cover image for blog post showing modern hallway with LED lights

3 Ways to Introduce Smart Lighting into Commercial Buildings

November 1, 2021

If you're interested in implementing smart technology into your commercial building or office space, switching out your light fixtures is a good way to dip your toe into this world. There are many practical benefits to smart lighting systems that will make them a staple in buildings of the future. It’s also easier and less expensive than you might think to switch from traditional LED light fixtures to a smart lighting system, and optimize your building's energy consumption.

Benefits of Smart LED Lighting Systems

  • Lighting is the single largest consumer of electricity in a building at about 17% of power in commercial buildings. Smart lighting reduces energy consumption with automation and LEDs, bringing our commercial buildings closer to net zero. 
  • Less energy consumption means lower operational costs, and higher NOI (net operating income)
  • Less energy consumption also means potentially being eligible for a green building certificate, and the rebates that come along with it (view potential green certifications here)
  • With smart lighting you can track lighting systems with digital assistants to understand when and where lighting is being used, and when it doesn’t need to be
  • Automate lighting based on room occupancy. This saves energy in comparison to the unintelligent solution of putting lights on timers, or simply relying on switches. 
  • A comfortable indoor space (especially comfortable lighting, and temperatures) boost employee productivity. In fact, according to a study referenced by Forbes, air-quality and natural lighting have the biggest impact on employee wellbeing; “67% of employees said they are more productive in workplaces that promote a healthy environment”.
  • Modern smart lighting systems utilize LED bulbs or fixtures, which save energy in comparison to incandescent bulbs. In fact, incandescent bulbs waste about 95% of energy consumed in the form of heat, with only 5% going towards light according to an article by Constellation.
  • Smart lighting systems that use direct current (DC) power increase the lifespan of LED fixtures. If you're curious to learn more, this article explains further: Was the 100,000 Hour LED Light Bulb False Advertising?
  • Control lighting remotely through the cloud, or with a wireless switch. One benefit of this is that you could turn off all your lights at once from bed before going to sleep.
  • Ability to implement daylight harvesting
LED lighting systems can use daylight harvesting to save energy
Image Source How Daylight Harvesting Works

In this article, we’re going to talk about three different methods of implementing smart lighting in your commercial building. We’ll also compare them to help you decide which solution suits your needs best. 

Option 1: Implement Power over Ethernet (PoE)

Option 2: Implement an intelligent low voltage DC power distribution system 

Option 3: Retrofit a standard AC power distribution system with smart lights 

What is Smart Lighting?

Let’s start with describing what exactly you’d be implementing so we’re on the same page.

A simple way to describe smart lighting is that smart lighting allows your LED lights to be controlled remotely. Here’s how it works: before power is distributed to an LED fixture in a smart lighting system, the connected software communicates with the fixture to let it know what it should be doing and when. This software is controlled by an app, a smart home assistant, or with a wireless switch, so you can control or automate your lights remotely.

3 Methods of Implementation

Now let’s talk about how you can implement smart lighting into your building. 

Option 1: 

Power over Ethernet, or PoE, is one method that allows both data and power to be delivered to an LED lighting system, enabling smart lighting. According to Fortune Business Insights, the global PoE LED lighting market size is projected to reach 544.8 million units by 2026, so it’s becoming an increasingly popular method. It’s worth noting that the type of power distributed by PoE is low voltage DC power, similarly to option 2. 

ethernet cable image to represent power over ethernet. This method is often used with smart lighting systems
Ethernet Cable

Option 2:

One alternative to PoE is what we call an Intelligent Low Voltage DC Power Distribution system. The main difference between PoE and this solution is that PoE uses ethernet cables and switches, whereas an intelligent DC power distribution system uses standard low voltage cables to transmit power, and typically a wireless mesh network to transmit data. 

Both Option 1 and 2 conserve energy due to automation capabilities. They also both conserve energy because they distribute low voltage direct current (DC) power. Distributing DC power in lieu of AC power (the standard in buildings) conserves about 20% of your building’s power intrinsically. This is because DC power distribution reduces the number of inefficient conversions that devices need to make from AC to DC power. You can read more about this in our article called: “Was the 100,000 Hour LED Light Bulb False Advertising?”  

Option 3: 

An intelligent AC power distribution system is the third option for implementing smart lighting. Similarly to option 2, power is distributed through protected AC cables, meaning that ethernet cables and switches aren’t required, and data is distributed wirelessly. Additionally, with this option no converter needs to be installed at the power source, so it is the cheapest and most simple option, making it the most popular. However, this option wastes the most power because it doesn’t distribute DC power. The only way this smart lighting system conserves energy is through its automation capabilities. 

These are all valid options to put together not only a smart lighting system, but a smart building system. The differences between these options will be further discussed throughout this article.

a man using a phone in front of a building to control smart lighting
Controlling lights and other building systems (security cameras and HVAC for example) with a smart device

Option 1: What is Power over Ethernet (PoE)?

