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From Lighting Designers to Manufacturers, 5 Experts Talk on the State of the Industry

For those integrators who are embracing lighting as a new category, business is looking brighter. Lighting and shading represent a significant growth opportunity. However, because lighting is somewhat new to the CI channel, it’s difficult to identify if it’s something they should pursue, what they need to know, and the best approach for being successful. For that reason, CE Pro recently sat down with five lighting experts across the fields of design, manufacturing, and sales to talk on the state of the industry and general lighting trends.

For this roundtable on the state of the industry, CE Pro spoke with the following lighting experts: David Thomas, executive director of manufacturer’s rep Momentum Group; Peter Sandford, CEO of integration company Smarter Homes; Gregg Mackell, principal of lighting design firm HLB Lighting Design; Patrick Laidlaw, director of Business Development-Integration, AiSPiRE, a WAC Company; and Charlie Derk, vice president, Strategy, Legrand Shading & Controls.  

CE Pro: The industry of lighting is shifting and exploding into CI, especially in the last 3-5 years. Why should custom integrators pursue lighting as part of their service offering? 

THOMAS: As the AV industry comprises lighting fixtures, it adds a profitable revenue stream to the integrator.

SANDFORD: With the current state of technology, the lighting industry is entering into our realm of low voltage and is a quadrant of residential AV business. If integrators don’t pursue lighting, they’re leaving 25% of their possible revenue on the table — and it may be more than that when you look at how much the lighting system could cost. 

LAIDLAW: The number one reason to pursue it is because integrators are responsible for controlling it. Like any other AV system, integrators want the control system and the lighting system to work in the way the homeowner is expecting. 

The Future of Digital Lighting & Control

As a custom integrator, lighting is in demand. Effective communication, education and showcasing the value proposition of LED light fixtures in conjunction with integrative control systems are the keys to overcoming challenges and closing sales in this specialized market.

Join us as we discuss the future of digital lighting and control with David Warfel from Light Can Help You and Patrick Laidlaw and Mark Moody from AiSPIRE.
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Number two is integrators are all about the experience. Right now, the state of the lighting industry sees its distribution fragmented through other channels that are based primarily on budget, such as builders or electricians. They are going to provide light, but they’re not necessarily focused on the experience. 

Number three is lighting can get an integrator involved in a job earlier. The fourth reason is lighting control is going digital. Right now, lighting is controlled through analog or phase cut dimmers. With digital control, you’re just running low voltage wires to the fixtures and you’re sending a communication signal telling the lights what to do. The dimming is all built into the fixture. As digital lighting increases, phase cut dimmer panels will go away. Integrators need to get into lighting to replace that revenue. 

DERK: I would add that, for most integrators, this is going to be a new product category. It’s easier for integrators to sell more fixtures to the customers that they already have than try to acquire new customers.

CE Pro: What makes integrators well positioned to be part of the lighting category?

DERK: I’ve been doing lighting control since the ’90s. Back then the electrical industry thought it was way too complicated while integrators embraced it. Dealers are well positioned to be part of this because they’re good at taking things that are complicated and figuring out how to make them simple for their customers. It’s in their DNA. 

LAIDLAW: Integrators are about connecting everything in the home. Lighting goes along with that. Right now, we run 120-volt AC power through homes and buildings, which has to be converted to DC. We lose a lot of energy through that conversion process, especially in commercial buildings. Given the current state of the lighting industry, low-voltage looks to be in the early adoption stage, but it’ll become more mainstream in the next 5-10 years. Integrators need to be aware of that trend and start looking at it now.

THOMAS: Integrators sell and install high ASPs as well as technology better than any other industry. Additionally, if the CEDIA channel sells the controls; they should sell the fixture to ensure proper performance.

CE Pro: Do you feel that that we’re at the point where the lighting category is readily embraced by dealers? Why or why not?

THOMAS: No. I think primarily because the messaging and education is inconsistent or incorrect. We need to be unified in how we educate and what we educate on. With events like Lightapalooza, we’re heading in that direction.

SANDFORD: I agree. There’s still a lot of fear with lighting because it’s so essential. It’s no longer a toy or a luxury. When we ran Cat-6 cable all over my house for lighting, many of my colleagues asked if I was certain it was going to work. It’s DMX; of course it’ll work.

