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Take Away That Toggle Switch

If you're like most homeowners, when you walk into a dark room, you reach for the light switch and turn it on. That's so 20th century.

Increasingly, homes are being outfitted with advanced lighting controls. At the top end, there are systems that can automatically illuminate areas, to varying degrees, indoors and out, based on time of day or the homeowner's wishes. The most sophisticated systems turn off lights when no one is in a room, or can be activated remotely from a cell phone, for instance. You can control audio systems, heating and air conditioning, too. Depending on the size of a house, a professionally installed system like this can cost between $10,000 and $25,000.

That's an investment that will turn off most buyers. But fortunately, there are much less costly options. Dimmers and occupancy sensors can be added to an existing home, room by room. The most basic dimmers cost less than $20 each and can be installed with a screwdriver and pliers by anyone who's comfortable working with home wiring.

Lighting controls also can save money over time. Energy savings aren't the focus of most of these products, but dimming a light by 50 percent can cut electricity use by 40 percent. The bigger savings, however, is in bulb life. Cutting the voltage in half can make an incandescent bulb last at least 20 times longer.

Advanced lighting controls aren't completely new. But the falling price of computer chips and technology innovations that make some systems work without wires are bringing a new generation of integrated lighting control within reach of more people. And you don't need to build a new house to enjoy even the most advanced features. A large percentage of professionally installed systems now go into existing homes.

Advanced lighting controls aren't necessary, of course. Most of us are getting by fine with old-fashioned toggle switches on the walls and maybe a builder-installed dimmer switch in the dining room. If you're a bit of a control freak, perhaps you've set a lamp timer here and there, or have a motion-detector floodlight over the garage.

But lighting control manufacturers are making a pitch by appealing to our interest in comfort, convenience and security. They are promoting products that do more than just turn lights on and off. The top-end systems regulate the intensity of light, hour by hour, to make a task easier or create a mood.

Consider this: At dawn, outdoor lighting fades as lights gradually brighten in the bathroom. In the bedroom, window shades can be opened to emit sunshine with the touch of a button or a hand-held remote. As you leave for work, hit the away button on a wall-mounted keypad. One button activates a system that will turn lights on at dusk and lower the window shades. When you return home, pressing the remote on your car's visor brings outside lighting to maximum intensity. At bedtime, a touch of a button at your bedside turns off all unwanted lights.

That's a summary of what can be accomplished with a HomeWorks lighting control system from Lutron Electronics Co. The company outlines its system's capabilities in a consumer brochure called A Day in the Life. For more information, visit http://www.lutron.com. Lutron's HomeWorks system uses patent-pending radio FM (frequency modulated) transceivers. These transceivers search for and lock into the clearest channel available, according to Lutron. Technology also helps reject interference from noise and small voltage variations that can cause light levels to fluctuate. The system uses a network of high-speed RF signal repeaters that can provide coverage up to 200,000 square feet.

Not surprisingly, this level of convenience and technology comes at a price, from $12,000 to $25,000 in a 6,000-square-foot house. Highly advanced lighting control is not for everyone. We're still getting the early adopters, says Roger Stamm, marketing manager for residential systems at Lutron.

But interest in whole-house lighting control using RF technology is growing. A good indication, Stamm says, is the sale of the company's RadioRA starter system. This package, which sells for around $1,800, excluding installation, allows the homeowner to control five lights. Controls can be located in two different cars, at a garage door and on a bedside table, for example. This allows the homeowner to illuminate the house while driving up, entering by foot or from the master bedroom. You can add to that starter system at any point in the future, Stamm notes.

Home lighting control has been an evolutionary process. Beyond the basic toggle switch, lighting control has its origins in the rheostat. If you're old enough, you may recall these large, heavy devices that were really variable resistors. Rheostats worked by controlling the amount of energy going to the bulb and turning the unneeded electricity to heat" a wasteful design. Modern dimmers use a transistor-like device called a triac. This smart switch turns power on and off very rapidly, chopping it up, as engineers say, 120 times each second.

Lighting does that, says Gary Meshberg, national sales and marketing manager for Lightolier Controls in Dallas http://www.lolcontrols.com. It even changes the way you talk. Not having a lighting control is like not having a volume control for your radio.

Until recently, Meshberg says, homeowners who wanted more than a standard dimmer needed a hard-wired control system. That is, they needed an electrician to run separate communication wire so various pieces of the system could talk to each other. An exception is the sort of technology made popular in the Plug n Power modules sold at RadioShack. These devices can control lamps and appliances by sending signals over a home's existing AC wiring.

