Continental Electrical Construction Lights Up Chicago

“The new and emerging energy market is creating quite a buzz among ECs at conferences like Lightfair International with LED lighting at the center of the conversation,” said Steven Witz, vice president, Continental Electrical Construction Co., Oak Brook, Ill. “For years, energy retrofits have been seen as an opportunity and used as a marketing tool, but there hasn’t been as big a payoff as we would have liked. With the introduction of new LED products coupled with call for reduction of energy use by businesses and legislators, the picture is changing. And it’s being done with the application of LED lighting.”

Proof? Continental, a fourth-generation family-owned company serving the Chicago area, has garnered many contracts for profitable energy-saving retrofit projects made possible by installation of LED light sources and funding many of them through rebates from the local utility, Commonwealth Edison (ComEd).

“We handled the paperwork for the rebates and regularly use it as a marketing tool with clients,” said Brian Haug, the company’s director of Energy Solutions (whom Witz calls the Energy Czar), who stays in tune with the latest LED technology.

The company, celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, used the occasion to makeover its corporate offices, displaying skills and providing a training opportunity for employees.

“As ECs, we do a lot of lighting, and we want our corporate office to be a showplace with the latest and greatest technology. The LED is right up there with what’s hot, so we used it in a variety of applications,” Haug said.

Today, as a client visiting Continental’s offices exits the elevator to approach the reception desk, lines of LED tube lighting, randomly inset in the ceiling amid lines of hollow conduit, show the way. Other examples include the following:

  • In the reception area, which has an open ceiling, the company installed linear LED fixtures suspended by aircraft cable.
  • A flexible snake LED tape product by Lumini provides additional light. Contintental placed it in coves and below a panel of screens that display information about the contractor. “It sometimes became a little difficult in the coves to find the right spot for the remote driver because we were working in such a small space, but the tape LED we used gives a great look and is a fantastic alternative to the traditional fluorescent tube cove and undercabinet lighting,” Haug said.
  • Continental also used recessed can lights with high-output LEDs from Focal Point and recessed 3- to 10-foot-long linear Neo-ray LED fixtures in the reception area.
  • In the information technology (IT) room, the company used blue LED track heads to highlight the racks and equipment.
  • Continental’s crew also installed a Lutron Quantum dimming system to control all lighting.

Continental used LEDs in a variety of applications on more than a dozen installation projects for major businesses in the Chicago area, including William Blair & Co.; the Westin Hotel; Equinix Data Center; Crown Cork & Seal Co.; Panduit Corp.; and the Westfield Old Orchard Mall.

“On a lot of jobs we are estimating, typically almost every one has some sort of an LED on it, but again when you get into tenant build-out, you’re still seeing your typical T5s and T8s. So LEDs are not the predominant lighting on most jobs, but 20–50 percent of it is starting to be LED,” said John Vertuno, project manager and estimator, Continental.

While working with the light source, Continental held common concerns about the availability, quality or reliability of some of the new LED products. However, as the company’s crews worked on different projects, they gleaned valuable information—positive and cautionary—about the light source.

“We found that, even if we specified an LED lamp from one of the major lamp manufacturers, one or two months later, the company may not be making that exact product,” Haug said. “They may make something similar but with a slightly different model number, lumens, wattage and dimensions. You have to keep an eye on that. And the challenge with LEDs is that the companies doing dimming are running like crazy to make sure their equipment dims the LEDs. We always do mock-ups before we do an installation to make sure that the dimmer and the LED work together.”

For the reception area of William Blair & Co., a global investment banking and asset management firm based in Chicago, Continental did a similar installation using linear lighting in a cove with eW Cove QLX Powercore linear LED cove lighting from Philips Color Kinetics that delivers 276 lumens per foot of white light and replaces comparable T8 and T12 fluorescent sources (according to the manufacturer’s website).

“It was a relatively easy installation,” said Robert Damlos, Continental project manager. “We put down the clips, which had their own driver, pushed them together, brought 110-volt circuit to it, and that was it.”

Continental’s project for the Westin Hotel on Michigan Ave. entailed swapping out existing lamps in the can lights and the exit signs in the ballroom.

“These are often used in hotel applications since the change doesn’t call for ripping out the drywall and pulling out the guts of the fixture, but merely pulling out the old trim and putting in the new one with the new LED source,” Haug said.

Some were retrofitted with a screw-base LED lamp. For others, Continental replaced HID can lights with ballasts by taking out or bypassing the ballast, then using LED retrofit kits that contained replacement recessed trim and a new LED source.

For a project at the Equinix Data Center, Chicago, Continental installed blue LED aisle lighting.

“It’s a perfect application for LEDs because of the low power consumption and heat production. The blue light provides sufficient lighting to move about without having to turn on the house lights,” Haug said.

Continental also retrofitted the exit signs, swapping out incandescent lamps and replacing them with LED light bars.

