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Why is simple so complicated?

As energy-saving technology in the lighting field becomes ever more sophisticated, we need to look much harder at making both its operation and its benefits clearer to the user, writes Dominic Meyrick

“Technology won’t save us, but design just might”. The more I look at how developments in energy-conserving technology are unfolding, the more this observation by Hoare Lea’s sustainability chief, Ashley Bateson, seems to hold true.

One of the big issues facing the industry is that many claims made for the new technologies are hard to quantify and in some cases they are very complex and hard to commission or to maintain. This leads to clients insisting we go down the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) route.

Nowhere is this better seen than in controls for artificial and daylight linking. Today these can do almost anything and their capital costs have come crashing down, but they are often shunned by clients and facilities managers, who ask: “Can’t we just have a rotary dimmer?”

I think we can agree that lighting controls will, when they work properly, help to reduce CO² emissions. And numerous studies show that end-users benefit by being able to control their lit surroundings. One Canadian report found that: “Choosing any fixed illuminance level will exclude at least half of an office population from these benefits” and “the best way to maximise the benefits would be to provide employees with individual control”.

The poor take-up of today’s sophisticated systems is because people just don’t want complicated technology - not because they don’t appreciate the benefits. Meanwhile, of course, rotary dimmer man is whipping out his iPhone to book theatre tickets, while dismissing the controls you are proposing as too complex.

“Payback is complicated by countless different answers, depending on the questions you ask and the data you put in.”

It’s not that the technology isn’t beneficial. It’s that the interface inspires fear. Unlike the iPhone, a great deal of lighting technology is not intuitive in its use.

Another thing that baffles clients and turns them into technophobes is the presentation of payback benefits. Surely it’s simple: a fitting has a certain capital cost; it will last so many years; it has such-and-such power consumption and the difference in price is X, compared with its competitors; and so payback is in Y years. If only it were that simple.

I used to work for a luminaire manufacturer that guaranteed its fittings for ten years, because lamp and fitting were separate items. The distinction between lamp and fitting was formally recognised in a 2008 EU-commissioned report on office lighting, which stated: “Lamps are currently replacement parts for a luminaire because lamp life is typically five to seven years, while luminaires are used for typically 20 years. LEDs could change this by making lamps that last as long as the luminaire.”

Conservatively, they were estimating 15 years’ life for the ‘combined’ offering of fitting plus LED lamp. But what did I see just the other day? Luminaires, with new-tech lamps, only guaranteed for five years. Where did the 15 years go? And so, again, payback is complicated by all sorts of variables that offer countless different answers, depending on the questions you ask and the data you put in.

So, yes, technology alone won’t save us. But, hand-in-hand with intuitive design - and some clarity about how long it’s going to last and cost - it just might.

Cartoon: Spike Gerrell

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