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Is There Such a Thing as a “Future-Proof” Lighting System?
By: John Mitchell

If we were able to see the future, we might all be reading this on a beach somewhere, having "mysteriously" picked the winning lottery numbers. But, as good stewards, we are expected to possess a certain amount of forward-thinking ability that will guide us to make the best decisions in terms of capital expenditures. Are you having some issues seeing through your crystal ball when it comes to your lighting system? Well, perhaps I can offer some assistance with that.

One of the most common questions I am asked when selling or installing a lighting system is, "How long will this last?" While I cannot guarantee a specific amount of time, generally speaking, entertainment-based lighting systems are expected to last between 10 and 20 years. Of course, factors such as maintenance, use, and construction methods all contribute to this lifespan.  But, with the system being such a substantial expense, how might you "future-proof" your investment? 

Here are five ways to attempt to future proof your lighting system.

1. Infrastructure
Certainly the most important part of your investment is the part that very few will see: the infrastructure of the system. However, a well-designed backbone will allow you to expand on the system for years to come.

So, what does that mean in practical terms? Well, if you were putting in a dimming system and didn't have the funds to completely fill the rack with dimming modules, you would still want to have your electrical contractor install all of the wiring as if it were a larger system. In this way, you avoid the expense of breaking into walls in the future and pulling wiring through to add to your system. Wiring is a relatively inexpensive proposition during construction, but it becomes very expensive when the building has to be retrofit to accommodate growth. And, conduit (even those you leave empty during the construction process) will allow for smooth growth later.

My suggestion is to plan for more than you will ever use when laying out the system. You can always cut back to meet a budget, but I think we all know how hard it is to add to a budget once it is established.

2. Control
Architectural lighting control systems have improved greatly in the past decade, with the capability to control houselights, aisle lights, stage lights, automated rigging, automated window shades, and much more. Using a system like the ETC Paradigm control system, you can set looks that are played back from pushbutton or slider wall stations throughout the facility, automatically trigger lighting events through the astronomical time clock, set lighting levels live during an event, and a host of other possibilities.

These lighting control systems are computer-based and offer the end user the ability to customize them as needed. Your lighting consultant, or designer or integrator, can help you lay out how best to maximize the investment here. 

3. Network Technology
The lighting industry has long borrowed from the computer industry in engineering solutions.  Within the past decade, a dedicated network has become part of almost all lighting installations. 

There are several reasons that the lighting industry has adopted this technology. Chief among these are installation costs of the communication cable. Many years ago, a large analog style cable was used for communication, then came DMX, a smaller cable, but still fairly expensive to install – and with limitations on the total distance it could be run and in its topology. Category 5 cable (yes, that's the same as you see on your office computer network) is a relatively inexpensive cable with a generous topology (meaning it can be extended using readily available off-the-shelf switches and routers). 

The addition of network technology has allowed more and different types of information to travel through the lighting system expanding its usefulness. The lighting industry has embraced this technology and is working on increasing the amount of information that can be transmitted over a network and even changing the "language" that the system uses to communicate among devices from different manufacturers. Unlike the old style of cables, CAT5 will allow for this new communication protocol to travel across the network without having to change out the cables. 

4. Maintenance
I don't think we can really stress the importance of maintenance in a lighting system strongly enough. Imagine, if you will, buying a car, and never changing the oil. You wouldn't do that, would you? Preventative maintenance and cleaning will extend the life of your lighting system by potentially years. Dust is a computer's worst enemy, and your lighting system uses a ton of computer components.

So, how do you maintain your system properly? A qualified theatrical lighting dealer can tell you what needs to be done for your particular system, but here are some general guidelines. 

Dimming cabinets use a fan to circulate air through their components to keep them at the correct operating temperature. While effective as a cooling mechanism, this draws a great deal of dust over the dimming modules and electronic components. Keeping a dimmer rack clean can literally add years to its life. And, while it is being cleaned and inspected, it is a good idea to have your dealer check for software updates for the electronic components.

Your lighting console is another form of computer, so, again, dust and dirt are the main enemies here with which to contend. Regular cleaning will ensure smooth operation of the console, and, in addition, regular software updates will help to avoid operational problems down the line.

Your standard theatrical fixtures will want to be cleaned annually, as well. Lenses attract dust, and, with the heat most fixtures put out, this dust can become very attached to the lenses and reflectors in these units. Most manufacturers have manuals on their websites with recommendations for the types of solutions to use when cleaning lenses and reflectors. It is important to follow these carefully, as doing it incorrectly can leave scratches and cause diminished light output.

5. Faith
Well, ultimately, maybe the most important part of future proofing is the faith that you are making good and informed choices. Educating yourself is important when you are tasked with making a long-term decision on purchasing a lighting system.  Lighting industry organizations like USITT, LDI, and PLASA offer annual trade shows where manufacturers display the latest technology and can be a resource for more information. 

While you can never truly anticipate the leaps in technology, the few ways I have outlined above will give you a head start on being ready to embrace the next great thing in lighting.
John Mitchell is the executive vice president of sales and business development for Entertainment Lighting Services, www.elslights.com.

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