LED Switch Lets UTHSC Save Money On Utilities

By DAVID ROYER

Faced with the cost of illuminating 2 million square feet of space, University of Tennessee Health Science Center has a bright idea to lighten its energy load.

The Memphis medical college is projecting utility cost savings of tens of thousands of dollars annually after it began this year replacing old incandescent and high-pressure sodium lights with smaller, brighter LED fixtures.

What seems like a small change is generating buzz among cost-conscious college officials.

“It’s a big, big, big deal,” said director of recreation Frank Harrison.

LED fixtures in the gymnasium and recreation center Harrison oversees will pay back the school’s investment and save an additional $11,000 in utility costs over the next eight years, according to calculations by the college.

A gymnasium that once needed 48 large incandescent fixtures now uses just eight LED gang lights, which resemble small flourescent ballasts, to put more lumens onto the basketball court. Elsewhere on campus, a parking garage once lit with dim yellow sodium lights is now lit by LED fixtures that put out more light at half the wattage, leading to a projected savings of $63,000 by 2020. And that’s just the first phase of an ongoing program to maximize efficiency.

TVA incentives will foot 70 percent of the cost of LED retrofits in some cases. College officials expect the school will garner about $180,000 in incentives this year.

“Not only did we end up with cost savings and an incentive check from TVA but the quality of light is incredible and the cost of maintenance is zero,” said Whit Sutton, general superintendent of buildings and grounds at UTHSC.

UTHSC will spend nearly $550,000 in up-front costs for lighting upgrades this year following a push by vice chancellor and chief operating officer Ken Brown for energy efficiency across the medical center campus.

Sutton said the school will start seeing the results of its investment next January with payback in less than two years, although the new lamps have life cycles 15 times longer than their predecessors, meaning the payback will continue for years in many cases.

“Some of these lamps, I’ll be retired before they burn out,” he said.

The longer lifespans mean less money in replacement cost and less time on a ladder for maintenance workers. Lower wattages means lower heat output, meaning air conditioning units don’t need to work as hard.

And there are less quantifiable benefits to clearer, more direct light: Dark subterranean parking garages seem safer for students at night, while brighter light leads to brighter moods on campus.

Nick Buoni, who consulted with UTHSC on the school’s LED retrofit, said newer, better bulbs and healthy government incentives mean the timing is right for commercial and institutional facilities to look into updating their lighting systems.

Buoni founded his Memphis-based company, LED Direct, in August and described the growth in LED retrofits as “insane.”

With utility savings that can reach 75 percent for some commercial customers, plus rebates from utility providers that can equal up to 70 percent of the project cost, Buoni said his LED retrofits are an easy sell for company CFOs.

A study published last year in trade publication “LEDs Magazine” cited projected growth in the LED retrofit market of 30 percent annually, with global sales exceeding $3.7 billion by 2016. The study also cited a strong market for LED-based linear flourescent tube replacement, with the biggest growth coming from China and Japan.

Next up for UTHSC are lighting upgrades for a parking garage on Pauline Street, followed by the student center and general education buildings.

The school’s energy efforts aren’t stopping at the lights, however; Sutton said the school is updating its heating and cooling system and working on a plan that will cut utility loads at peak hours.

With 35 buildings on campus, Sutton said there is no shortage of conservation projects to keep him busy over the next few years.

“We’re stewards of the taxpayers’ money here and it’s important for us to take care of that concern where we possibly can,” Sutton said.