But I think the better question is, how are you going to control these tunable fixtures? It will work if integrators have the drivers to control these tunable fixtures easily. That’ll take companies like what Legrand is doing with Vantage LHUMAN KolorTune and its fixture alliance where they’re partnering with lighting fixture manufacturers to build the control profiles that integrators need. 

DERK: The state of the industry right now is that lighting a high-voltage product, so integrators tend to think, “Ah, no, that’s not for me. That’s the electrician’s job.” But we saw the same thing with shading when it was considered the designer’s territory. Today, many integrators do shading on projects. It’s going to take time and having the systems and tools that support integrators so they can be successful no matter what fixture is being used. 

That’s one of the reasons why we developed and continue to strengthen Vantage’s LHUMAN lighting control solution. With LHUMAN KolorTune profiles that Pete mentioned, we can help alleviate their fears and uncertainty, speed up programming, and undoubtedly deliver the experience homeowners want out of their lighting system.

LAIDLAW: I think we’ve just passed the early adopter phase for integrators. We started talking about lighting at the integration channel about five years ago. Certainly, we had to hit the pause button because of COVID. Now the speed and momentum has picked up greatly. Lightapalooza attendance was more than double what it was last year, which was its first year. 

It’s going to continue to grow every single year because integrators sell what they know — and they have to know everything about it. That’s just their nature. It’s just going to take more education, but they’re already stepping in and asking their customers questions about their lighting. Integrators are excited, and I think that really is a significant sign of where this category is headed. Of course, it’s vital that as they add lighting, they’re not stepping on lighting designers’ toes. 

CE Pro: Why is the lighting designer as a resource integral? What kind of support and expertise do they bring to the table that’s going to help integrators flourish?

MACKELL: Lighting designers who specialize in residential projects can be advantageous to an integrator because they know so many of the ins and outs and the breadth of lighting fixtures and components available. They have a lot of experience solving problems. They can make plan B look like it was plan A. 

They also bring to the project an understanding of what kind of construction issues you can get into and how to solve those problems when they arise. For example, from how thick the ceiling is to change materials, lead times, pricing to color functionality, form factor, shape, and beam spreads of specific fixtures. 

We know what questions to ask, such as, does the homeowner want to accent something? Do we want to give a task light or is it going to be just more of a general light? They take on the difficult part of fixture specification, layouts, coordination with owners, and put together a plan with controls, information, specifications, and layouts for the integrator. We can work together to create different scenes. 

THOMAS: Lighting designers should be our partners but will only work with us if the CEDIA dealers engage them and don’t flip the spec to try and win a job. They have the lighting education necessary for many of the more upscale jobs, and there are multiple levels of lighting design available. But it’s important that integrators don’t take on parts of the job that they’re not equipped to handle.

SANDFORD: Lighting designers are really great to work with, especially if the client sees value in it, which I really hope that they do. They really do all of the hard work, handing over the load schedule. Lighting designers are extremely valuable because what would take me dozens of revisions, they accomplish in two visits. Time is money.

DERK: I think it’s really important that integrators don’t take on projects that they’re not capable of handling. Plus, working with a lighting designer is another potential avenue of business, where the lighting designer is bringing you into the project for the homeowner’s AV.

LAIDLAW: We had a project where the showroom talked to the customer and said, “Oh no, you want warm white. Warm white will make your kitchen beautiful.” Unfortunately, the homeowner had custom stark white cabinets, and when that yellow light hit them, it made them look dirty and dingy. They had to tear out all the lighting and go to a different color temperature. Lighting designers and specifiers know the questions to ask and will lay it all out, so those expensive mistakes don’t happen. 

CE Pro: What should installers’ place be in the light design and layout process?

MACKELL: If we’re working with an integrator, I would expect that they have nothing to do with the layout. That’s what we do. Integrators should work hand-in-hand and show each other professional courtesy, but that means the integrator is doing the sales, installation, and programming, while we’re focused on the lighting design and specification. There’s really no overlap between what we do and what the integrator does. 

The integrator shouldn’t talk with a client without having the lighting designer in the loop. I have had that happen, and it’s a real fast way to ruin the relationship. I’ve also had integrators who really do show professional courtesy, and if there is a client that shows up to their showroom and they want to look at the lighting options, to give us a heads-up ahead of time and discuss what should be shown, if anything, to a client without the designer being there. 

