Cooking up Efficient Lighting

“In hospitality and restaurant projects and bars, the lighting is key,” said Robert Fagnant, LEED AP, lighting designer, Randall Lamb Associates, La Mesa, Calif. “It’s what attracts people to places at night. The architecture can be good, but if you don’t have good lighting, it’s not going to have the right mood. It’s not going to attract patrons.”

While lighting applications in hospitality and dining vary by project, according to several industry professionals, trends affecting today’s design decisions are all about saving energy, including division of energy by space, an increased use of dimming and control systems, and adoption of energy-saving technology. Electrical contractors are dealing with new sets of specifications and with tasks related to new technologies.

Energy restrictions—in the case of California’s Title 24, one of the most stringent energy codes in the country—and specifications mandated in other states are driving conservation efforts.

“The way that lighting designers approach design of lighting is with the energy code in mind because they have to,” said Janet Nolan, president, J.S. Nolan + Associates Lighting Design LLC. However, complying with the minimum requirements is not an option in the hospitality and dining industries, where atmosphere is just as important as quality of service.

Spare no expense or idea

P.F. Chang’s China Bistro restaurants are good examples of use of effective and efficient lighting in the dining industry. As with many other nationwide restaurant chains, they have a signature look. Craig Knight, project manager, Morrow-Meadows, San Diego, managed electrical construction of a P.F. Chang’s in the San Diego area. The design by the lighting consultant specified high-end custom fixtures that were installed by Morrow-Meadows Corp.

“P.F. Chang’s tends to go with the higher end fixtures to make a statement about being a high-end restaurant,” Knight said. “The lighting [purchase order] that I had to write to the vendor was one-quarter of the cost of the entire project, which seemed extremely high to me. But they wanted to create an ambiance for the customer, so that was how they budgeted it. Even the downlights that surround the bar and other areas, which are usually the cheapest installation, were high-end ones.”

Another energy-saving trend is the increased use of fluorescent lighting.

“There were days years ago that the idea of putting a fluorescent fixture in a restaurant was taboo. We are starting to see it, but today, it has to be dimmable,” Nolan said. “And sometimes we put gels on a fixture to give it a more flattering tint for people and to achieve the lower light level dining experience that most restaurants go for.”

According to Channey Doud, executive vice president, Dynalectric, San Diego, owners formerly wanted the white light that they could dim because of the color rendering of the white light against the interior finishes. That isn’t the trend anymore.

“That is being replaced more with fluorescent lighting with perhaps a gel sleeve to get the desired lamp color,” he said.

Fluorescent lighting also is now being used in guest rooms in hotels.

“New Title 24 energy codes call for energy-saving requirements in the guest rooms, which wasn’t so in the past,” Doud said. “While it’s not that the lights are specified to be fluorescent, they must be high-efficacy fixtures, and that actually means that every fixture needs to be fluorescent or controlled by a dimmer or controlled by an occupancy sensor.” Dimming systems, Doud said, are another trend.

Dimming and integrated lighting systems

“Dimming is fast becoming the low-hanging fruit in legislated energy savings,” said A.J. Glaser, president of Hunt Dimming and the Lighting Controls Association, quoted in a summary of a 2004–2005 Dimming Study, cosponsored by the Lighting Controls Association. The research study results suggest the use of dimming systems is increasing steadily, largely due to lighting industry participants specifying and recommending dimming systems to their clients, primarily to provide the energy savings and personal and global control that includes integration with other building systems.

“We have seen previous codes first address occupancy sensors and automated lighting control panels. Dimming, in particular, daylight harvesting, will likely be next,” Glaser said in the ’04–’05 study. In 2008, his prediction is proving true.

“Daylight harvesting has gone from being a buzz word to a practice being applied successfully in more and more situations,” said David Wilson, president, Lighting Control & Design, Glendale, Calif. “The big advancement has been in the software that helps the control to become less obtrusive and yet save energy. This has become linked to architectural designs for applications, including hospitality, that make the most of using daylight.”

Yet, the increased demand for use of control systems in hospitality and dining is not limited to use with daylighting applications.

