Dimmable Ballasts: Consider Digital

By Jim Crockett, Editor-in-Chief August 1, 2006

Cheap and technologically superior? That’s what the promoters of a new electronic dimmable ballast are claiming. Lumenergi, formerly Lumenoptics, has come to market with a new name and technology it claims will revolutionize the world of lighting the way the Toyota Prius is changing the driving habits of many Americans.

The growing popularity of daylighting on the building side of the green equation is certainly reason for lighting designers to consider greater use of dimmable electronic ballasts (DEBs). There’s just one problem: “To install dimmable ballasts right now is just too expensive,” says Bill Alling, president and CEO of the Sparks, Nev.-based company. A typical DEB, he says, costs anywhere from $35 to $110 a shot. As a result, they’re less than 2% of the total ballast market.

Alling is hoping to deliver a DEB for about $20 a pop. How? “What we’re doing is digitizing an analog product where we’re essentially taking out a lot of the hardware and replacing it with silicon,” he says.

The technology actually dates back to the 1980s, when a different start-up company Alling was involved with developed a prototype for a major New York-based bank. “When we landed that contract, at first we did a conference room, then a floor, then two floors. It was a very conservative process where we had to start slow and prove it worked,” he says.

That particular dimming technology was then about $80 per ballast. You’ve never heard of it because the company was bought by another manufacturer and was the product taken off the market.

Lumenergi has since reinvented a much more affordable digital DEB and at the right time, as ASHRAE 90.1 and California’s Title 24 drive the need to design more energy-efficient lighting systems. “We cut our teeth on [Title] 24,” says Alling. “And we feel if the cost is right, specifying engineers will embrace this technology.”

The company’s goal is for designers to be able to light about 50,000 sq. ft. of space for under $5,000. Part of that number is derived from the facts that the ballast produces a higher light output and fewer fixtures are required, but also because the DEBs operate on a control system that communicates over passive powerline technology. In other words it communicates over existing power lines, which saves on labor and wiring.

And beyond installation savings the system offers operational savings in the form of peak shaving. “If you look at the yearly power demand of a building, you’d find almost 30% of peak energy occurs at a specific time. So there’s a need to identify that time,” says Alling.

The control system can record and monitor what’s going on power-wise, and the data can be culled at any time, even remotely.

Although this is fairly unique technology, Alling is not looking to corner the market. In fact, he really appreciates an engineer’s need and desire to keep options open when it comes to product specification. The control system can speak any language and is DALI-compatible. And Lumenergi is considering more of an OEM approach to the industry.

”We’re looking for technology partners to drive the DEB market from 2% to 50%,” he says.

Why digital electronic ballasts?

• Lower cost per unit

• Lower installation costs

• Peak-shaving capabilities

• Open communication protocol