour on an RGB LED controller.

Fixtures are addressed using a menu structure or DIL switches. If a device has multiple fixture attributes such as a 12 channel dimmer, a 3 channel LED driver or a 32 channel intelligent light then the address of the channels first fixture will be set and the following channels will follow in sequence.

e.g. a 3 channel LED driver with starting address 1 will use

Ø Channel 1 Red

Ø Channel 2 Green

Ø Channel 3 Blue

Channel 4 and onwards are “free” to use for other fittings.

Many devices utilize automatic addressing and while this has it’s place for certain applications I must say that from experience I am not a fan.


· Strict adherence to the daisy chain topology must be followed (no Y-splits).

· Allows very accurate control.

· Long distances are possible even without buffers.



· Specific shielded cable must be used CAT 5/6 is not suitable.

· Difficult to fault find at signal level

DALI – Digital addressable Lighting Interface

DALI is and open standard protocol introduced as a rival to DSI and a successor to 0-10V control systems which still dominate the industry. The protocol allows control over a number of fittings using bi-directional data exchange over single bus with a maximum of 64 devices.

Devices are addressed individually and in addition to allowing control over the device feedback is provided to the system giving status of the device.

DALI has group and scene commands as part of the protocol allowing the reduction of data traffic and reduced network latency.


· Simple to wire – It requires only a pair of wire to form the bus connecting all devices on a single DALI network.

· Relatively simple to test with relatively simple test equipment

· No topology restrictions STAR and T’s are OK!


· The limiting factor of 64 addresses is not enough for large installations.

· Difficult and expensive to test and fault find

· Speed of the system (1200 bits per second ) can mean visible delay in larger installations

Copyright Neil Silver SI Sound and Light 2008

Neil Silver is the Technical Director of SI Sound and Light. He carries out a wide range of design and programming work in both commercial and domestic lighting controls systems.