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Here’s what will really make LED office lighting take off

'Computer with a roof': That's what people call The Edge in Amsterdam, heralded for its sustainable operations, including smart building management underpinned by lighting-based power over Ethernet.

AMSTERDAM – Tim Sluiter is one of the few lighting users in the world who can testify to the virtues of connecting both electricity and data to his building’s thousands of LED luminaires via information network cables. That’s because he’s one of the planet’s few such practitioners of ‘power over Ethernet’. Maybe even the only one.

Sluiter is the property manager for Deloitte at the consulting giant’s modern European headquarters in an environmentally heralded building here called The Edge, where Deloitte is the anchor tenant and where it played a key role in the technical design.

The Edge opened in November, deploying a cornucopia of sustainable building practices such as passive and active solar power, heat pumps, wireless charge pads for phones and tablets, rainwater capture for gardens and toilets, ‘hot-desking’, a ‘breathing’ atrium, even gym treadmills connected to electricity generators.

And, of course, LED lighting.

Seeing the light: Smartphones under the ceiling lights receive location information from the LEDs so that the control app knows which lights to adjust.

But not just any LED lighting. Not happy to simply reap the considerable energy-saving and maintenance benefits of low power, long-lasting LED lamps, Deloitte also designed power over Ethernet (PoE) for the 6,000 LED luminaires across the building’s 14 floors, eight of which Deloitte occupies.

PoE is a two-birds-with-one-stone technology that routes electricity to low-voltage digital devices via the standard Ethernet cables that also feed those devices with data. Engineers and IT departments have used it for years for things like printers and voice-over-IP phones.

Now, with the advent of LEDs, pioneers like Sluiter at Deloitte are beginning to use it for lighting, too.

It’s a big reason why Sluiter likes to refer to The Edge as ‘a computer with roof.’

‘We’re not only making the most sustainable building in the world, we’re also making a really high tech IT-driven technical building,’ Sluiter says. ‘When you made a building ten years ago or five years ago, the old main contractor – the builder – was in the lead. But nowadays, more and more, technical firms like Cisco for example or Philips or Deloitte are in the lead doing the new developments for the building because of all the technology that’s integrated. It’s all about big data, the internet of things.’

And lighting over Ethernet plays a major role in that.



Low voltage

While data collection is a huge driver in LED PoE systems, half the reason for implementing the technology is even more basic: LEDs run on low voltage and thus do not require conventional electrical mains cables that feed other equipment or even incandescent lighting.

The benefits can start with cost: by doubling up on the use of Ethernet cables, users can save a bundle in electrical wiring costs by eliminating more costly conventional mains wiring and installation. Jaques Letzelter, Philips office lighting segment leader, estimates that PoE slashes installation time by 50 per cent, and cuts overall installation costs by about 25 per cent.

There are tradeoffs, though. PoE lighting comes with its own upfront costs. LEDs, for instance, are still more expensive than conventional light sources. And wiring them to Ethernet is not free.

Making sense: Sensors – not all of which are visible – to the right of these LED lights keep an eye on motion, temperature and light levels, and include a backup infrared control. The red light is not a sensor, it’s a status indicator

‘Of course you have to spend some extra money to do a really new thing and a new system,’ says Sluiter, who declines to say how much Deloitte spent on its PoE LED system at The Edge, where it has signed a 15-year lease with German owners Deka Immobilien. ‘But in daily operations during 15 years, at the end, it’s much cheaper because of the efficiency of the building.’

Which explains the other half of the reasoning behind routing Ethernet to light bulbs. Deloitte has established its LED luminaires as vital nodes in a building-wide information technology system that will monitor and react to conditions inside. The ‘computer with a roof’ cuts its own costs as it improves efficiencies on a variety of operations such as lighting, heating and cooling, office cleaning, and even room usage, which can be a challenge in a flexible ‘hot-desk’ environment like Deloitte’s at The Edge, where there are 1,100 desks for 2,400 full-time employees who drift in and out.


Realm of the senses

Each luminaire includes four sensors: one each for detecting light levels, temperature and occupancy (a motion sensor), plus an infrared sensor that serves as emergency control in the event of a power failure.

Those sensors provide the foundation for detecting things like exactly how much and when to crank up the heating or air conditioning, or when to turn the lights on or off or brighten or dim them. That, in turn, can lead to considerable savings as the lights switch off or the heating turns down in an unoccupied room or floor.

