System Design Considerations: Zonal vs. Granular Control

Networked Lighting Control 101

Smart buildings, smart cities, smart everything. At every turn, it seems that more and more “things” are becoming smarter at an ever-quickening pace – including buildings and their lighting systems. While lighting controls have been around for decades – at least in their simplest form (i.e. relay control) – it’s the latest advancements in LED technology, coupled with the plummeting price of sensors, that will prove the biggest boon to this smart building workhorse.

What was once rudimentary on/off control with a hefty price tag, is now a cornucopia of efficiency options. Looking to task-tune your lighting with 0-10 step dimming? Now you can. Want to take advantage of daylight harvesting? Now you can. Temperature and humidity control? You guessed it, now you can. What’s more,  you now have the capability to take advantage of each of these control strategies on a single networked platform – allowing for control from any device, in any location, from any location. Now that's an improvement over legacy on/off control.

Today’s networked lighting control system benefits are easy to tout. And while nice to hear, simply recounting the bells and whistles of a given system leaves many end-uses at a loss in understanding how the system would work in their specific facility. Moreover, they're at a loss in understanding how a networked lighting control system should be designed for the desired outcomes they're shooting for. This alone is critical information that one must fully absorb if looking to upgrade a building's entire lighting infrastructure. I mean, we're talking about some serious investment dollars.

Whether you’re considering an advanced lighting control system to harvest data to improve operational efficiencies, or looking to reduce energy expenses through aggressive lighting control strategies, let’s explore the role system design will play in achieving your goals.

System Design Considerations

When it comes to a networked lighting control system there are really two system designs to consider:

1) Zonal Control System Design
2) Granular Control System Design

While each has their own unique benefits – of which we’ll cover in more depth below – the important thing to understand at this point is how each design controls fixtures. By understanding this first, we’ll then have a much better grasp of each design’s capabilities and whether it would fit your desired lighting control goals.

As a side note, these system designs are applicable to either a wired control system or a wireless control system. The important thing to note here is the desired outcome you’re looking to achieve and which design best fits. We’ll cover the differences between wired and wireless control systems in a future post.

So, what’s the difference between the two system designs? In a nutshell, a system that’s designed for zonal control can only control lights at the circuit level and a granular system design controls lighting at the fixture itself.

Let’s take a deeper look at why this is important and what role it plays in achieving your specific lighting control goals.

Zonal Lighting Control Design

As we mentioned, a zonal system design controls lighting at the circuit level. Thus, the flexibility of individual fixture control is limited. While this may be the case and seem like a major downfall, there are many benefits of a zonal system design. First, let’s look at what we mean when we say that lights are controlled at the circuit level.

Zonal Lighting Control Example



As pictured above a zonal system design relies heavily on the existing circuitry of the facility. Here, in this example, each of the colored areas above would indicate a wiring circuit. A zonal system design would place the control devices at the circuit level – usually at the electrical panel – and would control that given shaded area. The problem? Let's look at an example.

Example of Zonal Control Setback

For example, say for some areas of the building you’d like to develop a lighting control strategy that is different from the other areas of the building. Here, you’d be bound by the lighting circuit and some circuits may bleed over into another area of the building that you don’t necessarily want to apply that specific control strategy too. This is a very common setback when dealing with a zonal control design.

There are benefits of a zonal system design, though. Let’s take a look.

Benefits of Zonal System Design

As with any construction project, budgets are the be-all and end-all of what is, and is not, possible. This is where a zonal system design provides the most value. Due to the sheer fact that controlling lights at the circuit level automatically reduces the number of parts and pieces you’d need. You'd thereby find direct savings from lower material and installation labor costs.

But more than pure material and labor savings, a zonal system design may just be the best fit for your desired lighting control outcome. Let me explain.

Let’s say your end goal for a new lighting control system is to reduce energy expenses. Let’s also assume that you already have legacy sensors installed in your office spaces and work floor areas, but these are your traditional relay, on/off, sensors. The benefit of migrating to a more advanced networked lighting control solution can be found in the new capabilities gained. Namely, the ability to establish predefined, flexible, and comprehensive control strategies, that can be applied across your entire facility. Think step dimming (i.e. keeping lights at a lower level of burn), or facility-wide time schedules.

Even though you’re only controlling lights at the circuit level, with a networked communication path to all fixtures running back to a central control center you can now tell your lights to do far more things than in the past. Again, think in terms of dimming control, occupancy based control, and automatic time schedules (i.e. turn lights down to 30% at 5 PM, 15% at 8 PM, and then off after 10 PM) as mentioned above. These more advanced strategies will aid greatly in meeting your original end goal by squeezing the efficiency sponge a bit more.

