Weighing Wired Against Wireless Lighting
Which kind of lighting control system is right for you? Here’s a rock-’em, sock-’em five-round smackdown to determine your winner.
November 23, 2010 by Steven Castle

Going wireless is the way to go, right? After all, you probably already have a wireless computer network in your home. Maybe wireless printing. You may have cut the cord on phone service—perhaps even cable TV. So why not go wireless with electronic lighting control as well?

With so much working wirelessly in your home already, why not go with a wireless lighting control system that lets you shut off all your home’s lights from one location, dim lights and set cool scenes. It will save you the hassle of having to run wires from the keypads to a central processor, which is how most wired lighting control systems work.

“You should never have a home without wireless in the future,” says Roger Stamm, international sales director at Lutron Electronics, manufacturer of both wired and wireless lighting control systems.

So that’s it. Wireless wins, right?

Not so fast. There are advantages and disadvantages of using both technologies. And what you ultimately choose could depend on several factors:

  • Is your home already built or is it in the process of being built?
  • What’s your budget and what can you pay up front?
  • The reliability of the system.
  • The features and size of the system.
  • And future add-ons and technologies.

Especially note what Stamm said last: “in the future.” Wireless lighting control is certainly in the here and now. And we’re seeing more and more of it—with good reasons. But it’s not the winner of the lighting world by default—and least not yet.

It looks like we’re going to need a lighting technology smackdown between the wired and wireless lighting. Let’s go a few rounds and rate them in various categories—and you can judge which one best fits your needs.

Round 1: New Construction vs. Retrofit

A few years ago, the answer was easy: If you’re building a new home or an addition and the walls aren’t closed, you wire, wire, wire.

“If you can wire, your first choice should be a wired network,” says Hector Morazan, international sales manager for high-end lighting system maker LiteTouch.

So why are we seeing more and more wireless systems in new homes? It could be that the walls were closed by the time a lighting system was specified. And let’s face it: wireless systems free you from the hassle of running wires.

“When the walls are up and everything’s done, wireless offers another option,” says Ian Hendler, director of business development for Leviton Manufacturing, a mid-market lighting systems maker.

“Wireless is for when all existing house wiring is done, and you don’t want the disruption of pulling new wires,” agrees Lutron’s Stamm.

That’s easy enough: Wire for a system if you can. If you can’t wire, go wireless.

But wait: There may be another consideration: “Wired is probably best for larger homes in new construction,” says Hendler.

So smaller homes, say under 3,000 square feet, should opt for wireless, even if the walls are open and wires can be run? That’s a personal choice, and may be tied to budget considerations.

Winner: It’s a draw. Wire in new construction, go wireless in retrofit.

Wireless lighting systems are going beyond just operating lighting.

Round 2: Cost Benefits

In total cost, it is generally perceived that wired lighting systems, by the nature of their typically larger sizes, are more expensive than smaller, wireless systems. For example, a typical wired Lutron HomeWorks system will cost $15,000 to $25,000 and up, while a wireless Lutron RadioRA starter package begins at about $1,300 and can cost $3,000 to $4,000 to cover a couple of rooms.

But guess what? In terms of the per-product pricing, wireless is still a bit more expensive. Lutron, for example, sells a wireless HomeWorks system, and its dimmers go for about $200, while the wired dimmers run between about $150 and $160. Wireless is more expensive per component because the RF (radio frequency) communications and sometimes the processing are built right into a dimmer, light switch or keypad.

Though, says Lutron’s Stamm, “The cost of wireless has come down closer to the cost of the wired lighting control system.”

The cumulative cost of a wired system typically reaches into the five figures because a home with a wired system tends to be larger houses—and with a wired system, you have to spend much more up front. You have to get all those wires into the walls before they close; therefore, the entire system is often bought and installed at one time.

With a wireless system, you can start smaller to save money, and add on as you can afford it. “It gives you the opportunity the scale back to do some things, and it is possible to add on in the future,” says Stamm. But go from a couple of rooms to most of the house with wireless, and you, too, could enter five-figure territory—while paying more per dimmers and keypads. 

“If you can do a wired system, you can get a cost benefit,” says Leviton’s Hendler.

So wired strikes back. But wait … You also have to figure the cost of the labor of putting wires into the walls—especially if it’s a retrofit—and that can make any savings realized with a wired system a wash.

Then again, there’s set-up time to consider for a wireless system. The punches are flying fast and furious.

Winner: Advantage to wireless, because you can start with a much lower budget.

Round 3: Reliability

This is where you can run into problems with a wireless lighting system, though wireless lighting technologies and their reliability have improved steadily in recent years.

“Reliability with wired is rock solid,” says Leviton’s Handler.

“People still run wires for the feeling of reliability,” echoes Lutron’s Stamm. “And in some cases, wireless is not suitable.”

For example, concrete walls or metal mesh in the walls for plastering can significantly affect the range and reliability of wireless communications in a home—as well as the ability simply to switch on and off lights via a wireless control system.

“Even with WiFi coverage of about 200 feet, you could have problems with concrete,” says LiteTouch’s Morazan, who sees this problem frequently in southern climes.

“There are lots of ‘moving parts’ with wireless,” says Vantage Controls’ Andrew Wale. “And you have to pay attention to the integrity of the network.”

The good news is that wireless lighting control technologies have improved significantly in recent years. Lutron’s RadioRA 2, for example, communicates over multiple channels to avoid interference with the transmission of an RF signal. “Adding occupancy sensors and other devices for an RF network means more traffic,” says Stamm, “so we had to improve the technology and protocol in the network to handle that traffic.”

“Mesh” networks like ZigBee and Z-Wave, in which each enabled device like a ZigBee or Z-Wave dimmer can become a redundant communicating network node like a repeater, have improved in their reliability as well—so much so that LiteTouch uses a Hybrid wired and wireless lighting system with its modular FiveK processor, in which the wireless components are ZigBee-enabled, but only communicate point-to-point with the processor. Lutron’s RadioRA, by contrast, does not require a central processor.

“What has increased the reliability in wireless lighting is the increased processing power and open standards,” says Leviton’s Hendler, whose ViziaRF wireless lighting products use the Z-Wave protocol.

Nevertheless, “Hardwired solutions are more robust,” concludes Vantage’s Wale. Few would disagree.

Winner: Advantage to wired systems, but wireless is catching up.

LiteTouch offers a hybrid wired and wireless system that utilizes the company’s modular FiveK processor and uses a point-to-point ZigBee wireless technology.

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Steven Castle - Contributing Writer
Steven Castle is Electronic House's managing editor. he has been writing about consumer electronics, homes and energy efficiency topics for two decades. He is also the co-founder of GreenTech Advocates.

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