You are going out for a meal on a special occasion in the dining room of a luxury hotel. In addition to exquisite food, you would like a romantic atmosphere, rather than the bright lights and noise of a bistro.

Would you settle for sitting at a table surrounded by glass blocks illuminated by lamps that change color from white, to amber to pink throughout the evening? How about being surrounded by fabric-covered walls, backlit to create a soothing mood-the kind of lighting that, in the words of Paul Gregory of Focus Lighting, New York, “makes you look good and feel good?”

You could be the electrical contractor who installed the fixtures and lamps and dimming systems in hotels and resorts. According to Gregory, it does not require an electrician with an advanced degree in lighting.

“Even with retrofits, in most cases, installation of these types of lamps and fixtures is only a matter of terminating existing circuitry, perhaps changing a quad box, and plugging in the new lamps,” Gregory said. “LEDs are the wave of the present, not the future, and will only become more easily usable and less expensive.” Given 100,000-hour life expectancy and maintenance-free operation, the odds are he is right.

For the wall, they installed three LEDs in the glass blocks and added a tiny programmable timer, which enabled the lighting in the area to change automatically. The key for the electrical contractor is to work with the owner to create something great and memorable.

The same types of LEDs were used in the ceiling of a major retail shop.

“We installed 90,000 lamps in the ceiling to brighten the entire area,” Gregory said. The cost was $400,000 for lamps and $600,000 in electrician's fees. The result: atmosphere, energy savings and profits for the electrical contractor. Not a bad combination.

Room for atmosphere

Guest rooms constitute most of a hotel property's energy bill, which is attributable to lighting. In guest rooms, the use of compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) has grown quickly, responding to the hospitality industry's attempt to reduce operating costs. Currently, more than 8,000 individual hotels are partnering with the Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star program. Energy Star states that, “every dollar in energy savings is the equivalent of increasing operating margins by $2 to $3.”

CFLs are available in a variety of sizes and shapes for most applications, and their quality has dramatically improved.

“The major expense in a hotel is air conditioning and lighting. If you can help the owner reduce those costs, he will save money and you'll be a hero,” said Chris Forti, marketing development manager for the hospitality sector for General Electric. “However, there is a lot of suspect technology out there. Cheap lamps produce poor- quality lighting, the result being the loss of color rendition and lumen maintenance.”

Forti said lighting in the hospitality industry is complex, even though getting into the industry does not require learning new applications.

“In most cases, existing circuitry can be used,” said Forti. “Newcomers should take advantage of the knowledge of the manufacturers, get to know us and use our expertise.”

The Catch-22

Candy Kling of Kling Design Associates in Alexandria, Va., said there is an ever-increasing number of complaints about the quality of light in guest rooms.

“We're caught between unhappy guests, owners who want to save money and the energy savings' programs,” Kling said. “Fluorescent is excellent for meeting rooms and corridors. Guests are unhappy because fluorescent light is not warm and may give a bad appearance. One hotel keeps a supply of incandescent lamps on hand and changes lamps if a guest complains. The problem for owners is that bad lighting is a reflection on the quality of the property.”

Dimming

Lighting controls are the hot ticket in public areas. “New lighting presents an opportunity to create atmosphere and reduce costs,” said Sally Lee, LC, commercial engineer for Osram/Sylvania. “A contractor should be attempting to gain credibility by knowing the energy code and using it to his advantage by introducing new alternatives.”

Tom Leonard of Leviton said, “Dimming is at the convergence of energy efficiency, Code requirements related to new construction, and a quest for the delivery of ambiance with a tool that is appealing, efficient and easy to use.”

According to Leonard, it's often up to the employees to make sure the right lights are on at the right time. However, the task is often overlooked and an employee may adjust lights to suit his particular taste. A possible solution is programmable equipment that can stimulate lamps to go from full brightness to fade in a half-second.

“In a typical situation, a large space that may be a conference room during the daytime is converted to a ballroom at sunset,” Leonard said. “It is possible to program the dimmer to activate fluorescent light in the ballroom during a business session and then automatically switch to warmer incandescent or halogen light during evening hours. If the maintenance crew is expected between certain hours, the room will be lit appropriately. And when the room is empty, lights are automatically shut off.

Because the new fixtures replace the old, often in the same box, there is no recircuiting cost. “The major problem we encounter is the fear factor among contractors who think they need to learn something new,” said Leonard.

“What is important is that the contractor understand the use and application of every code, since some of them are wattage driven, and some are control driven,” Lee said. “That is especially important in rooms that have high ceilings, since the codes have no provision for the area factor.”

Simple ways to save money

Jon Bos of Bos Lighting in Houston, no stranger to $400 million construction projects, adds daylight harvesting to the mix. In a installation in Phoenix, he was able to save a client money by borrowing sunbeams from Mother Nature.

The process involved installing daylight sensors in areas close to large glass windows. The WattMiser photo sensors, operating with zero- to 10-volt signals, were coordinated with Peerless dimming ballast fluorescent lights that varied light levels to complement the outdoors.The result: in one quadrant, 90 percent of the required 14,000 watts of light were replaced by sunshine.

“The system required no specific wiring,” Bos said, “and there was no central control, so common circuitry was used. The majority of the expense is attributed to labor.”

The challenge at the new Houston Airport, he said, was creating an environment that will still look new in 15 years by designing an inconspicuous, but contemporary lighting system.

“We consider this the front door to the city and want visitors to have a positive first impression,” Bos said. To that end, he recommended the concourse areas be lit with a combination of strategically placed Par 30 lamps, T-8 fluorescents and metal halide-which produce high color rendition.

“Saving money by installing inexpensive lamps is counterproductive, when you add in the labor cost of frequent replacements.” And, he said, “There's always the chance that the wrong lamp will be placed in a fixture.”

Sometimes all it takes is replacing fixtures to save money on energy costs. “[At one hotel location] more than 1,000 employees ate in a subterranean common area where offices, housekeeping, laundry and maintenance operations were located, all of which operated 24/7,” said Greg Murphy, product manager at Maxlite. “We reduced energy usage in that area 50 percent by simply replacing 40-watt lamps with more efficient fluorescent lamps. Similar savings may be produced in large parking areas by replacing existing T-12 fixtures with new T-8s.”

Arie Louie of Louie Lighting in Scottsdale, Ariz., said some electrical contractors find new technology intimidating.

“They need to understand that the hospitality industry is no different than their home. We want to create spaces that are well lit and comfortable and have atmosphere appropriate for a setting. They are often intimidated by low-voltage, track lighting and fiber optics, which do not require new circuitry,” Louie said.

Of contractors, he said, “I hope they will do their homework. I like to learn from them, and consider them partners on the job, when they are educated.” EC

LAWRENCE is a freelance writer and photographer based in Bozeman, Mont. He can be reached at hrscrk@mcn.net.