Getting the LED in: Choosing the right fixture can have a huge energy impact

Aug. 10, 2015
In this installment of What Works, switching to LED lighting nets a Massachusetts manufacturer an incredible 75% savings on electricity.

Atlas Box & Crating Co.'s Sutton, MA, headquarters facility was not even three years old when facility directors began contemplating the drastic move of overhauling the plant's lighting system.

It wasn't a situation in which Atlas Box's energy-conscious managers had expected to find themselves. The company produces protective packing materials such as corrugated-cardboard boxes, wood crates, and foam packaging at its seven facilities worldwide, and it had installed what it determined were the "most efficient, latest-and-greatest" light fixtures during the Sutton plant's construction, says Atlas Box global process engineer Frank Tavares. "We thought we were doing pretty good," Tavares recalls.

So why consider scrapping lighting that was working perfectly well? In a word: data. An audit of the plant's electricity use in 2012 revealed that lighting, rather than production equipment, accounted for the largest share of the facility's electrical costs.

The T5 and T8 fluorescent lighting tubes in place consumed more than 1.3 million kilowatts per year, and Atlas Box determined that adjusting the facility's use of the existing lights would yield only limited cost savings. "We started looking at, 'What else is available?' " Tavares says.

LED lighting, just beginning to emerge as an industrial lighting option, came onto Atlas Box's radar. The problem with LED, according to Tavares, was that it sounded too good to be true. "Estimates were coming in at about a 50% kilowatt reduction," he says. "It was a little hard to believe the savings."

What finally sold Atlas Box on making the switch was a presentation demonstrating a software system integrated with LED fixtures that would give the Sutton plant greater control over—and a better real-time view of—its lighting use. The plant hadn't used such a control system for lighting before, and the chance to reap savings by being able to dim lights based on occupancy and adjust lighting levels remotely held strong appeal.

The integrated LED lighting system from Digital Lumens promised "a lot more savings than just switching the lights" would have produced, Tavares says. There were potential safety benefits, too, to remote lighting control. Once lighting parameters are set, with individual light fixtures or groups of fixtures programmed to be active or inactive for specified times, "You'll never go up on a ladder or lift to change those settings," Tavares says. "You can change them on the fly, remotely."

Sealing the deal on the Digital Lumens system was a "very, very good warranty," Tavares states. Knowing the facility would be a relatively early adopter of LED lighting on a large industrial scale, "we wanted to make sure that we had a good warranty behind it in case we had a lot of failures," he explains.

Installation of the new LED lighting in 362 fixtures in the 229,000-square-foot facility took about a month and was completed in February 2013. A year later, Atlas Box had recouped its half-million-dollar investment. Electricity use dropped from 1.3 million to 270,000 kilowatt hours, and today the plant has realized electricity savings of 75%–80%.

The new fixtures' greater energy efficiency isn't the only cost-saving benefit of the software-enhanced LED system, either. Sensors on the lights help Atlas Box track occupancy within the Sutton facility, and by trending and mapping that data, Atlas Box was able to identify how improved layout of storage aisles could help optimize the efficiency of the picking process. Rearranging products within storage aisles has resulted in a time savings of one hour per shift. 

Atlas Box's switch to LED lighting at the Sutton plant has proved so successful that the company is looking seriously at making the same move at its facilities in North Carolina and Ireland in the next 12 to 24 months. Tavares says his only regret is not pulling the plug on traditional fluorescent lights sooner.

"It was hard to believe the numbers, and that's why it took eight to nine months to agree to do this," he says. "That was almost a full year that we could have gotten benefits from it." Tavares' advice for a plant considering a similar move to LED? Do your homework, but don't hesitate. "I would say (in) any facility, especially if they use old metal light fixtures, which are relatively expensive to run, these projects pay for themselves extremely quickly," he says.

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