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Using Australian Lighting Standards to enhance your design

Are Australian Lighting Standards out-of-date restrictions that limit design expression? Are they a line in the sand between acceptable and unacceptable lighting outcomes?  

Without Standards, will we end up with low-quality, utilitarian products that simply glow when powered? Can we improve our design outcomes by working with the Standard? This article will consider these questions and may even ask a few more. 

Standard – something used as a measure, norm, or model in comparative evaluations. (Source: Oxford Languages

The Australian Lighting Standards would not be considered a good read by most people. Many would use words like complicated, confusing, engineer-speak, too technical, boring. These are probably appropriate words for the Standards covering luminaire construction. However, most of the Australian Lighting Standards are actually written in such a way that they explain lighting technique. They are not overly complicated and can be broken down into bite-sized chunks to make them easier to use.

When I say this, I am referring to: 

  • AS/NZS 1680, which is mainly concerned with interior lighting. 
  • AS/NZS 1158, which is mainly concerned with exterior and public area lighting. 
  • AS/NZS 4282, which deals with the obtrusive effects of outdoor lighting. 

Among the light technical parameters —the numbers that define lighting system performance, there is also significant explanation of what good lighting looks and feels like. 

“The objective of this Standard is to provide the reader with a comprehensive explanation of the factors relevant to interior lighting and with recommendations and guidance in dealing with these factors. The intent of this guidance is to facilitate the creation of visual environments that exclude or, at least, control visual fatigue and thereby promote efficiency and wellbeing in the illuminated space.” 

Source: AS/NZS1680.1:2006 1.2 OBJECTIVE 

My change of view regarding the Standards even shocks me having spent the first 30 years of my lighting life vocally resenting the Standards because the light technical parameters seemed to stifle design. I was only able to see the numbers—not the intent, not the design tips. So, what has changed that makes me such an advocate for compliance with standards?  

Energyefficient lighting and incentive schemes 

Energy efficiency and sustainability have become critical components of how we live. Whether you accept climate change science or not, you cannot escape the fact that energy costs have increased significantly over the last 10 to 15 years. Lighting is part of the energy use that supports our lives. Over the last 20 to 30 years, various government bodies identified a need to encourage consumers to uptake energy-efficient technologies. Who can remember the “free” compact fluorescent lamps provided in the 2000s? Or the pink batts scheme? 

In its early days, LED showed promise as a good energy-efficient lighting technology. Our early work with the NSW Government involved the development of the 2011 Energy Efficient Lighting Technology Report. This document provided a level playing field to analyse the appropriateness of LED technology over legacy technologies by providing a structured analysis of different solutions by application. This 2011 Report led to the Calculight webtool and regular training workshops delivered to Government and Private enterprise. At this stage, the focus was on the business case rather than the quality of light. Unsurprisingly, LED was not always able to provide a compelling financial model over legacy options. In 2014, we produced a revised report which demonstrated that LED delivered suitable financial return over the legacy products. More recently, the issue has moved from whether to use LED to “which LED” product to use.

As LED lighting is a source of large-scale energy efficiency improvements in commercial and residential applications, the Energy Savings Schemes (administered by IPART) in NSW and the similar VEET scheme in Victoria were conceptualised.

These Schemes provide a cash incentive for end-users to upgrade devices with identified energy-efficient technologies. To ensure that the Schemes are not abused, some rules and requirements must be met before the cash is provided. In the case of lighting, proposed systems must comply with the Standards, both in their construction (for electrical and fire safety) and relating to the quality of light.

This is where the problem starts. In the early days of the Scheme, many established lighting suppliers did not value participation. A substantial number of new “lighting companies” established to provide “solutions” for these energy-savings schemes. Some of these companies had lighting experience, and some did not.

Because the established lighting companies did not see value in schemes, the new “lighting companies” offered product to simply replace the old technology lamps. This was, and still is, a ridiculous way of upgrading lighting systems. There are substantial electrical, mechanical, thermal, and optical hurdles to overcome when installing an LED lamp into a fitting that was designed to be halogen or fluorescent. Claims of any equivalence to the legacy technology were rarely reliable or adequately substantiated.

There are several variables when replacing these dichroic halogen MR16 lamps. The branded halogen lamps were available in a range of light outputs, beam spreads and offered operating life between 1000 to 6000 hours. They had very precise control of light distribution and the ability to render colour correctly. LED replacements were offered in various colour temperatures from “daylight” (higher outputs at a given wattage are easier in LED) right down to very warm white, varied colour rendering ability, varied success in beam control and various other issues. Problems encountered in “the swap” included flickering, short life, inconsistent light colour, incompatibility with dimming, sensitivity to power quality, etc. Many of the “lighting suppliers” did not understand the Standards nor the design intent of the original lighting system and, as a result, had little chance of delivering a good solution.

Almost immediately, we found ourselves being approached by end-users who had taken advantage of the energy-efficiency schemes and dealt with problems that these lighting replacement products caused.

More recently, our work with Government has moved to the development of standard specifications for lighting applications. Relying heavily on compliance with Australian Standards, even where they are not compulsory, will always be the benchmark for assessing the appropriateness of a design. To illustrate this, consider what may happen if a person falls and is injured in a public space. If legal action is taken, you can rest assure that the design will be scrutinised against the Australian Standards. Who will be held responsible?

How many of the projects that have been delivered within this Scheme are compliant with the Standards? Do schemes provide a mechanism by which Standards compliance is ensured—beyond a statement from the supplier?

