Brightening the Big Box

“Warehouse lighting projects are always financially driven,” said Brandon North, 
service manager, Commonwealth Electric Co., an electrical contractor with offices in Nebraska, Iowa and Arizona. “Since they are an upfront investment, the owners want to see how quickly their money is going to turn over. Generally, that’s the biggest hurdle: getting the owners to commit. Every other aspect of it makes sense—you get better light, instant on, 
and savings are phenomenal.”

In today’s energy-efficiency-leaning market, new warehouse lighting projects and existing warehouses retrofits are emerging as niche markets for electrical contractors, especially considering changes to California’s Title 24, which take effect on Jan. 1, 2014. While current standards allow for 15 percent of full lighting capacity during off-times, changes include requirement of occupancy sensors and controls in aisles and open areas in warehouses with a 50 percent reduction of lighting power when the spaces are unoccupied. If the past is any indication of the future—as California goes, so goes the nation—the changes will soon affect other states as well. 

Electrical contractors are already going after projects in different ways. 

“A lot of customers will come to us with their lighting issues, but if we’re at their place doing a job and see 400-watt [W] metal halide lights, we can clue them in that there’s a better alternative,” said John Irving, director of business development, Baker Electric, Des Moines, Iowa. “It’s hard to go to someone and tell them they need to upgrade their lighting, but when you show them the payback and the savings in terms of maintenance costs, especially in a 24/7 facility, they are interested. 

“Yet, part of an owner’s decision is based on long-range plans. If the warehouse is a rented space and the tenant will only be there for five years, they won’t invest. An upgrade has to fall into their financial goals for their business.

“We work hand in hand with distributors to show clients what they will save in energy, how long the payback is, what the rebate will be and if they qualify for one since a lot of people don’t know about rebates and incentives offered by local utilities. Those encourage us to approach customers and show them how much energy they’ll save, which helps with corporate sales,” Irving said. 

Teaming up with a distributor, a two-way street

Smaller contractors that don’t currently offer energy services may be able to turn to electrical distributors. Leff Electric, Cleveland, a family-owned and operated wholesale electrical supply distributor in business since 1921, is reaching out to electrical contractors. 

“Warehouses are a great niche market, and it’s possible to save a phenomenal amount of energy with retrofits,” said Bill Merriman, energy solutions manager, Leff Electric. “We have customers every day that say we’re looking to redo our lighting. In the past, we’d tell a customer, here are the products you need to install, and 
the customer would find a contractor to install them. 
Now, the customer doesn’t need to find materials, a contractor or file paperwork. We do all of that for them. ‘All of that’ includes an in-depth energy analysis, a room-by-room audit for an existing warehouse, checking for line voltage, taking light level and amp readings, counting fixtures, identifying existing fixture types, locating places for motion or daylight sensor controls, inputting all that information into a computer program, and coming up with a design and the associated costs. Leff Electric offers that service plus tracking down utility rebates and government incentives and assembling all the information into a detailed proposal for the customer, and sharing that information and proposal with the electrical contractor. 

“For years, contractors brought business to us, now we’re bringing it to them as well,” Merriman said. “We put our best possible proposal together with our best pricing, and that gives us a little bit more control with our manufacturers in order to get the best numbers that we can. We’re not just pumping out numbers to contractors and hoping they buy from us. The nice thing for the contractor is that we do all the upfront work, which helps keep the cost down.”

This arrangement may seem strange at first. It may even seem like an isolated case, but Merriman said it’s a trend that is starting to catch on. 

“We started our Energy Solutions Department five years ago,” Merriman said. “We’re a member of Affiliated Distributors, and when we first presented the idea, other distributors kind of scratched their heads. Now more and more distributors are adapting this model. The concept is new and growing across the electrical distribution world. It’s increased our business exponentially and that of our contractors.”

Merriman even advised electrical contractors to inquire with their local distributor to see if it has an energy solutions department.

Getting to work

After garnering a contract, the electrical contractor’s role varies depending on alliances or company practices. Some contractors work off designs provided to them. In other cases, an owner will use an electrical engineer to draw up the design, and the EC will work off of that. Some contractors work on warehouse lighting projects in a design/build capacity. 

“As a design/build contractor, I figure the lighting layout through wiring [using] lighting design engineering software,” said Brent Holt, vice president, Apollo Electric, Brea, Calif. “I can save a client some money in engineering and design, which is a selling point. It’s an emerging niche market and has been since the introduction of the T5s.”

In terms of technology, the next generation of warehouse lighting is emerging with the introduction of LED high bay lights. 