The advent of radio-frequency (RF) lighting controls and the expanded use of microprocessors in consumer electronics have changed the picture. They are giving manufacturers the ability to design sophisticated lighting controls for the existing home market. At Lightolier, four out of 10 systems are RF systems that go into existing homes. Basic systems that rely on the home's existing AC wiring remain an option, however. They make it easy for homeowners to add advanced lighting controls one room at a time.

Tom Leonard, marketing director at the lighting control division of Leviton Manufacturing Co. (http://www.leviton.com) says the popularity of home theater has made the family room a logical place to start with the room-by-room approach. For $25 or so, a homeowner can replace a standard toggle switch with a digital dimmer that will softly fade and brighten the lights when it's movie time.

It's so easy for homeowners to do, he says. They get a whole new look and feel to their room with the change of a switch.

Leviton also sells wireless remote controls that, like the Lutron system, send a signal to a transceiver. That lets a hand-held controller be in charge of audio and video equipment, as well as lights and appliances anywhere in the house. Keychain models let you turn lights on and off in the garage or outside from your car.

In one respect, the interest in lighting control systems mirrors the overall growth in home consumer electronics, which has seen a growth rate of more than 25 percent a year, recently. Some industry observers peg the rise to the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. People traveled less and invested more in their homes. Lighting controls are a natural fit, because they can enhance the feeling of security and comfort at home.

At Lightolier, Meshberg has seen the most interest from 30-something men who are tuned in to the latest gadgets for their homes. But a significant number of customers are in their 40s and 50s, building their dream houses and looking for added levels of comfort, convenience and security. Those are the hot buttons for homeowners today, Meshberg says.

For homeowners who want truly automatic control over lights in a room, a companion tool for the dimmer is the occupancy sensor. These devices were previously confined to commercial spaces, like bathrooms in an office building. Now they are commonly found at home improvement stores. There are two kinds of sensor technology, passive infrared and ultrasonic. Passive infrared sensors respond to changes in the infrared background. They turn lights on when they detect someone entering the space they are monitoring. Otherwise, the lights are off. Ultrasonic units transmit a signal and monitor for changes. Some sensors combine both technologies for greater reliability.

Passive infrared sensors are more common for home use. Some are built into wall switches. Before you buy one to replace an existing switch, consider whether the location is well suited for a sensor. In other words, will a person entering the room after dark immediately trigger the unit and turn on the lights?

If you're intrigued by the idea of having advanced lighting controls at your home, and you don't have a friend who already has a system installed, there are at least a couple of ways to explore the subject. One thought is to visit a high-end audio-video store in your area. The shops that sell home theater systems sometimes sell lighting controls, Stamm says, or at least use them extensively in their showrooms. These setups can give you a sense of the sort of effects you can achieve in your family or home entertainment room.

That's where a lot of people are finding out about our products, Stamm says.

A trip to your local home improvement center can also be educational. In some cases, stores and manufacturers set up small displays to show you how each product works. For instance, you might see a display for Lutron's Maestro Duo. This wall-mounted smart dimmer uses microprocessor technology to allow dimming at up to 10 locations on the same circuit, using standard three-way wiring. Pressing and holding the switch slowly fades the lights to off. Two taps raises the lights to full brightness. Tiny LEDs display the light level. The price is around $60.

Commercial Electric sells a package that includes a wall-mounted dimmer switch with a remote control. This basic package, about $20, is geared to the entertainment room. It has an instant on feature and a gradual fade to off.

Maybe you have a lamp that you'd like to dim, but you don't want to mess with wiring. Table lamp dimmers that plug in like an extension cord are available for around $15. An advantage of this setup is you can vary the lamp brightness without a three-way bulb.

You might want to experiment with a motion-activated occupancy sensor. Leviton has one with a 150° field of view, for around $18. This could be just the thing for the children's rooms, or for those garage lights that always get left on after everyone has gone to bed. Whole-house lighting control may be a long way off for the average homeowner, unless prices drop dramatically. But select-room dimming is gaining popularity, according to a statistic from the National Association of Home Builders. From 1997 to 2002, use of dimmers among contractors grew by 100 percent. The standard toggle switch isn't dead yet. But manufacturers like Leviton seem to think its days are numbered.

Dimmers, Leonard says, are the new way to turn lights on and off.

Tux Turkel is a freelance writer based in Yarmouth, Maine.