Energy, Power

Commissioning lighting control systems

Codes and standards require lighting engineers to include power allowances, daylighting controls, functional testing, and commissioning in lighting designs to verify lighting controls.

By Jesse Felter and Tom Divine, Smith Seckman Reid Inc. October 18, 2016

Learning Objectives:

  • Illustrate the steps for commissioning a lighting system.
  • Summarize the codes and standards that apply to lighting systems, controls, and commissioning.
  • Make use of lighting controls to gain efficiency in lighting design.

Commissioning is a quality assurance process intended to ensure that completed facilities perform according to owners’ expectations. Activities involved in commissioning include establishing expectations, design review, submittal review, verifying the installation, functional testing, and post-construction documentation.

Requirements for lighting controls become more complex with each edition of the energy-conservation codes. Codes and standards include ASHRAE Standard 90.1: Energy Standard for Buildings Except Low-Rise Residential Buildings, the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), and California Title 24. With each level of increased complexity, the benefits of formally commissioning lighting control systems increase. Those benefits include:

  • Superior energy performance, generally obtained from operation of lighting controls in accordance with their design
  • Improved indoor environmental quality, with maintenance of appropriate lighting levels through changing conditions
  • Smoother transition of personnel and operations into new facilities.

There are many steps to examine when commissioning lighting controls, following energy code requirements. ASHRAE 90.1, the International Energy Conservation Code, and California Title 24 all require some form of commissioning activity, in varying levels of detail.  Title 24 provides a lot of detail in its commissioning and testing requirements.

Establishing the scope of commissioning services

The appropriate scope of commissioning services will be different for every owner, and for every project. Some owners place a high value on commissioning and call for extensive services. Others may see commissioning as an unwelcome necessity, required by codes or corporate practices, and will contract for the minimum level of service that meets the requirement.

Minimal commissioning projects will generally include only prescribed functional testing services, with limited review services. More thoroughly commissioned projects will call for a complete array of services including any or all of the following items:

  • Assistance in defining the owner’s project requirements (OPR)
  • Review of the basis of design (BOD)
  • Design review
  • Submittal review
  • Equipment check-sheet documentation, or prefunctional checklists
  • Functional performance testing (FPT)
  • Post-construction documentation.

Most recommended practices and standards for commissioning strongly recommend that the commissioning firm is independent of the design team, the construction team, and other project participants and reports directly to the owner where project procurement requirements allow. In practice, that means nearly all projects, with the exception of certain government-owned projects with rigid contracting requirements. The entity in charge of the commissioning project is typically called the commissioning authority (CxA).

The elements of an owner’s project requirements

The commissioning process begins with developing a written description of the owner’s needs and expectations for a facility in a document traditionally called the OPR. The OPR describes the expected use, performance, and costs of the facility.

The OPR is created by the owner in conjunction with the CxA and the design team. If the construction team is engaged early in the project, those team members will participate as well. The OPR will include a description of the project, including its size, location, and intended use, along with primary project goals, such as the schedule and total budget. The OPR will also cover more specific requirements for building systems including performance, maintainability, and warranty requirements. It will describe any special requirements and contain a list of the applicable codes and standards.

In practice, the development of the OPR will take the form of a negotiation, with the owner balancing various project goals against one another, and the CxA and design team acting as mediators. It is rare for an initial project budget to be compatible with the goals for project quality, cost, and schedule. In general, some adjustments will be required to harmonize those requirements. In terms of lighting and lighting controls, the requirements of the locally enforced energy-conservation code will establish a basis for functionality and cost.

Certain elements of the OPR will affect the implementation of lighting components and lighting system controls:

