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Low-cost Lighting Controls
Lionel E. Deimel

 

At St. Paulís, Mt. Lebanon, we have recently solved a troubling lighting-control problem. I donít know how common our problem is, but others perhaps can benefit from our experience. If you need to control lighting remotely in your church, do read on, even if your situation seems different from ours.

We have a lighting system (from Vera-Light/Dimatronics/Hub Electric Co., Inc.) that allows us to preset a number of lighting treatments. When we sing hymns, for example, we use a high light level throughout the church. During the lessons and sermon, the overall light level is low, but the spotlights aimed at the pulpit are bright. The preset lighting treatments are selected by pressing buttons on any of several panels located around the room. Lighting Lightbulb changes happen gradually, as faders are associated with each of the presets.

Until recently, our organist pressed the buttons to control the lights. This was practical because one set of control buttons was mounted on the wall just behind the organ console. Relying on the organist worked well because he is present at nearly every service and needs to follow the service carefully. (In other words, he is available and is likely to do the job right.) Installation of a new organ, which has a moveable console that is never where the old console used to be, made it impossible for the organist to continue performing this task. We needed a way to control the lights without being next to one of the control panels.

It was obvious that either an infrared or radio-frequency remote control system was needed, but the only systems we could find cost between $500 and $1,000. Moreover, these systems seemed rather clumsy. Then I stumbled into X10.com, an Internet company that sells so-called home automation equipment. I purchased their outrageously inexpensive introductory kit, which opened up a whole world of possibilities for me.

The kit from X10.com allowed me to control lights and appliances remotely using a protocol known as X10. X10 devices use digital signals superimposed on the 120V power lines to communicate with each another. Suppose I want to turn on a lamp from anywhere in the house. I can use a hand-held remote that looks something like a TV remote. It sends an R-F signal to a small transceiver that plugs into a wall outlet. Based on the signal it receives, the transceiver injects a coded message into the power lines of my house. Near the lamp, a lamp module is plugged into an outlet. It is set to receive a particular X10 code. When that code is received, it turns on the lamp, whose power cord is plugged into it.

When I understood what X10 is all about, I remembered that I had received through the mail a catalog from Smarthome.com, another retailer of home automation gadgetry. That catalog was inscrutable to me when I first received it, but, after some hands-on experience with home automation, it began to make perfect sense. After revisiting the catalog for just a few minutes, I discovered the solution to our church lighting problem.

The pushbuttons that control our church lighting system are low-voltage momentary-contact switches. Smarthome.com sells an X10-based relay controller (#2315M) that incorporates eight momentary-contact relays, each of which responds to a different X10 code. It connects to the power line through an interface module (#1135). I wired the relays into one of the pushbutton panels for the lighting controls. The person controlling the lights uses a hand-held remote (#4001X from Smarthome.com or #HR12A from X10.com)óour church has three of these availableówhich communicates with a transceiver (#4005 from Smarthome.com) that feeds the X10 signals into the power lines. The whole system cost under $300. Lighting in the church can now be controlled from virtually anywhere in the room.

Some caveats are in order. It takes a certain familiarity with electrical gear to take on a project like we did at St. Paulís, though it is not, as they say, rocket science. Installation went smoothly, except for some difficulty fishing wires through walls. The remotes now work very well, though it was necessary to experiment with the location of the transceiver (and especially of its antenna) before we achieved reliable operation. Of course, if a remote is to be used from a location far removed from the transceiver, it is especially important to assure that the battery in the remote is fresh.

A bewildering variety of devices is available from X10.com, Smarthome.com, and others. Even if your church lacks the sophisticated lighting system of St. Paulís, you may find you can control lights remotely, not only turning them on and off, but dimming them as well. This may be a special boon to small churches with limited resources. Check it out.

ó LED, 2/19/2000

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