I’ve experienced an integrator who suggested lighting fixtures to a client that were too big to fit in the framing. The client was excited about some technology that wasn’t going to work in their house. That’s the thing we want to avoid. With professional courtesy and good communication between an integrator and a lighting designer, we can work to make sure that what we specify and design gets installed and programmed how the owners want.  

LAIDLAW: I will say that communication needs to be much earlier than it currently is. This came out of that design forum we did with lighting designers and integrators in Denver this year. Lighting designers look at fixture performance from a lighting standpoint. Integrators look at fixture performance currently from a control standpoint, and there needs to be a bridge early on that says, “I want to use this fixture. Will it work with the control system that the client wants to use and that the integrator has to make work? Is it dimmable? Which dimming module do I need to control that? Does it work off digital control?” 

Lighting designers can prevent those challenges by making sure that control piece is discussed, and the project is wired accordingly. If the integrator doesn’t wire for digital control and the lighting specifier specifies fixtures that require it, we’ve got a problem once the drywall is up. 

THOMAS: Integrators need to work toward being educated at the level they choose to participate, or plan to outsource. Definitely don’t portray yourself as a lighting designer if you are not.

CE Pro: Lighting is highly technical and complex. Where’s the best place to start? Are there any resources you recommend? How might a CI business need to evolve to take on this service opportunity?

THOMAS: Given the current state of the industry, landscape, linear, and retrofit lighting are the simplest places to start that do not require an electrician. Also, utilize your partners at the rep level and the manufacturer level to do the heavy lifting.

SANDFORD: We’re starting to see the gathering and centralization of information so that integrators can get educated, but mostly, they’re going to have to do the good old-fashioned brand grab. Pick a brand, go through the training, and get certified to move up to the next level. 

DERK: In 2006, none of the AV community was really selling fixtures. It was sold through the electrical channel. Even back then, integrators like me at the time saw that there was an opportunity. It was exciting. We didn’t know a lot about it, so we actually hired a lighting designer. I don’t think that that’s the right solution for everybody unless you can afford having a lighting designer on staff and you’re providing a lighting design on every project. Otherwise, there are resources in our industry, such as [design consultant] Light Can Help You, that will fill this gap. You can outsource the lighting piece to somebody that really understands it until you get more comfortable with it.

LAIDLAW:  On the product side, the best place for an integrator to start is in landscape lighting and linear low-voltage tape light. That’s because most electricians or builders don’t do landscape lighting, and if you make a mistake, it’s not drywalled into a ceiling. Something like our architectural lighting solution features beam adjustability and brightness control in a variety of wattages, depending on how much brightness is needed. This makes it really simple to get started. 

On the education side, there are a couple of different places that offer lighting training and will provide foundational knowledge. The one that’s been around the longest is the American Lighting Association (ALA), which has a lighting certification program. Integrators will learn color temperatures and the color rendition index. Illuminating Engineering Society (IES) also has a lighting training program. There are also some of the buying groups that have their own lighting training courses. 

CE Pro: Beyond just being a new revenue stream, how should integrators consider lighting?

DERK: Integrators are the technology architects for the home, so it’s really part of what they’re already providing. Of course, it’s not for every integrator.

LAIDLAW: One simple word: experiential. But that aside, being involved with lighting is going to make the control process easier. 

MACKELL: This is an important question! I went to a presentation a few years ago and the title of the presentation was something to the effect of, “Lighting: Your New Revenue Stream.” Lighting is my profession. That’s what I do for a living, not just something I do on the side and one of a number of services to add more revenue. 

If you do sell a whole bunch of lighting that you don’t know the right questions to ask, the integrator could be on the hook for big cost fixes. A professional lighting designer takes all that risk and all those decisions into their scope. 

SANDFORD: It’s like you’re walking from standard definition to high definition . But lighting also plays into day-to-day wellness — making you feel more relaxed or like you have more energy. That’s not something that you can do by putting in a bigger subwoofer or more security cameras. Lighting is very emotional, and the human body reacts to it. It’s a game changer.

THOMAS: Digital lighting is an advance in technical capability and a resource to the end user.

There’s lighting control, shades, lighting design, compatibility of fixtures, and so many more nuances to learn and understand in any project. How can integrators keep from wearing too many hats?

