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Which is Best: “Hardwired” or “Electrical Grid” Lighting Control for New & Remodeled Homes?

Of course it is hard to answer the question as to which lighting control technology, hardwired or electrical grid is best. There are many capabilities and features of each system to take into consideration when trying to assess the better technology. So when everything is added up there are surely features of each system which will cause this or that person to gravitate in either direction.

Hardwired System

Before any decision can be made we should take the time to understand the underlying technology of each system. For example, a hardwired system at its core is one that transmits and receives lighting commands over real wires installed with the walls. On the walls scattered throughout a given home are low-voltage switches. There are low-voltage wires running through the walls connecting those switches to a switch consolidator electronic component.

Low-voltage generally means that a scant 12Vdc power is utilized as power at the switches. Lighting control commands are generated when one presses one of the buttons of the switch on the wall. That command is carried on low-voltage wire and identified in the switch consolidator component. It is a lot like a telephone switch board that links one caller with another. It does not execute the commands it simply identifies which button has been pressed and conveys the information to the proprietary computer.

When the information reaches the computer an action is taken. The action taken depends on the programming downloaded previously into the computer. For example, button “A” may be programmed to turn on the kitchen light whereas button “B” may be programmed to turn on a scene where multiple lights are turned on. Every aspect of each light load can be programmed individually. The illumination level, ramp up rate and fade down rate is programmed. In addition, specific lighting control scenes wherein multiple lights receive commands simultaneously are possible.

Electrical Grid System

The primary difference between a hardwired system and an electrical grid system is that there is no specific low-voltage control wire installed for command entry at the switch in the latter. In fact, the electrical grid system has no control wire at all. The wiring of the lights within the home by the electrician is performed in the normal way. That is to say that the electrician will install a J-box for each light then wire in a power, neutral, and ground to power the switch and ultimately the connected light load.

What happens when one presses a switch to the “on” position when an electrical grid light switch has been installed? With no programming at all, right out of the box the switch will allow electricity to flow to the light load which will then illuminate. So far there is no difference between this switch and a standard switch from Home Depot®. However, right out of the box with no programming whatsoever the switch provides interesting and useful capabilities. If one presses the top of the switch once the light load will ramp up to 80% illumination over a two second interval thus avoiding the shock of the light coming on full steam immediately. If one taps the top of the switch twice the light will snap on to 100% immediately.

When it relates to the electrical grid system we are only getting started. The reason is that once all the dimmers and controllers have been installed the programming begins. Every aspect of each light load can be programmed individually. The illumination level, ramp up rate and fade down rate is programmed. In addition, specific lighting control scenes wherein multiple lights receive commands simultaneously are possible.

Underlying Technology

How do the command signals get from each switch to other light loads if the switches are wired like traditional switches? Well first of all it must be understood that the electrical grid switches are not normal switches as you have likely surmised. They are actually very sophisticated electronic components that are able to transmit and receive coded commands over the electrical grid in the home. The technology permits command signals to be broken down into binary information which is transmitted in the milivolt range at or very close to the “0” volt position of the 60 Hz electrical sine wave.

What’s The Bottom Line?

A hardwired system requires the expense of low-voltage wiring and the expense of having it installed. In addition, the low-voltage switches must then be installed and “wired up”. The electrical grid system does not require running of control wires and the switches are installed by the electrician in his normal contract to wire the house for AC. Generally the hardwired system cost in the range of triple what an electrical grid system cost. As far as programming is concerned the two technologies are pretty much equal.

My Opinion

I have installed hardwired, wireless, and electrical grid systems. For the last five years I only install the electrical grid technology known as Universal Power Bus®. There is no comparison with other systems in terms of ease of installation and cost. In addition, it is very reliable.

Installing Numerous Systems

It has been my experience that when home owners are considering one system for their new or remodeled home, they are likely considering other technologies as well. It would be in your best interest to have installation guides on each system you would like to include in your project. Read them all then procure your components, special tools, and cable so that they are all on the job site ahead of your proposed start date.

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