The Power of Suggestion

By Russ Munyan | Jun 15, 2008




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Here is some good green news for electrical contractors: You can take environmentally friendly steps that will both save your clients money and conserve resources without hurting your bottom line. In many cases, the strategies will help your profitability. Granted, many decisions about how green a building will be are outside the realm of most electrical contracts (e.g., the building orientation, roof type, insulation types and thicknesses, and water usage). But discussions with several building experts revealed green strategies that electrical contractors (ECs) can recommend to their customers.

A modern demon

Probably the obvious place to start in a discussion of green recommendations for an EC is with light fixtures, bulbs and systems. And with all due respect and gratitude to Thomas Edison, the incandescent light bulb is the modern demon of the green revolution.

“Incandescent lights are basically electric space heaters that give off light as a byproduct,” reports ForceField, a Colorado-based group of alternative energy enthusiasts. Incandescent bulbs waste 95 percent of the energy flowing through them as heat.

That is why Brandy LeMae has a long list of alternative lighting options she designs into homes and businesses. LeMae is the vice president of VaST, a full-service architecture and design studio specializing in high-performance architecture and green design.

“I recommend compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) on tenant finish drawings,” she said. “And the MR16 LED bulb is a better choice than the traditional halogen MR16 bulb, which puts out a lot of heat.”

LED bulbs remain at room temperature and last much longer than halogen bulbs, with claims ranging from 50,000 to 100,000 hours of maintenance-free operation. Color LEDs are commonplace in the market in traffic lights, automotive taillights, store signs and other specialty design applications, and their future to function in other applications looks bright.

“There are a lot of other opportunities for LED replacements for contractors to use to make a project more green,” LeMae said.

“In homes, I recommend CFLs in places that cannot use -dimmers, like closets and garages,” she said. “And I always include dimmers for lights in decorative areas. In addition, bathroom fans need to be on separate switches so that the lights do not need to stay on for the fan to continue to vent. In large bathrooms, I include secondary fans on automatic humidity-sensing switches in showers, and they only run when needed.”

All the time!

As long as high-efficient lights remain on suppliers’ shelves and not in clients’ buildings, their potential energy savings is moot. Stephen Archer of Cleary Zimmermann Engineers in San Antonio offered multiple ways to segue existing client relationships into replacing their existing lighting systems with more efficient green systems.

“How often do you walk through existing buildings that are still full of inefficient light fixtures?” he asked. “All the time! Let’s say that an electrical contractor sends a service tech on a service call to a business, hospital or school to add an outlet or make a repair. That electrician walks all the way through the building to the kitchen or IT room in the back, does the work, gets the office manager to sign off on the work and leaves. But does that electrician ever look up and study the overhead fixtures? If he does, chances are good that he will see a lot of inefficient light fixtures. Those are phenomenal business opportunities that contractors literally walk right by every day.

“Every contractor ought to train his staff to make notes about existing fixtures to turn in at the end of each job,” Archer said. “Look for things like inefficient T12 fluorescents, which are still commonplace. Then a company sales rep can call back those office managers with inefficient lighting systems and offer to perform free lighting audits. And those are easy sales. In a lot of cases, building owners are looking at a one- to five-year payback on those upgrade investments.”

Archer suggested that an EC might, at first, partner with a lighting consultant to perform audits, but that is not the only option.

“Lighting manufacturers often offer seminars on how to do a lighting audit or at least free plug-and-play software,” Archer said. “If a contractor is not familiar with how to do an audit effectively, there are resources available.” Lighting audit information and training is available online, as well, such as at

Sometimes these inefficiencies are spotted just by paying attention to an EC’s own environment and should be considered further opportunities to upsell.

“Drive around town at 9 p.m., and see how many buildings have lights left on that are just costing that owner money,” Archer said.

Business-hungry contractors can approach those companies, as well as their existing clients, to sell lighting-automation systems. Such systems eliminate waste while providing a productive environment by providing the right amount of light where and when it is needed.

“It is not uncommon for me to see 100,000-square-foot office buildings or suites that do not have those systems, and every night, some of their lights are left on. Someone needs to sell those companies lighting-automation systems,” Archer said.

Pumps and VFDs

Once a contractor has completed a lighting audit of a property and/or installed a lighting-automation system, he can partner with the owner—with whom, by now, he has established a trusting and professional relationship—to next audit all the commercial pump motors.

“There are a lot of pumps in any commercial office building, like for hot and cold water, sewage, HVAC and others,” Archer said. “A lot of old buildings have pumps with inefficient electric motors that just keep on going, pulling more electrical power every day than a modern efficient pump would use, costing the owner too much money and harming the environment all the while. Any electrical contractor that will go to the trouble of learning the efficiency ratings of modern pump motors will find a lot of opportunity to replace the old motors.”

From there, contractors should look for opportunities to replace existing set frequency electric motor control drives with variable frequency drives (VFDs) on commercial building devices, such as fans, conveyors, injection molding machines, air compressors and chillers.

Single-speed drives—which are common in older commercial motors—start motors abruptly, subjecting the motor to current surges of up to 10 times the full-load current. Once running, those drives operate at full speed, even if a lower speed would be sufficient.

In contrast, variable-frequency drives offer a “soft start” capability, gradually increasing a motor’s speed to match the specific demands of the work being performed.

Those two benefits of a VFD combine to provide a significant energy savings. It is common for VFDs to save 50 percent or more over pre-existing single-speed drives.

According to the California Energy Commission, “for a 25 horsepower motor running 23 hours per day (2 hours at 100 percent speed, 8 hours at 75 percent, 8 hours at 67 percent, and 5 hours at 50 percent), variable-frequency drives can reduce energy use by 45 percent. At $0.10 per kilowatt hour, this saves $5,374 annually.”

While the concept of a VFD is not new, only in the past five to 10 years costs have come down sufficiently to make them cost-effective.

“I have clients call me and say, ‘I want you to come do a study on my cooling tower to see if I should install a VFD,’” Archer said. “I tell them, ‘You don’t need a study. All of the studies we need have already been done. Just do it. It will pay for itself in 12 to 24 months, and you’ll save money.’”

Replacing VFDs is another example of green technology that saves clients money with a quick payback, helps the environment by using fewer natural resources and provides a new source of income for ECs.

Incentives and rebates

With all these strategies, there is a bonus. In addition to the immediate savings in the monthly electric bill, there are many energy-efficiency incentives and rebate offers administered by federal and state agencies, utilities and local organizations that will make those sales even easier. Contractors who are “tooling up” to perform lighting audits will want to become familiar with the incentives and rebate offers in their areas.

The incentives are typically straightforward and easy to find, to understand and to qualify for. Some are paid directly to the utility customer, while others are paid to the installer.

The Internet is the best way to look for them. Start by looking on your local utility’s Web site. Another good source is the Web site of the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency ( The site offers “a comprehensive source of information on state, local, utility and federal incentives that promote renewable energy and energy efficiency.”

Gone are the days of designers and builders charging through projects year in and year out with no consideration paid to conservation and environmental issues. Though our society may lament the days gone by of seemingly endless cheap energy, good conservation measures exist for those same designers and builders to continue to construct quality, functional and energy-efficient structures. That means going green can be good for everyone.

MUNYAN is a freelance writer in the Kansas City, Kan., area, specializing in business writing and telecommunications. He can be reached at



About The Author

Russ Munyan is a freelance writer in Olathe, Kan., specializing in technical and business writing. He can be reached at





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