Lutron RadioRA 2 Home Control System Page 2

RadioRA 2 Wireless Dimmers and Switches ($149 to $199) replace your existing light switches and typically make up the majority of the devices in the system. To the world, they look like standard Decora-style dimmers/switches. They can function that way, too, because even in the unlikely event that the Main Repeater gets destroyed in a freak plumbing accident or is swallowed by a spontaneously erupting miniature wormhole, you can still dim the attached lights or switch them on or off. (Your homeowner’s insurance may not cover wormhole damage, however.) Plug-in Dimmers, like the one I use with the torchiere lamp in my theater room, also communicate wirelessly with the system.

Pressing Engagements
Along with dimmers and switches, there are several types of RadioRA Keypads ($299 to $399), which get distributed around your home to control your lighting. Some fit standard one-gang electrical boxes, and would replace an existing manual switch. Tabletop keypads (in 5-, 10-, and 15-button versions $399 to $499) habitate your coffee tables and nightstands. And compact Pico wireless controls ($98) can be used wherever limited control is desired. Individual buttons on any of the keypads can be programmed to control a single light, multiple lights in one room, pathways that include lights in multiple rooms and hallways, or even every single light in the entire house.

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The Hybrid seeTouch sixbutton keypad is perfect for a variety of applications because it’s both a single-zone dimmer and a programmable six-button keypad. For example, I use a seeTouch keypad in the downstairs bathroom to control the lights (and exhaust fan) in that one room. The built-in dimmer controls the light above the tub, while another button turns on the mirror lights for shaving. The rest of the buttons are programmed to create specific lighting scenes—the aspect of an LCS that has the effect of creating many rooms out of one. One button dims the main overhead light and the tub lights while turning off everything else, including the exhaust fan, for a relaxing atmosphere when soaking in the tub. Another button turns on every light at full blast and fires up the fan for that one day a year when I clean the bathroom. The bottom button turns everything off.

Other Hybrid keypads in the house are programmed to control more than just the lights in one room. For instance, buttons on the bedroom keypad control the ceiling-fan light, as well as the fan, while another button opens and closes the garage door. A fourth controls the exterior deck lights, while a button labeled Panic can turn on every light in the house in the middle of the night. On each of the Hybrid keypads that replaced the existing light switches at the exterior doors, I’ve programmed a Goodbye button that turns off every light and fan in the house. Both keypads also have Vacation buttons that tell the system to follow preprogrammed commands and turn various lights on or off in a semi-random pattern in order to make it look like we’re still at home.

The tabletop keypads work similarly, except that they’re portable and don’t have a built-in dimmer. I have a 15-button keypad in the master bedroom that controls more lights and creates more scenes than the Hybrid keypad in the wall does, as well as a 10-button keypad in the theater room. Both the in-wall and tabletop keypads have adjustable backlighting and can indicate with a subtle LED whether specific lights are on or off, a feature that’s extremely handy in the middle of the night. About the only part of the entire RadioRA 2 system I’ve found to complain about is the plain, probably-looked-cool-when-ABBA-first-became-popular styling of these keypads. Truthfully, the only reason this is even an issue is because everything else in the system (including the wall plates, dimmers, and switches that are available in umpteen billion different colors and finishes) looks so darn good.

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The Pico wireless control is a snazzy little remote that can be used handheld, in a tabletop mount, or mounted on the wall as if it were a built-in keypad. It’s a simple remote for turning on/off or dimming one or more lights and has a circular button in the center that can be programmed to bring a single light to a preset level or a group of lights to individual preset levels. We use them in the kids’ bedrooms, on the nightstand in the master bedroom, and on the wall by the tub in the downstairs bathroom—places where a full-blown tabletop keypad would have been overkill.

A Grafik Illustration
Lutron’s Grafik Eye QS ($1,200) is a wide, rectangular control panel. It’s unique because it can operate as a part of the overall RadioRA 2 system or can be used independently as a standalone system to control a single room—such as a theater room. That’s where the Grafik Eye QS in my system is located, although it’s integrated into the larger RadioRA 2 system. My Grafik Eye QS takes the place of six separate dimmers. At the moment, it controls the current three sets of lights, but it’s ready to control the star ceiling I’m about to install. The Grafik Eye QS is the one component in the RadioRA 2 family that might not work in all retrofit situations since the dimmers are built into the main unit. As a result, the AC wiring for all the lights to be controlled needs to be run to wherever the Grafik Eye QS will be installed. Fortunately, I had the electricians prewire my theater room specifically for it.