So, what about granular control? How does this system design differ?

Granular Lighting Control Design

In a granular system design, the control capabilities go far beyond circuit level. In fact, the control capabilities of a granular design go down to the individual fixture itself. This granular control gives you far more flexibility in not only developing your lighting control strategies but in your data-harvesting capabilities as well.

Let’s look at what a granular control system design would look like.

Granular Lighting Control Example


As pictured above a granular system design considers each individual fixture in the overall system infrastructure versus existing circuit runs as in a zonal design (as indicated by the blue squares above). By mapping out each individual fixture and enhancing it with an individual controls device, end-users now have the power to create zones and control strategies as they wish – no longer bound by the existing wiring of the facility. Let's take a deeper look at some other benefits of a granular system design.

Let's take a deeper look at some other benefits of a granular system design.

Benefits of a Granular System Design

With deeper control capabilities, a granular system design fits the bill for most folks. Ideal for those who are looking to reduce energy usage and harvest meaningful operational data to drive productivity.

Through induvial fixture control, a granular system design provides end-users the power to develop extremely specific lighting control strategies centered around task-tuning. Task-tuning is the process of controlling light levels as they correspond to a specific task or job responsibility (i.e. lighting conditions for an open office space with hundreds of computers requires different lighting levels than an electronics manufacturing bench where highly detailed work is completed).

Going beyond task-tuning, a granular system design provides end-users with the flexibility for adapting their lighting control strategies. For example, to better align their control strategy with how building occupants use the building. Take for example a building with normal operating hours of 6 AM – 5 PM. While your facility is open at 6 AM, most employees won’t arrive until 9 AM. Moreover, various areas of your building may be under or over utilized throughout a given day. (i.e. The period between 5 PM and 9 PM when only cleaning personnel in the building. During this timeframe, there's no need to light 50,000 square feet of space when only 500 square feet is utilized).

A granular system design data-gathering capabilities needed to determine exactly which areas and “hot-spots” and “cold-spots”. In fact, these hot and cold spots can be tracked throughout the day, even down to the hour. Thereby, providing you with actionable data for matching your control strategies with your building occupant's habits.

Determining the Right System Design

Your specific needs, wants, and overall goals determine the system design that yields the greatest return on investment.  You'll be poised to design a system that is right for your facility, once these parameters are defined; along with a proposed project budget. At the end of the day, a one-size fits all approach will easily lead you astray. Key points to consider here are:

  1. How do your end goals correspond with a zonal design versus a granular design;
  2. Is there an opportunity to create a hybrid approach? Where some areas of your facility are zonal while others are granular.

By starting here you'll build the technical understanding required to ensure a smooth networked lighting control project.

IoT Apps? Please, explain.

What operating systems did for computers in the 70’s and 80’s, new application platforms will do for the Internet of Things. With an imminent explosion of connected devices expected how we connect, interact and communicate with these devices is the 64 million-dollar question.

Just how many connected devices and IoT applications are we talking about?

Whether we’re citing statistics from Intel, IBM, or Cisco, the fact is, the Internet of Things is going to consist of billions – if not trillions – of connected devices. The annual transmission of data from these devices is expected to surpass 2 zettabytes by 2019. That’s over 2 trillion gigabytes a year….I don’t even think there are enough iPhones in existence to hold that amount a data!

Put it another way, there’s a great Cisco infographic that explains it this way: “If the 11oz coffee on your desk equals one gigabyte, a zettabyte would have the same volume as the Great Wall of China.” Yeah, we’re talking about a lot of data coming from a lot of devices.

And IoT applications? What are they and what’s their role in this data tsunami?

Let’s take a look.

Internet of Things Applications

Decoding IoT Applications & Platforms

Just as the operating system allows for direct communication with the hardware components of computers and mobile devices, so too will IoT application platforms. Well at least in a manner of speaking. Let’s expand a little more without going too far into the weeds.

Hardware, OS, and Apps

Take the example of a computer operating system. At its core, the primary job of an OS is to handle all of the physical hardware instructions. What to do, how to do it, and when to do it. This allows an application programmer to focus their attention on writing application code and not have to worry about coding hardware functions into their applications.

So, what does this ecosystem look like?