“They are being offered as an alternative to the fluorescent high bay at around a 25 percent reduction of input wattage for the same lumen output,” Holt said. “Like the transition from HID to fluorescent, LED lights practically eliminate the cost and downtime for maintenance due to the 100,000-hour life cycle of the LED lamps compared to the life cycle of around 20,000 hours for fluorescents. Enhanced control options, available with LED’s 0–10 volt drivers included right out of the box, make them even more attractive,” he said.

Yet, while the argument is convincing, the upfront cost for LEDs deters many business owners, much the same as when T5 and T8 fluorescents came on the market.

“The T5s and T8s were more expensive and generally required installation of more fluorescent fixtures to obtain the same foot-candle levels,” Holt said. “So convincing building owners or those leasing properties on the idea of efficient lighting based with the increased upfront cost before they reaped the benefits of the lower operating cost was a hard sell. 

“Lighting retrofits of existing warehouses picked up in the mid-2000s when upfront costs of installation could be offset by the incentives,” he said, also crediting the take-off to rebate programs offered by states and utilities as well as tax deductions offered by the federal government through the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

Brian Carberry, Leviton director of product management, said that, while the most popular choice for warehouse lighting is the T5, LEDs use is growing. 

“Technology conversions usually take seven years, which was the case with the conversion from HID to fluorescents. Predictions are that people will jump on LED conversions very rapidly, but codes and standards are not in place yet or slow to be adopted, such as the SSL7 standard from NEMA. We’re just starting to see rebates from utility companies on LED. That will drive business towards them,” he said.

Finding a solution

Due to the nature of a warehouse lighting project—a building used to store different types of items—electrical contractors usually start by asking an owner a series of questions. What is the total square footage of the warehouse? Ceiling height? What is to be stored in the facility? Will there be racking? Aisles? Width of aisles? What temperature will the stored items require? 

Questions for retrofits can include the following: What is the existing lighting? Is it going to be a simple one-to-one replacement with a more efficient fixture? Is a racking system coming in that will change the existing wiring and possible distribution as far as the circuitry for the lighting system? What are the lamps of choice? What are their efficiency, lumens per watt and light distribution? Is the ballast compatible with other components of the lighting system? 

“You have to fit the correct fixture to the correct situation,” North said. “For general warehouse storage, we use a T5 or T8 high bays, and while we use the same T5 or T8 at a wastewater treatment plant—since that facility requires a washdown area—we have to order additional suitable water-resistant plastic shields for the fixtures. On other jobs, we’ve installed corrosion-resistant fixtures if there was a lot of moisture in the air. If something flammable was being stored, we used Class I, Division 1 fixtures.

“No two tenants will have the same needs,” he said. “In one case, a warehouse used for storing batteries was later used to store bread and cake products. Batteries have battery acid and present a more hazardous environment, which have to be rated for Class 1, Division 1 fixtures to make them explosion-proof. Bread is edible, so hazardous lighting is not required. The lighting had to be changed in response to the product and the environment.” 

Improvements in warehouse lighting energy efficiency is due in part to sensors that are now included in any warehouse lighting package. Passive infrared sensors measure motion, are based on line of sight and can be used on high bays. Ultrasonic occupancy sensors respond to motion to turn lights on or off and can reduce lighting energy use by up to 60 percent, especially in warehouses where certain areas may not be used frequently. 

“More sophisticated products have contributed in the long run to increased efficiency,” Holt said. “For example, by adding occupancy controls and daylight photocells to individual light fixtures, we’re now able to control lighting in areas or zones of a warehouse that are often unoccupied.”

Daylight harvesting is also being used in warehouses, especially in sunny western states where skylights are present. Photocells in the skylight measure the daylight level. Sensors are used for load shedding when the natural light contributes to the foot-candles averages through lighting control panels. Yet, those advancements have also complicated the EC’s role. 

“Some customers want independent controls of individual fixtures. As electrical contractors, we have to install and program the controls,” Holt said. “It’s a challenge. In the 1990s and early 2000s, we simply hooked up the light fixtures to a breaker and a subpanel and turned those on in the morning and turned them off in the afternoon. Now, especially with Title 24 in California, which requires monitoring of foot-­candle levels and daylight harvesting and shutting off lights when there’s a specific foot-candle at the floor, we are required to have a lighting control panel that is mounted adjacent to the lighting panel where we run the circuits through the contacts or relays and have an automatic time switch inside the lighting control panel that will turn lights on and off. Doing a complete new layout of the light fixtures along with the circuitry—making existing circuitry work with the new lighting layout—is challenging in an engineering way.” 

Yet, it can be profitable for electrical contractors who want the challenge. 

About the Author

Susan Casey

Freelance Writer
Susan Casey, author of "Women Heroes of the American Revolution," "Kids Inventing! A Handbook for Young Inventors," and "Women Invent! Two Centuries of Discoveries that have Changed Our World," can be reached at or www.susancaseybooks...

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