PoE can simply be explained as exactly what it sounds like: it’s a method of delivering both power and data/information over ethernet cables. These cables are also known as category cables or CAT series cables, i.e. CAT5 or CAT6 cables. Common devices that use PoE are VoIP telephones, Wi-Fi routers, and security cameras. It’s worthwhile to note that not all devices are compatible with PoE. Devices like LED lights need to be either PoE LED lights specifically (which are more expensive than generic LED lights), or generic LED lighting fixtures must be retrofitted to be compatible with a PoE system. This is part of what makes PoE the most expensive of the 3 options. 

See three options  

If you’d like a more detailed explanation about PoE, we’ve done an entire blog post about it. Check it out here: What is Power over Ethernet (PoE), Anyways?

Benefits of PoE

There are many benefits to PoE, and we’ll briefly cover a few of them here: 

  • Cost savings in the long run due to an increase in energy efficiency across connected devices. The operational cost savings in a PoE system come from two things:
  1. PoE delivers DC power that doesn’t need to be converted by devices at an individual level. You can read more about this in our article on lighting efficiency.
  2. The second reason a PoE system saves on operational costs is because it makes it easy to automate and optimize connected building systems based on data (as mentioned above). 
  • Safe and easy to install because PoE distributes low voltage DC power, and cables are plug-and-play.
  • Cuts down on cables required in comparison to typical electrical systems (where independent cables are needed for power and data). Having one cable, that distributes both power and data, cuts the number of cables needed in half and can make your building’s cable management more lean. 
  • With it being a low voltage power distribution method, conduit or mechanical protection is not necessary
  • With both data and power flowing between devices connected to the PoE system, it’s possible to collect data about these devices, and automate them to optimize for energy efficiency and/or employee comfort 
  • Allows you to individually address specific devices, and manually or automatically control them. For example, you could remotely control the lighting brightness or temperature in a space or automate it based on available natural light (daylight harvesting).
  • PoE can now deliver data at 1 Gbps (10/100/1000 Mbps), and data speeds are improving. 
  • Control connected PoE devices remotely via a remote desktop.

Disadvantages of PoE

The main disadvantage of PoE is the cost to implement it. This is why it’s more expensive: 

  • You have to retrofit non-PoE devices to be compatible. For example, generic LED lights are not natively compatible with PoE. Retrofitting these devices, or buying PoE ready lights, increases the cost of PoE. 
  • PoE only provides up to 100W of power, so in order for devices (such as lights and HVAC) to get the power they need, bundles of PoE cables are necessary, increasing cabling costs. 
  • PoE systems require expensive ethernet switches and injectors. You can read more about these in this article: PoE Switch vs PoE Injector.
  • Cabling can be complicated; laying down ethernet cables is expensive, and cables in a PoE system have to be run the exact length of the distance from the switch to the device. This means the cable must be stripped, cut, and terminated with an RJ45 plug to be inserted into the PoE compatible device. 
  • In general, daisy chaining is difficult with a PoE system, making more “homeruns” (and therefore more cabling) necessary. This increases the cost and complexity of implementing PoE.
smart lighting saves money
Main disadvantage of PoE is that it's expensive

Our Conclusion About PoE

As you can see, PoE is an energy efficient solution with many benefits, but cost can be a limitation for many people that consider a PoE system. The other two options do not require the expensive implementation costs of PoE, such as ethernet cables, switches, and PoE-ready devices, so it’s important to discuss their benefits and disadvantages as well. 

Option 2: Intelligent Low Voltage DC Power Distribution

As mentioned previously, option 2 involves retrofitting a low voltage (under 60 volts) power distribution system to enable smart lighting. Both PoE and option 2 conserve energy because of their automation capabilities, and because they distribute low voltage DC power.

But how does DC power intrinsically conserve energy?

In short, standard building electrical systems supply alternating current (AC) power, but 80% of our devices need direct current (DC) power. Every device that needs DC power comes equipped with an integrated converter that converts the AC power they get into the DC power they need. However, every time a conversion is made, energy is wasted in the form of heat. DC power distribution systems convert energy by distributing DC power to devices that require it, so that all unnecessary conversions are eliminated. For this reason, implementing a DC power distribution system can save a commercial building up to 20% in energy consumption (and costs).

If you'd like to learn more about DC power distribution, we have just the video for you: 

How to Implement an Intelligent Low Voltage DC Power Distribution System to Enable Smart Lighting 

A DC power distribution system can be as simple or as complex as your heart desires. The simple solution is to connect a high efficiency AC to DC power converter to your electrical grid. This way power is converted at the source to DC power, and distributed to all your connected building systems.

