Nicor had a customer who needed a highly efficient, fully controllable lighting system for a large data center facility. The system needed to be user-friendly and capable of on-site adjustments and maintenance without the need for a manufacturer technician. In addition to this, the system needed to be fully secured to prevent outside access to the facility’s systems.

“The majority of the competitors on large-scale control systems haven’t changed anything in years,” David Brown, senior electrical engineer at Nicor. “And the main competition is a lot like a DOS-based system — very old and antiquated. So, trying to commission a system with that technology is very tedious and time-consuming, and the customer is forced to rely on the system’s technicians to come out to implement the network.” 

He said it typically takes three weeks before a technician can arrive, and then the commissioning process itself usually takes a week. 

“On top of that, there tend to be a lot of failures and issues that follow the commissioning process,” Brown continued. “This requires the technician to come back, sometimes weeks later, to try to fix that. Before it’s all said and done, the customer has lost two to three months before the commissioning process is complete.”  

Energy efficiency is also a very important issue for data centers and distribution centers. The facility would see high levels of heat, which typical lighting systems are unable to handle due to driver and LED failures. 

Previous systems that the customer used could not handle the high heat of the data center environment. They could only control groups of lighting versus individual fixtures and would see consistent failures. They also were unable to find a system that had full-system controllability down to the individual fixture.

Solution: Commissioning in Hours 

To meet these demands, Nicor developed the Illumination Management System (IMS) Lighting Control System. The IMS takes hours, not days or weeks, to commission. 

The IMS provides a simpler installation with an easy-to-use user interface that anyone can use. “With this system, the customer can do all the commissioning themselves and have their system up and running within a day,” Brown said. 

It operates on the Digital Addressable Lighting Interface (DALI) protocol and provides control on all levels — from individual fixture control to multisite empowerment with Nicor’s Master Control Unit (MCU). 

The IMS system comprises three main components:

  • IMS control box, luminaires, and control devices.
  • IMS user interface for control and commissioning on a tablet or laptop.
  • MCU that provides global control for multiple networks.

The IMS system and fixtures have been certified for temperatures up to 122°F and have been specifically designed to withstand the high temperatures of data center hot aisles. To top all this off, the IMS system was designed to have a closed network system to maximize security. It is certified to UL 2108 as a low-voltage lighting system. 

Nicor selected Phoenix Contact for about 80% of the products in the control cabinet — terminal blocks, PCB terminal blocks, wire duct, I/O, and the controller itself, which currently is the ILC 191.

“Phoenix Contact helped significantly throughout the development,” Brown said. “They were always willing to support us in any way we needed, like supplying unlocked function blocks to speed up development. They were always willing to take our calls to answer any questions we had and helped develop part of the firmware for our system.” 

Peter Mannon, automation sales engineer – control at Phoenix Contact, stated that when Phoenix Contact first got involved with the project, one of Nicor’s biggest challenges was trying to implement multiple software packages. 

“With some custom function blocks, Phoenix Contact was able to do it with one program system,” he said. 

“We started looking at the ILC 151 controller originally,” Brown added. “Once we got everything installed, there just wasn’t enough horsepower with that controller, so we had to move up to the 191.” 

Mannon attributes the faster commissioning time to the combination of the Phoenix Contact hardware and the PC code that Brown wrote. 

“David wrote an application on a PC that interfaces with our controllers, so the savings come from a two-pronged process,” Mannon said. “Part of it is related to our equipment and the way he implemented it. But another part of that is the custom software interface that he wrote that’s very unique.” 

In the U.S., fewer people use DALI compared to traditional standards, but it offers many advantages, such as faster commissioning. Unlike many of the proprietary lighting protocols, it ensures interoperability for equipment from different manufacturers. It is specified in IEC 62386.  

Results: Faster assembly and Secure, Remote Commissioning 

Nicor first installed these systems at its own HQ and its sister company. Each has been in place for about a year with no issues. These installs were used during development to evaluate the installation process and the functionality of the system. 

In the fourth quarter of 2020, Nicor began the first installation in a hyperscale data center. A total of 140 of these systems will be installed for this customer. The deployment and performance of these systems have been so successful that Nicor is in discussion with this customer to deploy these systems globally.

Brown said the new system has cut Nicor’s own assembly and manufacturing labor time by about seven hours. He credits reduced wiring compared to legacy control systems and the LCU for the time savings. 

“On the next generation, we’re trying to reduce manufacturing time even more by designing a custom PCB that will contain all of the wiring,” he said.

The IMS will offer customers many benefits in how they manage their facilities, including the following.

  • High-temperature tested and rated for industrial environments.
  • Simple user management for easy commissioning and control.
  • Security through a closed network that eliminates the threat of unwanted intruders.

“We know there’s cost savings in installation and commissioning if the customer can install the system themselves using their own facility operations people,” said Rocky Lawrence, president and CEO at Nicor. “By having that control, they can be more productive. If they are concerned about power consumption, there could definitely be a payback. We all know that is a priority for these data centers because they consume massive amounts of energy. LED lighting is much more efficient than traditional lighting roles. In terms of functionality and monitoring, there are significant benefits in the ability to be notified of errors from a fixture in the system or if there are other productivity issues. That information is valuable but is typically hard to measure.” 

Phase II on the Horizon

Although the IMS is still brand-new, Nicor is already working on the next generation, which will incorporate DALI2. 

“We are already pushing the limits of the 191 as it is,” Brown said. “So that’s part of the reason why we’re moving over to the 1152.” 

The AXC F 1152 is a Linux-based controller built on Phoenix Contact’s PLCnext Technology. The team is currently working on expanding the system to the DALI 2 protocol and futureproofing. 

“It allows for a lot more freedom in development, like the possibility of adding wireless controls or other features,” Brown said. 

The DALI 2 version will cost Nicor about 20% less but will be more powerful than the original. 

Future plans for the controls system are already in motion. 

“We’re trying to be quick and nimble, so we can come to the market as quickly as possible,” said John Lane, engineering manager at Nicor. “A lot of the changes we are doing for the second-generation product are centered around the power distribution methods — it’s all low-voltage DC, but we’re looking at an AC distribution model as well so we can expand the market and meet immediate needs. As soon as we get the second-generation product released, our plan is to begin work on a third-generation product, where we start to look at some of the more advanced features like being able to commission the occupancy sensors via the software UI and adding BACnet capability.” 

“The only way to reduce costs is increase technology,” Mannon said. “There’s only so far you can go with production. Technology gets you there. We’re excited about our new offering with the new DALI 2 and some of the stuff we’re doing, so we hope that’s going to allow Nicor to go to another level.”