June 14, 2023
LED controllers have become critical components of lighting systems in a world that is quickly shifting towards smart, energy efficient lighting. With LED controllers, you can control a multitude of lighting parameters, such as brightness, colour and colour temperature. You can also set automations to optimize for energy efficiency, visual comfort, convenience, security and more. With so many benefits to having the ability to control LED lighting, the question isn’t “do I need an LED controller?”, it’s “which LED controller should I choose?” This article will, hopefully, answer that question for you.
There are a number of ways to categorize LED controllers; their complexity, the type of LED they’re controlling, whether they’re wired or wireless, the application they’d be best suited for, and more. The best LED controller for you depends on which of these categories is most important to you. For example, if you were determined to control LED lighting wirelessly, you might hop to that section of this article.
In general, most LED controllers, whether digital or analog, are made up of various electronic components including a microcontroller, and either have an integrated or remote power supply. The electronic components regulate power, control, and protect LED’s based on user or sensor inputs, or pre-defined automations. LED controllers can also “mix” the brightness of individual colour channels so that an LED emits the desired colour. For example, an RGB (Red, Green, and Blue) LED could have its red channel amplified in brightness to redden the colour of the light output. An RGB LED light can emit over 16.7 million colour combinations.
As for the power supply for LED controllers, it’s worth noting that LED controllers require direct current (DC) power, and there are two reasons for this:
One thing that strongly impacts the complexity of an LED controller is whether it has a built-in power supply (which also acts as a voltage regulator/driver), or if the controller and power supply are separate pieces of equipment. LED controllers with a built-in power supply are more compact and simple to use (also known as integrated driver controllers), so they’re often used in smaller lighting projects where space and simplicity are important factors to consider. Cence Power provides an LED controller with a built-in power supply, for example. On the other hand, LED controllers without a built-in power supply can be very flexible because the power supply can be chosen separately based on the power needs of lighting. This means that it’s usable in a wide variety of applications, but also that it can be more complex and expensive than an LED controller with a built-in power supply.
When you think of an LED controller or smart lighting, maybe you think of your smartphone right away. By setting up your lighting properly, and downloading an app, you can have extensive control over the brightness and colour temperature of your lighting, with a smartphone. But using an app to control LED lighting is just one method of control; it’s an example of a wireless, typically Wi-Fi or Bluetooth based, controller. There are both wired and wireless LED controllers, as well as different types of wired and wireless controllers. Wireless controllers can only be digital, but wired controllers could be digital or analog. Before we break this down in a less overwhelming way, let’s define what we mean by a wired or wireless controller. When we talk about wired vs. wireless LED controllers, we’re really talking about how the controller communicates with LEDs, what method of wired or wireless communication technology is being used, and how user input is captured. For example, two different types of wireless communication are Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
Wired LED controllers communicate with LEDs via a wire. Their communication range is limited by cable length, and they are typically more difficult to install. However, they are not as easily susceptible to interference, and are generally less expensive than wireless LED controllers because they require fewer components and less complex technology (no wireless receivers or transmitters are required, for example).
Examples of both analog and digital wired controllers include the following:
Wireless LED controllers communicate with LEDs wirelessly, and the controller and lighting have separate power supplies. The two main perks of using a wireless LED controller are the range (in many cases), and the ease of installation (no control wiring). The communication range of wireless controllers can be limited depending on the type of wireless LED controller you use; Bluetooth signals can be weak, for example, but if you’re using a Wi-Fi controller for your lighting, and can control luminaries on a cloud-based app, then you can have control from across the world. In this case, you are only really limited by access to the internet. It’s worthwhile to note that if you use a Bluetooth controller with a smart bridge, the controller can have the same range as a Wi-Fi controller.
Wireless controllers can only be digital (not analog). Here are some examples of them:
Next we will compare a few of the most popular protocols used for controlling LED lighting.
