Residential Scene Lighting Controls

Category: Hardware & Appliances

A lighting control system to enhance our master bedroom.

Our Review

This little project began because of our friends Dave and Carol, who are both architects and who have restored their own bungalow in Chicago. One thing they included in many rooms was a "scene lighting" system--a high-tech device that dims and brightens lights in the room based on pre-programmed settings.

Lighting control systems typically have a "master" console (or remote) with buttons to recall memorized settings. Push setting one and the lighting highlights the kitchen sink. Push setting two and the sink lighting dims as the lights over the kitchen table brighten. The picture below details a typical configuration and its functionality (click to enlarge):

Scene lighting adds convenience and a dramatic flair to a room. Such systems come at a price premium, but hardware costs are coming down. We decided to splurge a bit and expriment with lighting controls in one room...our master bedroom. Our plans for the room involve the use of five wall sconces that lend themselves to different lighting scenarios based upon different uses of the room.

Not surprisingly, there are plenty of manufacturers to choose from. Overall, it is helpful to group them into two types:

  • Standards-based systems allow different brands of hardware to work together. The leading open standard today is X-10, which has been around for over 20 years and is broadly supported. Right now there's also lots of talk about a new standard--Zigbee--but products don't exist yet.
  • Proprietary systems only work with other hardware from that manufacturer. Leading vendors include Lutron and Lightolier.

Normally, open systems benefit the consumer--products are interchangable and manufacturers compete for consumers, often based on price. Unfortunately, as of this writing, I find that X-10 systems get mixed results because of reliability concerns.

Since I'm looking at a fairly limited application focused on lighting in just one room, I decide on the reliability of a proprietary name brand. I choose Lutron's Spacer System.

Lutron's system is unique in its approach to the communication between modules. Whereas systems like Lightolier's use a separate wire to transfer commands, the Spacer System uses an infrared signal to transfer commands. The backs of each switch are clear, as shown below.

Infrared signals requires all switches to be side-by-side in the same gang-box (Lightolier's does not) but it does simplify installation. The Lutron switches communicate horrizontally. A diagram shows how this works:

Lutron's product can be installed in any existing location simply by swapping out the existing switches.

Beyond this basic system, Lutron offers several add-ons. A remote control unit can trigger the various scenes, and lamp-control modules can also be added which would operate off the same remote. Lutron even offers an IR-repeater, which comes with wire allowing you to locate the master control in a location separate from the individual switches (although if you take this approach, the Lightolier model may be more appropriate).

After deciding on the manufacturer and model, there are still several choices to make--electrical capacity, lighting type (e.g., incandescent), and even face plate color. I found that the PDF brochures at Lutron's website were helpful in explaining the benefits of each choice.

Finally, as is often a factor for us, price can make a difference. I found that the Spacer System was available for considerably less than other systems online. This clinched our final decision.

So, we've ordered three switches and a control module to operate the five lights in our master bedroom. It will be a while until they're installed, but we promise to circle back with another review once we've had some hands-on experience.

P.S. It's worth pointing out that Home Depot does actually carry a product called a Lutron Spacer, but this is a different product than Spacer System. The Spacer product controls a single switch with an included remote control. Individual Spacer modules will not communicate with each other or with Spacer System modules.

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Unbiased reviews of tools and resources based on our experiences restoring an old home.

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