IoT Applications

In the above diagram, we see a typical computer ecosystem. The computer is made up of a bunch of physical hardware pieces. Think, microchips, memory, processors, a screen, etc. In order to make each of these hardware pieces work in conjunction, it is the operating system that sends the instructions to each piece of hardware.

Now, a typical application will sit on top of the operating system. Here, the OS acts as an intermediary between the application and device hardware. The application itself is what the end-user sees/uses to take advantage of the hardware’s processing power. For simplicity’s sake think, Word, PowerPoint, Web Browsers, etc.. These are the end-user applications that sit on top of the computer’s operating system.

Shapes and Forms of the OS and Apps

To expand the concept a little further, let’s think about your iPad, Samsung phone, home computer, and work laptop.

Each of the devices above consist of various physical hardware pieces. The major difference is the operating system that each of them use to instruct their physical hardware pieces. In this case, your iPad would use iOS. The Samsung phone uses the Android operating system. And your home computer and work laptop could each use Mac OS or Microsoft Windows OS, respectively. Different operating systems for different hardware pieces that each run different applications.

Now what this means is for each operating system there are specific applications that were written to work on those specific operating systems. That’s why we can’t use, say the web browser Safari, on a computer running the Windows operating system. They're simply not compatible. Or the fact you can't achieve the same functionality of your iPhone Instagram application when you try to put it on your iPad.

Before IoT Apps, We Need IoT Platforms

Just as with our computer example we can’t have an IoT application without first having an IoT platform (i.e. operating system) for it to live on. A little different from a computer operating system, an IoT platform is more like a repository for IoT applications to dump their data.  We could, I guess technically, make the same comparison in our computer example in that the end-user applications  “live” on top of the computer operating system. And without the computer operating system, we computer applications would be useless as is.

Because the Internet of Things is far more focused on the digitization of our physical world, the IoT platform is geared to housing and analyzing these quadrillions of bytes of data. Versus being solely focused on sending instructions to physical hardware, like in our computer example. But the general context of computer OS and applications fits an IoT world.

So, who are the IoT platform players?

IoT Leaders

IoT Application Platform Leaders

Here is where things get interesting. The players in the IoT platform game is incredibly wide-ranging. Some of the largest tech giants are in the mix, of course. What’s surprising – or maybe not that surprising – is the inclusion of some industrial giants. A group that's historically less thought of as tech innovators.

In fact, some research firms – namely Gartner and IoT Analytics – estimate there are hundreds of IoT platform development companies in the market as of the end of last year. We’ll jump into those a little later. For now, we’ll focus our attention on what I think are the largest players. Those with the most extensive IoT platforms today for some pretty comprehensive data analytics.

These IoT platform leaders include:

  • General Electric’s Predix Platform
  • Microsoft’s Azure Platform
  • IBM’s Watson Platform
  • Amazon’s AWS Platform
  • Cisco’s Jasper Control Center Platform

Each of these IoT application platforms house some incredible promise. With hundreds of industry clients and partners already working with many of these platforms, the advent of more IoT applications is soon to follow.

For example, let’s take a look at GE’s Predix platform. According to GE, Predix is the operating system for the Industrial Internet.

By connecting industrial equipment, analyzing data, and delivering real-time insights, Predix-based apps are unleashing new levels of performance."

Through the use of GE’s Internet of Things platform businesses now have a “home” to place industrial IoT applications. Let's look at an example. In this case, an example could include GE’s purchase of advanced lighting and building control manufacturer Daintree Networks. Daintree’s building automation solutions, once stand-alone web-based software, will now be transformed into an IoT application that lives on the Pridix operating system.

Who Else is Leading the IoT Platform & Application Game?

According to IoT Analytics, a market research firm, the top twenty IoT companies vary across multiple markets. In total, IoT Analytics estimates there are over 400 IoT platform companies in the market as of 2016.

Here are the top twenty as ranked by IoT Analytics:

  1. IBM – Software
  2. Google – Various
  3. Intel – Semiconductor
  4. Microsoft – Software
  5. Cisco – Hardware
  6. Apple – Consumer Products
  7. SAP – Software
  8. Oracle – Software
  9. Samsung – Consumer Products
  10. HP – Software
  11. Ericsson – M2M
  12. Amazon – Software
  13. GE – Industrial Equipment
  14. Qualcomm – Semiconductor
  15. AT&T – M2M
  16. Orange – M2M
  17. Blackberry – Software
  18. Facebook – Software
  19. Dell – Hardware
  20. Verizon – M2M