Bonus Content

Integrated Controls Sidebar: A Designer’s Perspective

By Michael Larson

When manufacturers started offering integrated controls, I was ecstatic. There was now an alternative that could save clients money without blindly slashing the controls budget. We had a way to get more controls on a project and start showing significant energy savings without creating overly complicated control schemes.

Before the housing bubble burst, I worked on about a dozen condominium projects and all had LEED Gold Certification goals. One of the first things energy consultant, looked at was lighting. Where could they trim the connected lighting load? All they seemed to care about was chopping more energy out of the project with no concern for safety—and even less for aesthetics. One consultant asked if we could turn off the lighting in the stairs: “Think of how much energy we could save if those lights were off,” he exclaimed. I had to point out that it was an egress path and the code has strict rules about life safety. “But couldn’t you just come up with some fancy controls to make sure it would be safe?” he continued. Normally I would have continued to argue and push back, but the owner and architect started liking the idea and all I could do was to agree to look into a solution. 

What we came up with was a system that had a ton of redundant devices and would cost a lot of money. It was a system that had wide-view occupancy sensors at each floor that would see the door at the landing and anyone coming up the stairs. When occupancy was detected, it would turn the lights on at that landing as well as the one above and below, giving three floors of illumination. That way, anyone headed up or down the stairs would always trigger the next set of lights without ever hitting a dark flight of stairs. It was genius and overly complicated but could be done. It also had a 30- to 40-year payback based on the energy savings. Technically, the local code officials prevented the implementation, but we all knew it would never happen. About nine months later, one of my reps showed me the LaMar VO Se­ries with its integral occupancy sensor. There was one other difference: We weren’t going to turn all the lights off; we were only go­ing to turn off one lamp per luminaire. It wasn’t the big savings the energy consultants were looking for, but it was still a significant amount of money. I specified it for all of my projects that were still in design.

That is how I started using luminaires with integrated controls. From the stairs I moved to the parking garage and then to back-of-house corridors and so on. A little later, a strange thing happened: I was walking through a parking garage that had just upgraded to integral occupancy sensor luminaires and noticed that the lighting was in a constant state of change. The lights where I was walking were turning on while others were dimming from where someone had been minutes before and other people were triggering still other luminaires. It was a horrible space to walk through. I had the feeling that I had created some very similar spaces and was not pleased by the thought of it. It turns out that most of the offerings for integral controls use dumb controls, which essentially makes all the luminaires stand-alone control zones. This meant that every project for which I specified integral control functioned just like that parking garage, with lights always in a state of change.

If we flash forward to today, where almost every project uses digital control devices, not much has changed with integral controls devices. More manufacturers offer integral controls and many offer a photocell control in addition to occupancy sensors. How­ever, they are still individual, stand-alone control zones, which is great for private offices, stairs, and even parking garages. But I had a contractor try to convince a client that he could save a lot of money by using integral controls in an open office application. Fortunately, I was able to convince the owner that he didn’t want his office in a constant state of lighting change so it was better to spend the money on nonintegrated controls.

I continue to specify luminaires with integral occupancy sensors for every stairwell and parking garage that I light. I’m still not happy walking into the parking garage, but I understand the need to save energy to save on operating expenses. I’m also confident that some day soon we will replace the dumb sensors with smart sensors, allowing us to use these luminaires in more applications throughout a project.

Michael Larsen, LEED AP, is a senior lighting designer for Biella Lighting in Portland, Ore. He has more than 17 years of experience as a lighting designer and has provided lighting and daylighting design on dozens of LEED-certified projects. Reach him at

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