“Radionics makes an LED retrofit kit that fits many of the exit signs and has a six-month payback because of their energy efficiency, and installing the LED exit signs is no different ... than any other fixture,” he said.

A second application at the data center involved an exterior installation of pole-mounted LEDs in lieu of the traditional HID lamps.

“Because of their long life, LEDs are a very good solution [when] it’s difficult to replace the lamps due to the pole height. Another advantage of LED in this application is that you don’t get a lot of color shift, which you do with HID lights,” he said.

At another data center, Continental replaced fluorescent tubes with LEDs. Unlike the fluorescent tubes, the LEDs have metal aluminum fins on the back of the lamps that alleviates the generated heat that might burn the LED or the driver.

“You don’t get that nice glow that you are used to with fluorescents. The fins only allow light to come out the bottom of the lamp, so half of the tube is covered,” Haug said. “The technology for LED tubes is still not as refined as one would like. With some manufacturers, the failure rates are high and the color is not ideal.”

Even with those drawbacks, the use of the LED tubes in this application suited the customer since the goal was to cut back on the amount of time maintenance people spent replacing fluorescent tubes in back corridors of the building,

Another LED application in a lobby involved installing 8-inch-square boards mounted to a wall—a jumper cable between each board—with LEDs placed 2 inches apart on the boards. The boards are connected to three or four drivers mounted in a junction box in the ceiling and a controller in the closet. The boards provide diffuse light that shines through a decorative stone wall.

On a project at Crown Cork & Seal Co., Continental used MR16 LED lamps from Philips.

“A lot of people are using simple LED lamp replacements because they run cooler and at a much lower wattage, which overcomes the problem of burning one’s hands during replacement,” Haug said.

While the chosen LED lamps satisfied Continental and their clients in the aforementioned applications, Continental encountered some problems in other situations. In response, Continental’s crew members used a valuable skill: ingenuity. In an application at the new world headquarters of Panduit Corp. in the Chicago area business center of Tinley Park, a distinct situation led to the use of LED lamps.

“The architect and engineers went for a rather unique raised-floor system throughout the building that acted as a plenum, which supplied cool, conditioned air that circulated beneath the floor,” said Terry Riley, project manager, Continental. “The fixtures that were chosen for the elevator lobbies on each floor were a ground-mounted fixture with a 20-watt HID lamp. The thought was that the air circulating below the floor would keep the fixture cool enough to function properly, but the lamps and ballasts were failing at a very high rate. Fixtures like that are typically installed in the ground and are encapsulated in soil, which acts as a heat sink.”

To solve the problem, Continental electrician John Martin experimented at home with a spare fixture and was able to retrofit a driver and an LED lamp into it.

“The fixture worked great, was much cooler to the touch and the customer liked the way it looked,” Riley said. “We replaced all the HIDs with LED lamps in every elevator lobby. Considering the number of fixtures, this resulted in a significant energy savings.”

On the same project, Continental’s electricians also retrofitted another fixture for use with an LED lamp.

“We were using an incandescent, low-voltage MR16-type lamp in an ornate pendant fixture that was made of carbon fiber and was in the shape of a pool cue,” Riley said. “The lamp was installed at the bottom of the fixture. It was a very attractive fixture, but the lamp was generating so much heat that it was melting the wiring and the sockets. When we checked with the manufacturer, they said we were not using the proper lamp. The lamp they recommended had a built-in heat sink.

“We discovered that this lamp was no longer available and that the fixture, which was from another company, had been discontinued with the incandescent light source. It was now only available with an LED light source, an option on the original fixture. While we had to replace the socket because it had overheated, it was actually as simple as swapping the lamp for this fixture; the existing transformer was a suitable driver for the LED. On other fixtures, we had to change out the ballast for the proper driver.

“It has been a bit of trial and error, but we have learned a lot about different drivers and about the technology of LEDs. Previously, we had to change failed lamps and ballasts on a regular basis, but since we’ve converted to LEDs, the problems no longer exist,” Riley said. “The cost for a quality LED fixture is still quite high and is a bit of a hard sell. However, we have been providing LED exit signs for years, and they make perfect sense. As to other types, you save on energy costs because of the low wattage of LEDs, and you save on maintenance costs because of the extremely long life of the LEDs.”

And that definitely is the draw, but there’s another one. On a revamp of the 29,000-square-foot food court at Westfield Old Orchard Mall, the redesigned Wilde & Greene Restaurant + Natural Market was lit entirely with LED track lighting: Amerlux Cylindrix 120-volt vertical track (TEK Global). Continental installed it in a variety of restaurants with open kitchens—using the two-track version with lighting in one track and power plugs for kitchen use in the other—and a 5,500-square-foot grocery store.

“In projects like this one, clients are going for a new, more sophisticated style of lighting, a neat, cool, hip kind of look that is new and exciting,” Vertuno said. “It’s a look that can keep customers coming.”

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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