A DMX LED controller is a wired, digital lighting controller that uses the DMX protocol to communicate, and they typically have 512 channels. Typical DMX controllers can control up to 512 monochrome or 170 RGB lights, so they have limitations when it comes to how many lights can be controlled when lighting colour or colour temperature matters. Similarly, even though it technically has a range of 1800 ft, it works best when devices are only 500 ft. away. DMX LED controllers use a digital control system, or digital multiplex (DMX), making them suitable for controlling larger light installations, such as bridges, building facades, and other outdoor projects. These controllers use low-voltage DC power, and are commonly used in commercial and industrial applications because they offer precise control over lighting fixtures and are perfect for applications where high-quality lighting is essential. However, they can be expensive, and require more cables and setup time, making their installation more complicated than other lighting systems.
A DALI lighting controller is a wired (two-wire), digital LED controller that uses the Digital Addressable Lighting Interface (DALI) system. DALI is an international standard (IEC 62386) for lighting communication, ensuring compatibility between different manufacturers' components marked with the DALI logo. As for their benefits, firstly, they are bidirectional controllers meaning the lighting fixture can notify the controller if there is a fault and vice versa. The controller is also individually addressable and programmable, allowing for ease of grouping. This makes it flexible enough to be used in a wide variety of applications (because lighting systems can be reconfigured without rewiring). All things considered, DALI controllers are a great option for precise and flexible control of lighting systems in commercial and industrial settings. The Cence LED controller can use DALI as a communication protocol.
BACnet (Building Automation and Control Network) lighting controllers are wired, digital controllers that use the BACnet protocol for communication between a network of devices and systems. The BACnet protocol is not limited to facilitating communication between LED controllers; it is a widely utilized protocol in building automation and control networks, enabling different systems (like HVAC and security systems) to communicate with each other as well. Simply put, BACnet allows equipment from different vendors to communicate, enabling existing building systems to expand without the need to worry about compatibility with new equipment. For example, BACnet lighting controllers can be integrated into a building's larger BACnet system (even if they are from a different manufacturer) and this allows for systems to be centralized, and more easily monitored. With the ability to interface with other BACnet systems, BACnet lighting controllers can be a valuable addition to a building automation solution that already uses BACnet equipment. BACnet LED controllers also offer precise control, which helps in supporting the energy efficiency and customization of LED lighting.
It’s worth noting that Cence has a built-in BACnet language bridge so that Cence connected devices can communicate with pre-existing BACnet devices (including other lighting and HVAC systems in a building).
RF (radio frequency) LED lighting controllers use wireless communication to control LED lights. RF LED controllers, send a radio signal to a receiver connected to LED lights. The receiver then decodes the signal and changes the LED lights' brightness, color, or pattern according to the controller's command.
RF LED lighting controllers operate on a specific frequency band and have different ranges, depending on the communication protocol, environment and the quality of the controller and receiver. The typical rule of thumb is that the higher the RF frequency is, the shorter its communication range. Conversely, the lower the frequency, the longer the communication range. For example, this means that Bluetooth (or BLE - Bluetooth low energy) will have a shorter range than something like ZigBee because Bluetooth operates at 2.4 GHz, while Zigbee operates at 915 MHz (in North America).
RF controllers are generally popular for their ease of use, convenience, and flexibility; they do not require any physical connection between the controller and the lights. You can find them in residential settings, such as homes, apartments, and outdoor spaces, as well as in smaller commercial applications like restaurants and retail stores.
It’s common to categorize RF controllers by whether they are single-zone or multi-zone controllers. Single-zone RF controllers allow you to control one group of connected LED fixtures, but you cannot address fixtures individually from the group/zone. Multi-zone controllers, on the other hand, give you the ability to manage multiple groups/zones of LEDs individually. A practical example would be using a multi-zone controller to turn down break room lights, while keeping boardroom lights at their full brightness.
EnOcean RF Controllers
EnOcean devices are a popular example of an RF controller. EnOcean devices are wireless, self-powered (energy harvesting), and operate without the use of batteries or wires. They draw on kinetic energy to charge themselves each time the button is pushed. EnOcean technology is used mainly in building automation systems. It can be used to control lighting, for example.