Now—post Lutron—those multiple scenes I mentioned earlier for movies, games, and reading are each available instantly by pressing a different button on the Grafik Eye QS located on the wall by the door, or by using the tabletop keypad. No more adjusting individual dimmers each time we do something different in the room. And since the Grafik Eye QS is part of the larger RadioRA 2 system, lights controlled by it can also be controlled by other keypads (or iPads/iPods) in the system. These lights can also be integrated in the All Off and Vacation global programming commands.

E-Motional
In my mind, no decent lighting-control system can be complete without its fair share of occupancy sensors. After all, lights that turn on and off automatically is what got me interested in lighting control to begin with. The RadioRA 2 system includes two types of occupancy sensors, ceiling-mounted and on-wall. They can be individually programmed for delay before turnoff (5, 15, and 30 minutes) and motion sensitivity. I’ve installed at least a dozen sensors throughout the house, with the coolest application (in my opinion) being the install in the downstairs bathroom where I installed three. The first sensor, above the door, turns the main overhead light on when someone walks in the bathroom. If that person decides to use the porcelain throne, a second sensor turns on the light over the commode—and (preemptively) turns on the exhaust fan. Should someone decide to step into the shower, a third sensor turns on the light above the shower as well as the exhaust fan. After five minutes of no movement (body, not bowel) being detected, each sensor shuts off the particular lights/fan it turned on. I’ve also programmed that first occupancy sensor to turn off the lights above the sink in case the person who was admiring him- or herself in the mirror forgets to turn them off manually.

In the theater room, I didn’t necessarily want the lights to automatically come on when someone enters the room because the motion of a latecomer entering the room during a movie might trigger the sensor to change the existing level of the lights and—in the case of watching a movie—blind everyone. But I hate it when the lights get left on after everyone leaves. So I installed a vacancy sensor (one that only turns lights off, never on) near the back of the room. It’s set to wait 30 minutes after the last motion is detected before turning off all the lights. My thinking is that no one will sit absolutely still for more than 30 minutes, and so far we haven’t had problems with the lights being turned off prematurely.

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Everything Is Under Control
I’ve mentioned the word “programming” many times so far, and that’s because a RadioRA 2 system is more than just a collection of devices. What makes it all come together is the programming that your installer does. The flexibility and options that are available are extremely impressive—and I’ve found that the system is mainly limited by the number of devices you choose to install and your programmer’s creativity. Of course, the system is also limited by the existence of types of RadioRA 2 devices. For example, Lutron just introduced a RadioRA 2 HVAC controller, thermostat, and wireless temperature sensors, so now the system can also take charge of your heating and cooling usage. And the Car Visor Controller lets you open and close the garage door from any keypad in the house. However, for the moment, there’s no RadioRA 2 daylight sensor that you can use in conjunction with Lutron’s Sivoia QS Wireless motorized draperies, shades, and vertical blinds to adjust the window treatments based on the sun’s position. Many home automation systems, from companies such as Crestron, AMX, and Control4, will interface with the RadioRA 2 system, so it can become part of the whole house’s control architecture.

The new $20 iPad and iPod apps are not only easy to use and look spectacular, they let you make minor adjustments to some of the light levels programmed into buttons on the various keypads in the house. (There’s also a free Android app, although it’s not as good-looking.) The app can have up to 10 simultaneous logins, so if you’re using an iPad to control the lights, and another member of the household fires up his iPod, the RadioRA 2 system won’t kick the first user off in order to let the second user access the system.

History in the Making
Lutron has a storied 50-year history in the lighting-control business. In fact, Lutron’s founder, Joel Spira, invented the first dimming device in 1959. (That original dimmer and his notebooks are now in the Smithsonian Museum.) Even knowing all that history, I’m still astounded by how good the RadioRA 2 system is. It looks good. It’s easy to use. And in the months that I’ve been working on, tinkering with, and adding to the RadioRA 2 system, it has refused to let the bad wireless mojo that permeates my house affect its performance.