LAIDLAW: To avoid this, partner with trade partners that understand — lighting designers, interior designers, and electricians. Some integrators might want to expand their business to have these professionals on staff.

THOMAS: Actually, lighting is easier and less complicated than a traditional AV system. Installers should wear the hats but learn to wear them correctly.

SANFORD: My job is to integrate — to bring it all together — and be the emotional support system for the homeowner who is probably, at some times, going to be frustrated with a decision that didn’t go as they had envisioned. I’ve had this discussion with lighting designers because there’s a lot of integrators that will insert themselves into this process. I try to explain to them right off the bat that I’m going to let them do their job and it’s my job to make it work. The moment I get that load schedule, it’s all about the lighting designer and me making this experience as badass for the client as possible.

DERK: I don’t necessarily think integrators need to. They just need to have the expertise. I think the more that they offer, the better the solution turns out. Because if you have too many different people, especially when the things need to integrate together, there’s a good chance that it’s not going to turn out as well as it could if you just had one person controlling that end-to-end experience for the customer.

CE Pro: What are the lighting trends that integrators should be aware of?

LAIDLAW: Integrators need to know about tunable lights, which provide the ability to change the color temperature, and low-voltage DC, which is safer, less expensive to operate, and uses less copper, among other reasons.

SANDFORD: High-intensity recessed strip lighting versus cans and lighting mixed with other solutions like acoustic panels or tiles. 

MACKELL: One of the big trends right now is very small lights. If we can do a 2-inch light in a ceiling as opposed to a 4-inch light, that’s one fourth the surface area. The light is taking up less of the architecture and letting you see more of the architecture. 

There are also trends in aesthetics, so things like flangeless and flush with the ceiling. In the vast majority of our projects, the lights are all going to be flangeless or trim-less, which takes a lot more care by the installers to get it perfect.

DERK: Definitely human-centric lighting. It’s truly experiential lighting, and in order to achieve the level of color temperature control that defines HCL across a large portfolio of lighting fixtures, we’ve recently introduced LHUMAN KolorTune. Integrators can find tested profiles of hundreds of lighting fixtures from Vantage’s Lighting Fixture Alliance and drop those into their programming. 

It’s quick and easy for them and really strengthens the relationship between lighting designers and integrators. I think the other big buzz right now is DALI 2.0. DALI has been around since the ’90s as a digital lighting control protocol, but it just never really caught on here in the U.S. Europe uses it often, and it’s finally picking up here. 

CE Pro: What is HCL? Why will this become an increasing focus in the lighting category?

THOMAS: For integrators, this technology introduces the lighting piece into the conversation around the lifestyle of the client and the benefit of great light.

DERK: HCL has been around for a while. In the ’90s, when it didn’t even exist back then as a name, I worked on a project for a children’s hospital in Texas where the neonatal intensive care unit had these canopies over all the little beds that had fluorescent lights with a plastic gel cover on them that changed from a bright white to a glowing orange throughout the day. 

Researchers determined that babies who were born prematurely had a better chance of survival if they were exposed to a natural environment. These canopies simulated sunrise in the morning, and throughout the day, it would turn into a brighter white. At the end of the day, it would simulate sunset. Today, plenty of studies show that lighting affects our mood, health, and helps kids learn better in school and workers be more productive at the office. That can be applied to the home environment. 

LAIDLAW: Two recent studies done at elderly care facilities found that when they used circadian rhythm lighting, which is what HCL is based on, that the elderly residents slept better and falls were reduced by 38% within a matter of a month. There were less falls because they were sleeping better and had better balance. Electric light, as wonderful as it is for us, really has screwed up our bodies and our normal circadian rhythm patterns.

CE Pro: How does shading fit into that?

DERK: Shading is just a dimmer for your window. Just like we put a dimmer on the wall to control the lights and the ceiling, that shade is the dimmer for the light coming in the window. And if you can’t control the light coming in the window, it’s going to be really hard to control the light that’s in the ceiling. It’s part of that lighting experience.

LAIDLAW: Shading manufacturers are putting controls inside the shades that can be tied into the home control system to affect how much light you want in the room. The lights dim up and down and the shades go up and down based on balancing that light level or achieving a certain mood. Shading also helps to easily and more cost effectively manage the heat from the sun and improve your sleep patterns.

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