Wi-Fi LED controllers are probably the most common, and well-known, LED controllers. They are both wireless and digital. More specially, they require no cables, and can often conveniently be controlled via a smartphone on a compatible app. Wi-Fi LED controllers offer the longest range of any wireless LED controller because they can control lighting from anywhere in the world (as long as there’s an internet connection). This makes them specifically beneficial in larger applications where the limited range of other controllers could hinder the ability to control lighting from the opposite end of a large building. Some Wi-Fi controllers even offer voice control through their compatible app. They also have fast transmission rates, ensuring that LED lights respond quickly to commands. Bluetooth LED controllers, on the other hand, offer easy installation and are also compatible with smartphones. They are also often the most energy-efficient and affordable option. However, they have a limited range compared to Wi-Fi controllers when they aren’t connected to a smart bridge. A smart bridge is essentially a range extender, as it enables Bluetooth LED controllers to connect to a Wi-Fi network, and this gives Bluetooth controllers the same range as Wi-Fi controllers. Bluetooth controllers are often used in smaller spaces, such as bedrooms or small offices, where their limited range is not an issue.
Most LED types can be individually addressed, and controlled, including RGB, RGB+W, tunable white LED lighting, and single colour LED’s. However, not every type of LED controller can control every type of LED. For example, RGB+W LEDs have four channels - Red, Green, Blue, and White - while standard RGB LEDs only have three channels. Therefore, to control RGB+W LEDs, a controller must be able to handle the additional white channel.
It is important to ensure that the LED controller you choose is compatible with the specific type of LEDs you plan to use. Additionally, although some controllers might be compatible with a certain type of LED, the controller itself might not have the functionality to customize all the parameters that the LED is capable of customizing. For example, perhaps a controller can only control the brightness level of an LED, but the LED can also emit various colours. In the same way, although an LED controller can control an LED, like a LED tube fixture, this doesn’t mean that it’s the ideal LED controller. DMX and DALI controllers, for example, are most often used when controlling LED tubes because of the high-quality lighting customization that they’re capable of (as mentioned above), and because they’re commonly used in larger spaces (and so are LED tube fixtures). They are commonly used in commercial and industrial applications because both DMX and DALI controllers are part of an international standard, which ensures that different lighting components from different manufacturers can work together, making it easier for companies to build complex lighting systems that meet their specific needs. Cence is an example of a DALI LED controller, and works well in commercial and industrial applications. With Cence, you can also control LED lighting with an app that works anywhere with access to the internet, this eliminates range limitations of typical DALI LED controllers.
In conclusion, LED controllers are essential in a world moving towards smart, energy efficient lighting; choosing the right controller for your project can determine how much you can control and automate your lighting with respect to comfort, convenience and energy efficiency. Your choice will depend largely on which LED lighting you want to control, and how big the space is that houses your lighting. For example, if you’re just looking for an LED controller for an LED strip light under a shelf in your bedroom, a Bluetooth LED controller would be able to offer all the automation capabilities you need (maybe even more), while being cost effective and easy to install. However, if you’re looking to control and automate LED tube lighting in a commercial or industrial space, a DALI, DMX or BACnet LED controller would work well. This is because these controllers can typically support more loads, provide more power, and sometimes (like in the case of the Cence LED controller), they can provide the advantages of Wi-Fi LED controllers, such as an almost unlimited range. It’s also possible that you have existing equipment in your building that already abides by DALI or BACnet protocols, as these are standardized. Another consideration is how complex is too complex for your LED controller. Note that if an LED controller doesn’t have a built-in power supply, its equipment can be more expensive and complex than a controller with a built-in power supply. With a better understanding of the various factors that go into choosing an LED controller, and which types of LED controllers that are available, we hope this article has helped you to make an informed decision on which controller to choose for your project.
To get started on your product specific research, check out Cence Power. We offer both low and high voltage wireless LED controllers, with support for DALI and BACnet protocols. Contact a Cence specialist to discuss your project with them today.