For years landscape lighting professionals have sought better ways of controlling lighting systems. Thanks to innovation, we’ve moved light-years beyond the simple on-at-dusk, off-at-dawn functionality to sophisticated Bluetooth and Wi-Fi-enabled app-based control systems. To paraphrase an old ad campaign, “We’ve come a long way, baby!”
Solid-state control. During the early ’90s, outdoor lighting manufacturers developed some of the first solid-state lighting controls. Many of these devices used radio frequencies just as the older models of garage door openers did. These units had printed circuit boards that would support both low-voltage photocells and motion sensors. Some even had “panic buttons” that could be connected to a home’s wiring. Later that decade, single controllers with multiple stations began to appear. This type gave you control over several transformers at once and also accommodated hand-held remotes.
Power line carrier systems. Shortly thereafter, power line carrier systems were developed, versatile automation systems that work through a home’s existing wiring. A signal is sent through the cable from the control box to a receptacle or module in a transformer. These digital alarm-clock-style controllers could program eight different modules and also featured hand-held remotes. They were among the first controller systems to have computer interfaces.
Lighting control through the irrigation controller. By the late ’90s, some lighting manufacturers began offering 24-volt relay modules that could be triggered through irrigation controllers. Since many irrigation controllers could handle multiple stations and programs, it was easy to add a lighting module. This gave the module’s transformer the ability to be programmed to turn lighting on and off at different times and days during the week.
As irrigation controllers advanced, remote and computer-controlled options could be added. Many contractors experimented with controlling the low-voltage side of the transformer with the relay by triggering the 24-volt module and running lighting cable through the switch side of the relay. Most of the 24-volt modules were rated to 15 amps. One could now run over 100 watts of 12-volt current through the switch side of the relay. Using the relay in this manner gave the contractor the ability to create different lighting zones with the cable coming out of the transformer.
Lighting control via alarm technology. The new century saw several manufacturers introducing zone control. Based on alarm system technology, these devices consisted of three or four relays on a solid-state board that could be switched on through a photocell or digital timer. Remote controls let a user switch all the zones on at once or individually and motion sensors added security.
Further into the 21st century, more irrigation manufacturers added lighting to their product lines. Their expertise with irrigation control technology led to more advanced means of controlling lighting systems. Many of these new systems can be controlled through a central solid-state transformer or a home computer. Some offer color-changing fixtures and scene control.
Several lighting manufacturers have introduced Bluetooth app control for transformers, lamps and fixtures while others have focused on producing Wi-Fi-enabled module control, plug-in sockets and RGBW lamps. Most of these new products work through constantly updated smartphone apps.
Whatever lighting control system you’re using, it’s vital that your customers have a complete understanding of it. This means that you, the contractor, also needs to thoroughly understand the system you’ve chosen to install.
Many of the older systems mentioned here are still in operation today. If you find yourself in front of one, feel free to contact me or send a picture. We may use it in future articles.