Deloitte also expects to save about 10 per cent on cleaning bills, because information that travels back through the Ethernet will tell facilities managers that a room remained unoccupied during the day and thus does not require attention. Real time information on room occupancy will also help Deloitte improve its space efficiency by about 20 per cent, Philips estimates.

But the sensors and the Ethernet are just part of the basket of goodies that puts Deloitte and The Edge on the vanguard of digital LED lighting technology. Employees can control the lights and the heating levels in their area using apps on their smartphones or tablet computers. When they push a button to, say, brighten the lights, their action will turn up the levels on the ceiling luminaires only in their immediate vicinity, and not on all of the lights on their floor.

The system knows which lights to adjust because the phones are in constant contact with the LEDs via a fledgling technology known both as ‘visible light communication’ (VLC) and ‘indoor positioning’. VLC emits varying wavelengths of light picked up by a smartphone’s camera. Each luminaire emits its own specific wavelength. When a user commands a light, the system knows which lights are nearby, and thus which ones to adjust.

Likewise, when a user wants to dial up the air conditioning, the VLC-equipped LEDs establish the user’s location, and the ventilating system responds just in that area. (VLC is beginning to catch on in retail stores, as Carrefour and Target use it to guide shoppers straight to discounts. Railway stations are also looking into it to help guide passengers).


From Ethernet to VLC and back again

Sounds a little complicated, yet simple enough.

But it all gets a bit more complex because the phones do not connect directly back to the LEDs. Rather, when a user’s command leaves the smartphone, it travels via Wi-Fi to a nearby hub, which then routes the command to the building’s lighting or heating controls via the wired networked system. In the case of lighting, the command travels back to the nearby ceiling luminaires over Ethernet, thus completing the VLC-originated circle with a final PoE connection.

LED, VLC and PoE all wrapped up in one slick, ultra-digital, seamless to the user modern lighting system.

Is it really that easy?

‘You have to work hard, especially because we are the first ones in the world to have this system installed,’ says Sluiter. It’s totally new for us, for Philips, for everybody. The trick is to get it in place, to get it properly working, and to get all the data out of it, to get all the things we promised each other. It’s hard work to get such a system working. But it works. That’s the good news.’

As you’d expect with a first-of-its-kind system, there are kinks. For instance, the smartphone control system does not allow a user to outright turn off a luminaire, because that would disable the VLC (in contrast, if the lights switch off because a room is empty and switch back on again when someone enters, the VLC will work). ‘We’re working on that,’ says Sluiter.

But the system is meeting expectations doing just about everything that Deloitte has prescribed, he notes.


Beware Big Brother

Still, he’d like it to do more. Sluiter looks forward to being able to dip into users’ smartphones to better match up information about their own building use and habits with general building operations – in much the same way retailers would like to tie a customer’s shopping history and loyalty card information into the VLC and thus more intelligently ping and direct in-store shoppers to promotions of interest to them.

‘There’s one really big wish we have – that we can also use the personal data off the phone,’ says Sluiter.

The current road block is not technological.

‘We don’t allow this [because] there are privacy laws, and of course we obey them in Deloitte,’ he explains. ‘But when we are allowed to do so, then really interesting things [can] happen. Then the building and the lighting system can talk to you. You get active information from the building about how you use the building. For example, when you enter and your iPhone is saying “I see you have a meeting on the first floor”, and then it says “you are one hour early, so I’ve booked you a desk nearby the meeting room on the first floor, and by the way your colleagues are there there and there” ‘.

That’s a bit Big Brother, isn’t it?

‘That’s why there is a big discussion about privacy,’ allows Sluiter, who says that as with many cyber technologies, there’s always a potential ‘dark side’, and that it will be important to assure security that keeps out hackers.

‘We’ll use it only to make life simpler and easier in the building, and not for the big bosses to control you and looking at where your are,’ he says.

At the moment, it’s moot, because as Sluiter notes, it is outlawed. ‘It will become mainstream, but we don’t know when’, he says.

In another prediction, Sluiter says that suppliers such as Philips will start to offer intelligent lighting-based building management systems on a service basis, rather than as a product. Philips is already marketing VLC systems to retailers in that manner; office buildings will likely follow the same model.

But for Deloitte, the future is now, in the form of PoE combined with VLC.

Top photo is from OVG Real Estate. Indoor photos are from Mark Halper using a basic camera on a really cheap phone



  • Internet of Things-based lighting control, data capture and security will be a key theme of LuxLive 2017, which takes place on Wednesday 15 November and Thursday 16 November at ExCeL London. For more information, and to register for free, click here.