  • Project cost will, to some degree, determine the general quality of lighting system components, the selection of available lighting technologies, and the level of complexity and functionality of the lighting control systems.
  • Required lighting levels and uniformity will affect the number and types of fixtures in the design.
  • Requirements for individual controllability will increase the number of control components, the complexity of the control system, and the use of task lighting.
  • Indoor environmental quality, in terms of the lighting level and uniformity, will have a strong impact on the lighting system design.
  • Space usage and occupancy schedules will determine the types of controls required for various areas of the facility and the initial programming for automatic, scheduled controls.
  • Efficiency goals will affect the selection of lighting technologies and the complexity and functionality of the lighting control systems.
  • Maintainability requirements will affect lighting and control equipment selections. Different lighting technologies have different maintenance requirements. For example, LED fixtures exhibit extremely long lamp life and are generally provided as integral units with no replaceable components. Fluorescent fixtures require more frequent lamp changes and have replaceable lamps, lamp holders, and ballasts.
  • Requirements for adaptability will affect the selection of lighting control systems. Where reconfiguration is expected only infrequently, systems that require reprogramming by outside specialists will often be acceptable, while an expectation of more frequent changes to occupancy patterns will drive the selection toward user-configurable systems.
  • Evaluation and testing requirements affect the scope of commissioning services and will have a level of impact on construction cost and schedule.
  • Training requirements are normally described in the OPR. Lighting and lighting control selections, though, will generally drive training requirements, as they are normally viewed as specialty systems with specific operation and maintenance requirements. Maintenance and operations staff will require training to operate, maintain, and modify lighting controls, and users will learn to operate the controls.
  • Special requirements may take the form of a requirement for a particular technology, a manner of operation, or even a specific manufacturer. Examples are a requirement for an open lighting control protocol, or for LED fixtures.
  • Applicable codes and standards—especially energy codes—will affect the total allowable lighting-power density and functional testing requirements. Some jurisdictions, particularly those under Title 24, require prescribed and very detailed functional tests. Other jurisdictions using ASHRAE 90.1 or the IECC will find testing requirements less prescriptive.

The OPR may be periodically updated during the course of the project to reflect design decisions, owner-driven changes, and resolution of unanticipated construction issues. As the design progresses and cost estimates are refined, the OPR adjusts to manage costs or enhance the functionality of the facility with available funds.

Basis of design

The BOD is a document describing the design team’s technical approach to realizing the elements of the OPR and complying with applicable codes. The BOD is developed by the design team. The lighting controls portion of the BOD, often called the “lighting controls narrative,” describes how the control system functions, its sequences of operations, and its user controls for each space. 

Recent energy-conservation codes require more functionality and flexibility from lighting control systems than their predecessors did. The lighting controls narrative describes how the system will comply with the requirements of applicable energy codes including:

  • Automatic scheduled shutoff controls
  • Staged manual controls, providing an initial lighting-power level of roughly 30% to 70% of the maximum power level when activated by user controls, with additional higher lighting-power levels in response to user demand
  • Light-reduction controls that are available to users
  • A strategy for maintaining lighting uniformity at reduced power levels, if power levels are reduced by switching fixtures rather than continuous dimming
  • Dimming technologies
  • Daylight-responsive controls, defining areas with daylight controls, and their control sequences. ASHRAE 90.1 and Title 24 require as many as four different illumination levels for daylight-responsive controls, and the IECC requires continuous dimming for certain areas.

The BOD serves as the reference for design reviews throughout the design process. Like the OPR, the BOD is periodically reviewed and updated to reflect changes in strategy as the design progresses.

The CxA reviews the design at least once before construction documents are issued, to determine that the design is consistent with the OPR. Additional reviews may be performed at various stages of the project, in accordance with the scope of commissioning services agreed upon between the owner and CxA. The CxA typically provides comments and observations about the design, and the design team provides written responses.

During the design review, the CxA typically will also review and adjust the commissioning plan to address the developing design. The CxA will frame contractor-testing requirements into project requirements and add these requirements to the contract documents.

Construction phase

During the construction phase, the CxA will typically review product submittals in parallel with the design and construction teams to verify that the submitted equipment is compatible with the requirements of the BOD. The CxA will provide comments to the design team, which ultimately provides the final responses to submittals. At the same time, the CxA will begin to develop the systems manual based on information contained in the submittals.

The CxA will also verify that the equipment and systems that are actually installed are, in fact, the devices described in the final submittals—and that they are installed in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions.

Functional testing for lighting controls

The codes require that lighting controls be tested, to verify that they are installed properly, and are calibrated and adjusted as directed in the construction documents. ASHRAE 90.1 and IECC call this “functional testing,” and Title 24 calls it “acceptance testing.” The intent of these testing activities is to ensure that the lighting controls perform as expected to achieve the energy savings contemplated by the codes. Title 24 requires acceptance testing of automatic daylight controls, lighting shutoff controls, demand-responsive controls, and outdoor-lighting controls. IECC and ASHRAE 90.1 do not require demand-response controls, nor do they require that those controls be tested when they are present.

Under Title 24, testing must be performed by a certified lighting controls acceptance testing technician under the auspices of a certified employer, both of whom must be certified by a lighting controls acceptance test technician certification provider. Testing requirements are very detailed and prescriptive. The requirements are described in Reference Nonresidential Appendix sections NA7.6.1 through NA7.6.4.