I still think that a lighting-control system involving helper monkeys and Oompa-Loompas would be a great thing to have for big parties or smaller gettogethers with friends. But I know it wouldn’t always work consistently or in a pre-planned manner—much like the hodgepodges I’ve tried to cram together in the past. The RadioRA 2 system has everything I’ve been looking for, and I was able to install it in my home with virtually no modifications. At this point, I know I haven’t taken advantage of all that the RadioRA 2 system has to offer. (In truth, I may not actually be worthy of a system this good.) Unfortunately, you’re not going to be able to put in a RadioRA 2 system on the cheap. But what it will do for you in terms of changing the way you live in your home will far outshine the amount of money you spend.

Dim Sum
Lighting control saves money—big time. Lutron calculates that dimming a bulb by 25 percent uses 20 percent less energy and helps the bulb last longer, too.

But dimming is just part of the picture. Occupancy sensors that turn the lights on or off when you enter or exit a room can save up to 20 percent in energy usage, as well. Throw in automated shade/drapery control (from 10- to 30-percent savings on heating/cooling costs), system-controlled Plug-in Appliance Modules (up to 10 percent electricity savings), thermostats that set back the temperature when a room is unoccupied (up to 16 percent or more on heating/cooling costs), and smart energy-saving programming features, such as easily accessed room or wholehouse All Off buttons, and you can bet it won’t be long before a very curious utility company inspector visits your house to make sure you haven’t been tampering with the meter.

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Nationally, lighting control really pays off. Lutron estimates that in 2008 alone, the company’s lighting-control products helped save $1 billion in energy costs, reducing the U.S. lighting bill by 3 percent. Oh, one more set of numbers to throw at you: It’s much more economical to conserve electricity with dimmers than to build more generating capacity. Lutron estimates that it costs 35 cents to save 1 watt of electricity with a dimmer. Published industry estimates suggest that it costs anywhere from $1.40 to $7.75 to build 1 watt of electrical-generating capacity. And so far, there’s never been an environmental lawsuit stopping someone from installing dimmers in their home. (At least I don’t think so.)—DW

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COMMENTS
BigMac's picture

A lot of homes, mine included, have gone to replacing their energy sucking incandescent bulbs with energy saving compact florescent.

However, compact florescent bulbs do not play well with dimmer switches.

Is there a good solution to this dilemma and is the solution cheap or readily available at home improvement stores?

DaleC's picture

There are dimmable CFL bulbs, but I am not sure about pricing and availability.

Dimmable LED - Readily available - yes, Cheap - no.. actually more like NO!

manta13z's picture

First of all, it sounds like you really enjoyed having the LCS in your house. Thank you for your detailed review and I enjoyed your specific implementations. Here are my questions:

1. You mentioned that Lutron can tie into a Control4 system. Can't Control4 do all of these things that Lutron does, plus the additional home automation features? I guess I'm not seeing the need for Lutron if you have Control4. What does Lutron offer that Control4 doesn't cover?

2. With Ipad, Iphone apps are these lighting keypads really that necessary? Did you find yourself using the keypads more than you thought vs using a handheld device to control setups and change lighting?

3. Like you said in the review, you need software and hardware. I don't think the software is unreasonable (I think you said $400 or so for Lutron and Control4 is similarly priced). The thing that really kills you is the hardware (i.e. the switches, plugs, etc.). Just to do your bathroom, you are looking at over $500 for the 3 lights and the fan sensor ($150 x 3 + fan sensor).

I've seen some information online (and on hometheater.com) about some switches that can be purchased for $20 or so. These tend to work with Linux software and it looks like there are plenty of free or very cheap programs out there that mimic these expensive, more polished systems.

Have you tried any of these types of setups or can you give any reviews of these types of system's features verses that of Control4 or Lutron? Even at $20 a light switch, automating a house can get expensive, but at over $125 per switch this is simply too expensive for most people out there. I won't ask about the use of Kinnect to achieve lighting control as I think that tech still has a way to go, but I think you are correct that the only limitation of these systems is the imagination of the person setting up the system.

Thanks for your comments

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