First, let me give you a little information about lighting control systems: there have always been two technologies. The original way (which still works really well for new construction) is to have dimmers, or remote dimmers, hard wired to a control processor. This is difficult to do in an existing home: you need to retro fit control wires through all the walls and back to the central panel. Later, X-10 was introduced. It sends signals down power lines and is a popular lower priced system. I owned it many years ago, and it has its limitations. While it’s inexpensive, it is not 100% reliable, which can be frustrating.
Lutron, the US based company that invented the dimmer, introduced RadioRA in the mid 1990s. I went to their very first training in the South and was so impressed I installed a system in our home within the next couple of months. The RadioRA concept used dimmers and switches communicating via radio frequency to a repeater that controlled the traffic. You could install keypads that could send any combinations of lights to any dim level with the push of a button. Lutron later added modules that accepted IR and RS232 signals for controlling the system. An interface allowing a signal from a security panel to trigger lighting events such as all on or flashing exterior lights came next. Later they added an astronomic time clock allowing lights to be programmed on or off based on the seasons.
Now for some background about me, in case you don’t know me well. My family lived in the same house for many years, but in 2006 the school system decided to rezone. The kids wanted to stay in the same school, so we sold that house and moved. In the years in our previous home, I had tricked it out with music, theater, and lighting control. As mentioned above, I installed the original Lutron RadioRA lighting control system when it first came out, and had almost every circuit in our old home on the system. I intended to put Lutron RadioRA into the house we moved into, but as with most moves, there are lots of things to distract you. The home turned out to be more of a fixer-upper than we originally thought, so RadioRA kept getting put off.
One thing about the consumer electronics industry: you really have to watch out for the syndrome of “waiting for the next great thing.” You know there’s a better product coming in a few months and wait to see it instead of making a purchase. In this industry, this can be repeated to infinity: things change so often you could never enjoy anything new! I nearly fell into this trap with lighting control. Audio Advice became a Control4 dealer and I was impressed with their lighting control system, but my wife did not like its appearance as much as our old Lutron. I then heard a new version of Lutron RadioRA was coming, so I decided to wait for it. The first shipments of the new RadioRA2 were a little bit late, but I finally got mine last week.
Lighting control is something you can’t fully appreciate until you live with it. In the years I was without it, I forgot just how much I enjoy it. Well, on just the second day of my installation, I realized just how much I missed it. Here are some examples of things that really made me appreciate it again. When we went to the kitchen to prepare anything we always had to go to two switches, inconveniently located under a cabinet, to activate the pendant lights and under-cabinet lights. Now one button push activates them, and also sets the main can lights to come on. Better yet, pre-programming takes my lights to 85% of full level, saving me about 20% on power, and you can’t see the difference. Also, at night I would go around the house turning all the lights off, feeling my way through dark areas. Now with one button press on our nightstand tabletop control, I don’t have to worry about stubbing my toe!
I’ve already set up some entertainment scenes which automatically turn on lights around our home to preset levels. This not only makes things look a whole lot nicer, but it’s really simple and consumes less power than turning all lights on to full intensity. I also set up the astronomic clock that turns on my exterior lights at 15 minutes past sunset to a 50% level, then turn off at 10PM. The list goes on and on of all the things I’ve automated just in a couple of days.
The Lutron products also look and feel really great. At no additional charge we ordered a color called biscuit, exactly matching the trim in our house. Keypads are all backlit with custom engraving. You can even adjust the light level from full to all the way off: in our master bedroom. I have them set to full off to keep things dark at night. I’ve also got car visor controls that let me select a welcome home scene or an away scene. It’s just amazing the convenience, energy savings (if programmed correctly), and just flat out fun lighting control has added back to our lives.
I’ve saved the best part for last. Can you guess? It’s the cost of this great stuff. When I first put RadioRA into my home in the 90s, a single remote dimmer was $290. Today it’s $149! If you bought the repeater, the IR or RS232 interface, and an astronomic time clock, those pieces used to cost $2600. Now everything’s in one small package with additional Ethernet control features for $499! Lutron has added some features from their higher end Homeworks lighting control system to the new RadioRA2 that allows much greater programming flexibility in keypad performance. There’s even a home automation interface for up to 100 scenes that the automation system can access. However, RadioRA2 is a fully capable, stand alone system. We just love it in our home! Hats off to Lutron for taking a system that was already really great and making it not only better, but a whole heck of a lot less expensive!