The next level up is to give your power distribution system smart capabilities. This can be done by adding intelligent control nodes to your new DC power distribution system. These nodes would have software integrated into them that wirelessly collect and transmit data via a mesh network. Next, connecting sensors to the system allows for data to be collected about your connected building systems, such as lights. And, of course, you’re going to want a user-friendly platform to monitor, track and analyze this collected data. This platform (sometimes called a digital twin) should also be interactive so that you can control, automate, and optimize building systems that you’re collecting data on. This way you can remotely control things like the brightness of your lights. 

Benefits of This Option: 

  • The installation is easy and safe, just like PoE. However, it doesn’t require CAT series cables, ethernet switches, and it’s compatible with most LED lights on the market with a remote or removable driver, making it less expensive to install 
  • It transforms cheaper devices that are not natively intelligent, into smart devices.
  • Certain DC Power Distribution Systems can communicate with BACnet on a building automation system (BAS)
  • Its sensors and wall switches are wireless, so they are modular, don’t need to be installed by electricians, and can easily be reprogrammed or updated  
  • This option can distribute more than 100W of power per cable (but requires mechanical protection when doing so)
  • This alternative allows for simple daisy chaining, thus saving cabling costs. If you want to learn more about daisy chaining, here’s an article you can read: The Basics of Daisy Chaining 

‍ Why is this Option Cheaper than PoE?

  • A non-PoE DC power distribution system doesn’t require expensive CAT series cables, ethernet switches, or native PoE light fixtures
  • This alternative can deliver more power per cable 
  • Wireless sensors and wall switches further reduce wiring costs
  • The ability to daisy chain also reduces cabling costs because homeruns are not necessary 
example of daisy chaining with Argentum products
Example of Daisy Chaining

Option 3: Intelligent High Voltage AC Power Distribution

This is the least expensive method of implementing smart lighting into your building because it doesn’t require any additional cabling. Although it doesn't save as much energy, if you’re just looking to get started with smart lighting and save money through its automation capabilities, this might be the option for you.

One way to go about this method is by replacing all your light bulbs with smart bulbs. However, if you use fixtures rather than bulbs (meaning that your lighting is in the ceiling controlled by a switch), you might be better off replacing the switches themselves with smart switches and dimmers. Tech Hive points out that “Leviton, Lutron, TP-Link, Ecobee, and other manufacturers make smart light switches that operate on your Wi-Fi network and don’t require a central hub”. 

Another way to choose between installing smart bulbs or switches is to consider that smart bulbs can be controlled individually, whereas if you decide to go with a switch, you can control all the lights on that circuit. The drawback with the smart bulb route is that it can be expensive depending on how many bulbs you plan to replace with smart bulbs. However, smart switches are far more complicated to install, as you must connect them to your main power supply. This means turning off the power and dealing with the exposed wire behind the switch (a job for a qualified electrician). 

Another thing to consider is if you want to monitor, control and automate all of your connected smart devices via an app, or if you’re only planning on making your lighting system smart. If you’re simply looking to install a smart lighting system, a smart switch will probably suit your needs. However, if you also want to convert other devices in your home, office or building into smart devices, a hub would allow you to pull all of these devices together under one user interface. Just make sure the hub you choose is compatible with all your smart devices. 

As a reminder, this option will provide you with the energy savings that come from automating your LED lighting system, but your building will still be wasting about 20% of its energy with unnecessary conversions from AC to DC power. 

The Verdict 

Both PoE and intelligent low voltage DC power distribution systems conserve energy through the use of DC power and automation capabilities. Whereas option 3 (an intelligent AC power distribution system) is the most widespread, smart lighting solution, but only saves energy through its automation capabilities. This means you would still be wasting about 20% in energy costs due to power conversions. On top of that, PoE is the most expensive system between option 1 and 2. It is for this reason that if you’re looking for a smart lighting system that allows you to monitor, control, automate and optimize your energy use, without replacing any of your existing building systems, option 2 would be the most simple and cost effective to implement.

The Argentum SpacrGrid is a good example of an all-in-one intelligent low voltage DC power distribution system. The system also communicates with BACnet devices, such as lighting and HVAC in commercial buildings. This enables data from these systems to be visually represented in real-time on a digital twin app (the SpacrApp). The app is cloud-based, and user friendly. With it, you can monitor all of your connected building systems, and either manually or automatically control connected devices (such as your lighting) so as to optimize energy consumption.  

Read more about the benefits of implementing this system in your own building on Argentum’s product page. You can also book a free demo to see how it works. 


blog author image

Erin Kelly

Erin is the Creative Director at Argentum Electronics. She has a New Media degree from the University of Toronto and 5 years of experience in the communications field. From 2017 - 2019 she worked with a manufacturing company on their YouTube content and strategy, and has done digital content creation for dozens of clients through her own business called Story Unlocked. Erin has built two computers, and loves technology, especially when it makes the world a better place.

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