ASHRAE 90.1 and IECC require functional testing of occupant-sensing controls, daylighting controls, and time-switch controls as shown in Figure 1. They do not specifically differentiate between interior and exterior lighting controls. Presumably, the testing requirements for these particular types of controls apply whether the controlled lighting is inside the building or outside. The requirements of ASHRAE 90.1 and IECC are not nearly as detailed as those of Title 24. They require that the devices be tested for specific functions, but do not describe a particular methodology or sequence, leaving those decisions to the testing professional.

Occupant sensors

Occupant sensors are devices that detect whether people are present in a particular area of the building. They may act as inputs to a more complex lighting control system, or they may control lighting directly. Occupancy sensors typically call for fixtures to turn on when occupants are present and to turn off when occupants have been absent for an extended period of time. Vacancy sensors do not turn lights on, deferring to manual controls operated directly by occupants; they turn lights off after occupants are absent.

ASHRAE 90.1 and IECC require functional testing of occupant sensors including:

  • Certification that occupant sensors have been located and aimed as directed by their manufacturers
  • Testing of all occupant sensors for projects with fewer than seven sensors
  • Spot-testing of 10% of unique combinations of sensor types and space geometries, with testing of at least one of each unique combination.

IECC additionally requires testing of 10% of the instances for each unique combination. IECC also adds a condition that, if 30% of the controls fail the functional test, all identical combinations of sensor and geometry must be tested. That condition will impose a substantial penalty, in terms of effort and cost, for projects whose installers are careless in setting up lighting controls.  ASHRAE 90.1, however, has more stringent testing requirements.

Both ASHRAE 90.1 and the IECC require:

  • Verification of proper operation for occupant sensors with status indications
  • Verification that controlled luminaires turn off, or turn down to the level permitted by the code, within the allowable time.
  • Automatic-on sensors turn lights on when a person enters the space.
  • Manual-on sensors—also called vacancy sensors—operate manually, but don’t turn lights on automatically.
  • Sensors don’t turn lights on in response to movement outside the controlled space or in response to air movement.

Timer-controlled switches

ASHRAE 90.1 and IECC have identical requirements for timer-controlled switches and generally use identical language. Functional-testing requirements for timer-controlled switches are:

  • Confirm the switches’ settings including day-of-the-week settings, holiday settings, the override time limit, and the current time and date, and provide documentation of those settings to the owner.
  • Verify that the battery backup, if one is included by the manufacturer, is activated and working.
  • Verify proper operation of manual controls in both the occupied and unoccupied condition.

Daylight controls

Testing requirements for daylight controls are similar in ASHRAE 90.1 and IECC. Both codes require that:

  • Devices are located and calibrated properly and their setpoints and threshold light levels are set to appropriate values.
  • Lighting loads adjust appropriately in response to available daylighting.
  • The calibration adjustment is readily accessible to authorized personnel, but not to users of the space.

ASHRAE 90.1 also states that the persons responsible for documentation of daylight controls’ functional testing be independent of both the design team and the construction team.

Occupancy phase

After the construction phase is complete, the CxA finalizes the system manuals and reviews the operation and maintenance of the lighting systems with building operations personnel. In accordance with the owner’s agreement, the CxA will confirm that appropriate training has been provided or scheduled for operations personnel and for users.

The CxA will develop a plan to address any outstanding commissioning items. Finally, the CxA will perform a post-occupancy survey roughly a year after substantial completion and develop a plan to address any commissioning items that still remain outstanding.

Commissioning of lighting controls can encompass a broad set of services, beginning at the inception of the project and ending well after occupancy. Larger, more complex projects will typically require more thorough commissioning than smaller or simpler projects and will benefit from implementation of the planning stages—development of the OPR and the BOD documents. As the energy codes continue to develop, they will likely require a larger array of lighting control functions and will become more specific with regard to commissioning activities required to implement and verify lighting controls.


Jesse Felter is an electrical engineer and commissioning authority with Smith Seckman Reid Inc. Tom Divine is a senior electrical engineer at Smith Seckman Reid Inc. He has spent nearly 20 years in the consulting engineering field, with the past several years designing and engineering health care facilities. He is responsible for power, lighting, and fire alarm design for hospital and health care projects. Divine is a member of the Consulting-Specifying Engineer editorial advisory board.