Marshall Lester has spent his career working on what he calls “the latest and greatest” lighting products. His newest invention is the relay dimmer, a switch that dims light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, in an office setting. It is a market with a revenue potential of millions of dollars for his company, Powerline Control Systems Inc., in Northridge. The dimmer allows the user to lessen the electricity, and hence the light emitted, from a panel of LED lights; currently most office panels work only in on or off mode. Dimming allows companies to save electricity. And in California, regulations from the California Energy Commission require dimmers for new nonresidential lighting fixtures. Lester and his staff of a half-dozen engineers at Powerline Control had come up with the idea for the dimmer even before researching the huge market in the replacement of fluorescent lights with LEDs. “I like to make new things instead of making money,” Lester explained. Still, the money counts. There are two parts to the relay dimmer – a module that plugs into the LED light itself that sell for about $19 and a wall switch that carries a price between $60 and $80. Lester estimates that the fluorescent lightbulb replacement market could reach as high as $10 billion a year. If his dimmer can grab a fraction of that amount, it has huge potential for his company. Craig DiLouie, education director of the Lighting Controls Association, a council of the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, in Rosslyn, Va., said the U.S. Department of Energy forecasts that LEDs’ share of the installed base of linear lighting – that is, where tubular fluorescent lamps are commonly found – will grow from 16 percent to 47 percent by 2025. “As with LEDs overall as a category, LED linear lighting is accelerating in adoption due to improving technology, market acceptance and declining costs,” DiLouie wrote in an email to the Business Journal. Powerline Control started selling the dimmer relay just a month ago. But with much of the money the company makes from its other lighting products – primarily residential lighting systems – going to engineering and product development, there is not a large budget for sales and marketing. “They create awesome things and there is nothing left to market it,” said Megan Vanderspool, Powerline’s head of sales and marketing for the company. In addition to the engineering, the company’s money also goes toward maintaining its seven patents and for filing of three additional patents, two in the U.S. and one internationally, for the relay dimmer. It is the technology of the dimmer that is being patented rather than the hardware, Lester said. Flashback Lester founded Powerline Control in the mid-1990s in the garage of his home in Northridge. He had been living in that area of Los Angeles since attending California State University – Northridge 20 years before. He received two engineering degrees and a psychology degree from CSUN; the engineers working at Powerline Control are all CSUN graduates as well. Lester owns about 52 percent of the company, with his team of engineers splitting the remainder. Powerline Control produces three brands of lighting equipment – PulseWorx and SimpleWorx for the residential market, and GreenWorx for use in high-bay buildings and parking garages. Lester calls these products the “bread and butter” of the company. He would not disclose revenue generated by sales. The new relay dimmer evolved out of the engineers developing a smart timer that could communicate over power lines. These timers have relays in them that when closed turn lights on and when open turn lights off. Lester thought of a way of having a code sent by the relays that are read by a decoder chip on a component attached to the light fixture in order to dim the lights. “It is the idea of using a simple power relay to send a message through a power line to change the lighting levels,” Lester said. “Nobody has done that before.” Coming up with the receiving module was the easy part of the task. The question for Lester and his staff was if the relay could be controlled so as not to affect the lights when they were dimming. When the switch is hit, the signal is interrupted for 8 milliseconds, Lester said, adding, “It is so fast you cannot even see any flicker or anything.” DiLouie, of the Lighting Controls Association, said that dimming is a natural fit for LED lighting for several reasons. One is that LED lights are highly controllable and bring substantial energy savings and good flexibility. Most LED products come with dimming as a standard feature or an option and are less expensive than dimming linear fluorescent lights, DiLouie said in his email. “Whether the need is energy savings, visual comfort, mood setting, or color tuning, dimming can be an ideal lighting strategy,” he added. While there are other ways to control dimmer switches, such as with wireless technology, Lester said that relay dimming has advantages over those methods. It already uses existing infrastructure such as relays and circuits so the installation is easy and virtually costless, he said. “You just put it in like a lightbulb and it works,” Lester added. Marketing challengeNorthridge company intends to reconfigure fluorescent lighting with dimmers. The challenge for Lester has not been in making the relay dimmer but in marketing it. Powerline Control is constrained, he said, on spending money for marketing. A full-page ad in a lighting or electric industry publication can cost upward of several thousand dollars, Lester added. Powerline Control sells its other products to residential contractors, but the market for dimmers is commercial contractors. In the early going as word spread about the relay dimmer, building contractors were calling the company about its latest product. “Everyone that has heard of it is shocked that he has come up with something like this because no one has figured out how to do this,” Vanderspool said. “He always comes up with one idea and then his brain keeps churning.” The engineering staff does what it can do to market the products, but it is not the same as what a marketing professional could do. So far, the main effort has gone into a video on YouTube to promote the benefits of the relay dimmer. “It is amazing that someone could make a video for us for practically nothing,” Lester said. Commercial contractors in particular like this low-cost product because it reduces the amount of work they have to do by not pulling wires or putting in conduits to convert from regular fluorescent lights to dimmable LEDs, Vanderspool said. “They can get it done within an hour and be out and make quite a bit of money,” she added.