It is these Schemes that has caused me to advocate for compliance with Australian Lighting Standards. It is my experience that most of the lighting delivered under these Schemes provides the energy savings intended. However, the lighting delivered is rarely compliant with the light technical parameters. Fewer of these solutions utilise the best product selection or consider any design input.

What is a compliant lighting design?  

So, what is lighting design? We consider that there are two elements to design. 

  1. The first element is based on understanding the form of the space and how occupants will use it. Once this is understood, lighting technique can be considered. Will we light indirectly, by reflecting from surfaces, or directly, by aiming at objects and tasks? Will we use a combination of these effects? Once we have resolved this, we will select products and layouts. Experienced lighting designers will have a good idea of the performance of the system at this point.
  2. The second element of design is documentation. This will ensure that the solution delivers a compliant outcome and details to facilitate procurement and installation. One of the critical steps is using purpose-built industry-accepted software to develop a model that demonstrates the technical elements of compliance. This model should demonstrate the performance of the proposed solution in the space and be prepared as outlined in the applicable Australian Standard.

For us to review a lighting design for compliance with Standards, we expect to see a model prepared using lighting design software (typically AGI32 or Dialux) with at least the following:

  • An accurate model of the space covered by the design 
  • The modelling of the actual light fittings planned for the project and their source photometric files, maintenance factor used and how it has been derived (in line with the methodology outlined in the applicable Australian Standard)
  • All light technical parameters as required for the application, including at a minimum:
    • interior spaces – illuminance, uniformity, and glare
    • exterior spaces – illuminance (horizontal and vertical if required), minimums, uniformity and glare
    • exterior spaces – obtrusive light upward waste light, threshold increment and neighbouring property intensity and illuminance calculations where applicable
  • Any assumptions that have been made 
  • Any areas where compliance was not achieved 

Does the model reflect design input? 

We also expect that the model will represent the outcomes of the design input implied in (1) above, rather than just the product placement. We look to see if the outcome makes the best use of the space with good placement and light distribution choices. 

Without these essential elements in place, the lighting design cannot be considered representative of the outcome that will be encountered, nor does it demonstrate the best outcome that can be expected. 

Is this reasonable? 

Based on our observations, it seems that what constitutes a compliant lighting design depends on whether you supply luminaires or specify them. 

Is this comment harsh?

Over the last six months, we have reviewed more than 30 lighting designs, most of them from luminaire suppliers. (Many prepared by “qualified” lighting designers.) 

The majority of these designs had some or all of the following flaws:

  • Models based on .pdf files, sometimes with no scale and therefore potentially incorrect dimensions. 
  • Little or no actual or planned surface reflectance information and so default values used. 
  • Maintenance factors that do not reflect the requirements of the Standards. 
  • Incorrect calculation point spacing, height and placement. 
  • Uniformity values that are not within the requirements of the Standards. 
  • Missing light technical parameter calculations such as glare, obtrusive light, verticals, etc. 
  • The wrong type of luminaire for the application.
  • Product information such as LED performance characteristics that are for LEDs not used in the proposed luminaires. 

I am continually stunned by the number of projects that propose using opal flat panels or opal recessed downlights for any application. This method was possible with legacy technologies and yet rarely used. Why? Because it is rarely appropriate to use these luminaires in any application other than corridors and toilets. Compliance with standards is difficult with panel luminaires or downlights in areas where screen-based tasks are carried out. Not because the light source is LED but because the distribution characteristics of the illuminating surfaces are not appropriate —they never were. 

How important is it to comply with Lighting Standards? 

From our perspective, it is essential. We represent the interests of our clients. They, in turn, represent the interests of the people who work for and with them. The Lighting Standards, by their nature, seek to ensure that lighting systems support human activity. Poor lighting can have a detrimental impact on health and safety—this a responsibility that we must all take seriously. Even if the client has not provided a specification to a designer, compliance with Standards is likely to be the minimum expected in providing them with a professional outcome. 

To be clear, we do not always agree with the Standards. Sometimes they are out-of-sync with the technologies offered in the market. Sometimes they do not reflect the ongoing development of knowledge about the effects of lighting on people. The relevance, currency and accuracy of Standards is an entire topic for discussion in its own right.  

Rather than delve into the details of the good, bad and ugly elements of the Standards right now, we could look at this in another way.  

What if we have no Standards and we can put any light anywhere with no performance requirements? 

So, without heading down that rabbit hole, can we consider the current Standards as a line in the sand between anarchy in lighting design and a utopian dream? Can we use them to create a level playing field where designs can be prepared and compared in an objective way for technical requirements and a subjective way for aesthetic requirements? Can we consider Standards a filter that will produce lighting outcomes that enhance human experiences? 

Does a Standards’ compliant design guarantee a good design? 

No! Consider the models below: 

A classroom with surface mounted luminaires 

A classroom with surface mounted downlights 

Assuming that the light technical parameters are right, is a downlight solution appropriate?  

This clearly demonstrates that although there is a substitute for products, there is no substitute for the experience and knowledge of a lighting designer. 

What if no solution can comply with the Standards? 

Over the years, we have seen many projects where compliance is difficult in some way. Sometimes this is because of cost. Other times it is because the specific nature of the site makes compliance problematic. Whatever the reason, the first thing we need to understand is the extent of the problem. The easiest way is to use industry-compliant software to develop a good model.  

Once we know what the problem is, we can work to resolve the issue. By getting as close as possible to compliance and documenting the steps we took, are we in a position to propose a solution that does not comply? Will the client accept this? 

Where to from here? 

So, maybe we could look at the Australian Lighting Standards and absorb the education they provide and see them as a partner in design rather than a rule book.