“The demand for controls for hospitality solutions has gone from ‘no one seems to need them’ to an inquiry every month, with most of the inquiries being in regard to complying with new codes and looking for the most cost-effective solution,” Wilson said.

Wilson said the hospitality industry is very cost-driven, using the technology that offers the most savings while still impressing customers.

“They might install wall dimmers instead of switches for some loads that are activated by a master ‘hotel card switch’ that turns off the whole room when the card is removed,” Wilson said.

The LED niche

Controls come into play with another trend in hospitality lighting applications: use of light-emitting diodes (LEDs).

“New technology, like LEDs, makes adhering to the energy restrictions a little less painful,” Nolan said. “LEDs are very energy-efficient compared with other types of light sources, but in my opinion, white LEDs are not quite ready for prime time. They have come a long way since first being introduced into the marketplace, but I don’t think the technology is advanced to the level that I can light an entire space using only LEDs. The light is very bright and has to be carefully applied. You don’t want to look at it, but at the effect from it,” Nolan said.

LEDs are limited, yet versatile. For a main lighting source, most experts agree they aren’t quite ready, but they can fill many needs that other lighting technologies cannot.

“They can be preprogrammed to change color on a time schedule to provide a specific light show on an interior or exterior element, for example, to change colors over the course of an average dining experience or program it to music,” Doud said.

Doud has worked on a variety of projects for Dynalectric that called for installation of LEDs for different effects.

At the Hard Rock Cafe in San Diego, a sound equalizer effect was created when the company installed a glass LED fixture in the floor in conjunction with some wall panels. In addition, an LED system was installed behind a glass panel, which was actually a video display on which movies were played. At the Hotel Solimar in San Diego, the company installed four separate LED light shows behind different elements of glass, acrylic and a cloth screen creating the image of a shell. It also installed LEDs connected with DMX lighting control communication protocol, so they could be interactive with an AV system.

Installation woes

“There are all kinds of different challenges that designers come up with and want to see and since we do a lot of projects on a design/build basis, we have to design the lighting to go into it. The challenges of products, like the ones that use DMX controls, is that there are a lot of overseas manufacturers, and the start up of the systems is complex,” Doud said.

Another installation challenge involves making sure the proper light source interacts with the particular finish—acrylic or glass—that the interior designers have selected.

“You have to make sure the fixtures are producing enough light and distributing the light in the manner that the designers are envisioning,” Doud said. “It involves determining distance from the glass and figuring the area to light behind a finish.”

Not every electrical contractor is familiar with LED installation. Getting up to speed can be time consuming.

“Working with LEDs requires a little more coordination of the work of the trades with the work of the architect because the low-voltage transformers have to be hidden, and there are requirements for distances,” Fagnant said. “The job doesn’t just entail hanging chandeliers and sconces but more field coordination because the way we apply LED luminaires is different than the way we apply more traditional lighting. Typically, they are strips hidden behind acrylic panels, and there is a lot of color changing, which involves different controls, since we’re not trying to apply white light but to apply color and movement. Where a contractor puts the set of controls is different from where they might normally put them, yet they have to still meet code and install them, so they can be easily accessed. On design/build or design/assist projects, we don’t detail that on the drawings, so we rely on the contractor to figure it out,” Fagnant said.

Since the electrical contractors do the installation on any hospitality and dining project, their expertise is crucial in creating the overall look.

“You can have a beautiful interior design and the most gorgeous restaurant designed by the most prominent architect or interior designer, [but] if the lighting doesn’t work, it’s not successful,” Nolan said.

She knows from visiting a new neighborhood restaurant and being seated where the track light was shining directly in her face. She suggested an easy change to the owner: add a honeycomb louver and focus the light on the table, not the guests. When she returned to the restaurant, she found her suggested changes had been implemented. Her experience underscores the importance of a detail—focus of the lighting source—that can be overlooked initially but addressed later. The example points out the importance installation plays in creating most important aspect of lighting applications for hospitality and dining: the look.

CASEY, author of “Kids Inventing! A Handbook for Young Inventors” and “Women Invent! Two Centuries of Discoveries That Have Changed Our World,” can be reached at or

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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