The future of wiring devices

Looking at some of the wiring devices currently coming to market you’d be forgiven for wondering what on earth it was for, with their appearance seeming to owe more to iPods and digital washing machine displays than traditional switches and sockets. So whatever happened to the chunky white wiring device?

In recent years wiring devices have undergone a rapid transformation from chunky, some may say ugly items that simply turned things on and off into sleek, stylish products designed with the capability to control any number of different functions.

The reasons for this startling change can, rather neatly, be placed into two categories. Firstly, there was a veritable explosion in the number of technologies used at home and work, which tied in with a surge of interest in all things interior design related, and resulted in the look and feel of the wiring device undergoing an extreme makeover. While secondly, and most recently, the growing demand for, and availability of, smart technologies meant the capability of wiring devices has had to expand.

Looking good

The first nail in the coffin of the chunky white wiring device came in the mid-1990s when our airwaves were bombarded with home makeover shows that brought interior design screaming to the centre of public attention.

Everyone was suddenly being encouraged to consider how their home looked, and how they could improve it. Nothing was safe. Everything from door handles to taps were put under the magnifying glass and traditional old switches and sockets were amongst the early casualties – with DIY stores across the country packing their shelves with ‘stylish’ new wiring devices that ranged from the sublime to the truly ridiculous.

Following on from this came the huge increase in the number of technologies used in homes and offices. Today new homes aren’t complete without computers with hi-speed Internet access linked to home entertainment and combined cable or satellite service providers. Access control and home security systems are fitted as standard within inner city re-development projects, and are fast becoming commonplace in new-build homes. As for commercial environments – nomadic work practices and the constant pursuit of optimised productivity now play a major role in the design of new office buildings and in order to meet these requirements, the technical infrastructure needs to be able to be quickly and easily adapted to integrate electrical equipment and communication networks as and where they’re needed. In addition, the office also needs to operate in an energy efficient and environmentally friendly way.

In practical terms, all of this new technology has meant that where once the demand for wiring devices in the average room was limited to say just one light switch and a couple of power points, it’s now vastly more than this. And as the number of required wiring devices increased, so their appearance had to change.

The main reason being that back when their numbers were strictly limited, the impact they had on a room was minor and so function rather than appearance was the main issue. Now though the visibility of wiring devices is high and appearance is key, so the functional elements are actually designed within the product’s aesthetic constraints – a situation that clearly challenges the electrical designers, but demonstrates the sheer importance of appearance in the modern world of wiring devices.

The result of these changes was the end of the chunky white wiring device – at least until all things chunky comes back into fashion – and the birth of a new generation of products that were developed to add to interior design schemes.

Being smart

Smart home technology is on the up. After years of being viewed as the domain of the deep-walleted it is about to have its time in the sun. And if proof was needed here it is.

• Architects and designers are facing up to the challenge of creating zero carbon homes and smart technology can, and will, play a significant part in helping deliver this.

• Individuals want to cut down on their energy consumption and the technology enables them to do just that.

• As the population grows and ages the demand from people wishing to live independently for longer is rising and the technology is able to deliver solutions that can aid this assisted living.

• And let’s not forget one other key point – smart home technology is getting simpler.

And if that wasn’t enough then just stop to consider that the scope of smart home technology is truly phenomenal, the means of programming it is far easier than most would imagine, its control is simple and, thanks to certain innovative developments there are entry level options that can be fitted with ease.

And what needs to be remembered as this smart technology hits the kind of development curve that took the wiring device from ugly duckling to catwalk model in such a short space of time, is that the wiring device won’t fall by the wayside and be replaced by something else.

Instead, its role is becoming ever more prominent as it expands its capabilities to become the key interface with this smart new world. And it’s here that the new functions that led to the initial cry of “what on earth is that for?” come into play, with the introduction of controls that reflect the increased requirement for intelligent switches that are able to send signals to remote control devices across the circuit.

New generation

The proof of this transformation is easy to see in the new generation of products, which deliver access to the technology from what traditionally would have been a dedicated wiring device platform. For example, our new Arteor range features fully customisable lighting and scenario controls, a 10inch multimedia touch screen, and a universal dimmer capable of dimming all types of light sources, including compact fluorescent lamps and LEDs. Round rockers, which facilitate intuitive use, have also been introduced.

The changes which brought about this latest development in the wiring device’s evolutionary process haven’t just been restricted to its aesthetics, and contractors, specifiers and designers need to be prepared for changes in the way systems are planned and installed. The new breed of controls are primarily electronic as opposed to the traditional electromechanical devices, and will increasingly need to be powered by the presence of a neutral source and, due to their in-built intelligence, greater consideration will need to be given to the size of the back boxes. Additionally, new functions, such as scenario controls and touch activated screens, will need to be accommodated in backboxes other than regular 1 and 2 gang flush mounting boxes due to their larger dimensions.

Looking back it is hard to believe that the chunky old switches and sockets of a few years ago bear any relation to the stylish, multi-functional products on the market today. But I’m sure the same could be said when looking at a huge, box sized television and the streamlined, flat-screened versions that hang on so many living room walls today. Technology develops and the products that control and allow access to it change too. The wiring device has come a long way already, but I’m sure that in time it will evolve even further.

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