Intelligent emergency lighting enables building control and better safety

By Russ Sharer, Vice President of Global Marketing and Business Development for Fulham Co – manufacturer of innovative and energy-efficient lighting sub-systems and components for lighting manufacturers worldwide.

Emergency luminaires are finding a new role in building automation. Where emergency lights were once just fixtures that burdened the facilities staff with maintenance, they are now proving to be ideal end points for a wireless building intelligence system. Strategically placed emergency lights are required by safety regulations, and since they cover an entire building they also make ideal repeaters for a building control network.

Maintaining emergency lighting always has been a headache for facilities managers. Regulations require regular testing of safety luminaires, which means walking the building, testing functionality and health of the batteries, and ultimately logging the results.

LED luminaires have simplified this somewhat since they feature red/green indicator lights to indicate readiness and health as required by the BS EN 50172:2004 / BS 5266-8:2004 safety standards, but they still need to be manually inspected.

What if you could eliminate the need for visual inspection by centralizing and automating safety luminaire monitoring? Connecting luminaires into a common network enables remote testing and diagnostics, including issuing instructions and logging tests from a central location. Automating inspection saves time and resources, but more importantly, it also creates a ready-made communications infrastructure for other uses.

For example, once you have connected emergency luminaires installed you can use the same infrastructure to handle sensor data for other systems including HVAC and security.

First, however, you have to connect emergency luminaires into a wireless network.


Start with Programmable Emergency Luminaires

Emergency luminaires that use select LED power supplies have microcontrollers so they are programmable. Normally, LED luminaires are programmed to adjust for brightness, hue, energy efficiency, and other characteristics, but there is no reason you can’t program them for other functions as well.

In an ideal world, programmable emergency luminaires should offer:

1)         The ability to remotely test systems from anywhere, anytime;

2)         Support for real-time emergency monitoring;

3)         Remote monitoring and maintenance alerts;

4)         Data gathering for analytics;

5)         Integrate with other emergency and building automation system, and

6)         Enable remote commissioning as well as software updates.

Smart emergency lighting also can make buildings safer. For example, sensors embedded in emergency luminaires could be used to pinpoint the location of a fire or emergency. Or by applying machine intelligence the emergency lighting network can issue instructions to light the way to a safe exit. Of course, to add centralized intelligence requires reliable communications.


Bluetooth Mesh Offers Extensible Communications

Wireless communications offers the most feasible approach to connect luminaires. Most commercial buildings aren’t designed to add additional physical wire for intelligent lighting communication. More than half of commercial buildings are 60 years old or older, predating prewired computer networking. Retrofitting cabling to connect luminaires isn’t cost-effective. There has been discussion of connecting luminaires using Power over Ethernet (PoE), but that has not yet gained industry acceptance. However, it is relatively simple to add wireless communications to programmable LED luminaires.

Using wireless communications for lighting control is certainly not a new concept. ZigBee (IEEE 802.15.4) is a low-power radio platform that has been used for system controls since 1998, However, ZigBee typically can only communicate in a single vendor environment, which eliminates potential use for other data traffic. That’s why SIG-qualified Bluetooth mesh is gaining acceptance as an extensible, open communications platform.

Bluetooth mesh is a broadcast system, so each connection point or node sends and receives signals to all adjacent nodes. No central routers or gateways are needed since the nodes handle all data traffic, and because of the mesh architecture Bluetooth devices can be added or removed without disrupting data traffic. Using LED luminaires as Bluetooth mesh nodes makes it easy to monitor and manage emergency lighting.

The beauty of Bluetooth mesh is that it is based on a mature, open standard that makes it easier for vendors to make products that are guaranteed to be compatible. Bluetooth mesh also is readily scalable, and the mesh design ensures redundant connections. In addition to emergency lighting controls, Bluetooth mesh also can handle different types of two-way data traffic making it ideal for building management systems.


From Lighting Controls to Building Management

Once you have emergency luminaires connected into a wireless communications network you can use the same two-way communications system for other types of building control data. Consider the possibilities of extending emergency controls. Sensors in networked emergency luminaires can be used to detect fire, smoke, carbon monoxide, and other hazards. If a hazard is detected, a programmed response can trigger an alarm, alert emergency responders, open or lock fire doors, and even point the way to safety.

If you add machine learning to the control system then the emergency response systems can become proactive. For example, in addition to alerting emergency services, the sensors could detect the number of occupants in any part of the building and send an alert. Since Bluetooth mesh is an open standard, you can use a laptop, tablet, or smartphone to access emergency systems to gather information and issue instructions.

Now consider using the same infrastructure for building security. Sensors can be used to detect motion after hours. Bluetooth tagging of employee and visitor badges can track people through the building, providing access based on unique tag identifiers. Bluetooth tagging also can be used to quickly locate personnel or equipment, such as in a hospital or medical center. The Bluetooth mesh grid even can be used for wayfinding within the building or campus using a smartphone.

The same wireless infrastructure can be used for building management. Sensors in emergency luminaires can be used to monitor for available lighting, temperature, and other environmental conditions. If it is a sunny day and there is plenty of available light from windows or skylights, the sensors can be instructed to dim room lighting. Similarly, the same sensors can be used to activate the HVAC system depending on room temperature.

Manufacturers are already delivering Bluetooth-equipped luminaires. Fulham recently introduced a new line of LED drivers with SmartLink capability to add Bluetooth mesh when needed. Creating a programmable, wireless emergency lighting system promises to be the first step in a revolution in lighting and building controls.

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