Retailers are investing in LED lighting and facility control technologies to achieve immediate and long-term utility savings and make their stores—and the products in them—more appealing to customers.
By Marilyn Odesser-Torpey, Associate Editor
Until recently, upgrading to LED lighting was considered by many retailers to be too expensive a project to undertake. But, according to Frank Sharp, senior technical leader energy utilization for the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), those costs are constantly dropping, for most applications significantly, and are even less than they were just one year ago.
In addition, subsidies are still available from sources such as states, local utility companies and fuel providers. Sharp suggested that retailers begin their search by checking the Database of State Initiatives for Renewables and Efficiency (dsireusa.org).
Combine lower initial costs with a potentially substantial reduction in lighting bills—50% savings in some cases—plus a longer life span than fluorescent and metal halide lighting and it makes more economic sense to switch than ever before, Sharp said.
Instead of being an expense, upgrading to LED lighting has been a cash-positive situation for NOCO Express stores in western New York since it began its rollout with the parking lots, gas canopies and wall packs in 2012, according to Scott Robinson, director of real estate for the 39-store chain. Cooler and freezer lights have also been switched out and since last year 10% of the stores have also swapped out their ceiling lights for LED.
For the exterior and cooler and freezer upgrades, NOCO partnered with a local utility, which covered 70% of the cost. The remaining 30% was financed by the utility over 24 months.
Robinson estimated that the LED lighting uses roughly 50% of the energy consumption of fluorescents and halides. Since LED lighting is brighter than other sources, fewer fixtures are needed to illuminate any given area.
“For our canopies we reduced the number by 20% to 25%,” Robinson said.
Even with fewer fixtures, he pointed out, the LED lighting “is significantly brighter and crisper,” illuminating the entire exterior right to the property line without bleeding onto the neighboring properties as light pollution.
“The brighter lighting is much more inviting to customers at night,” said Robinson. “And inside the coolers and freezers it really shows off the products.”
Most of the interior lighting at NOCO Express is also dimmable. Lighting in the stores’ back rooms is wired to controllers, which keep it at 50% brightness most of the time and instantly adjusts to full brightness when someone enters.
While the cost of the hardware and software required by dimmable lights may be too high for some retailers right now, Sharp of the EPRI recommended retailers purchase fixtures that have dimmable drives to prepare for when those prices go down.
“Fixtures with dimmable drives cost only a few dollars more than those without them,” Sharp said. “And it’s easier and cheaper to have the driver in place than to go out and buy another fixture.”
Dimmable fixtures can also have the capability of tracking which lights are activated most often and using data analytics to identify for retailers what paths customers are taking in their stores. That more advanced technology costs more, but can yield some valuable information, Sharp said.
Since changing LED lighting is more expensive than simply putting in new fluorescent tubes, NOCO’s Robinson was careful to choose lighting that came with a solid warranty.
“For the store exteriors we have 10-year warranties, for the interiors five-year,” said Robinson. “That savings in maintenance factors into the overall cost savings we expect from the LED lighting.”
Justin Alford, an owner of Louisiana’s B-Quik convenience stores and Benny’s Car Wash, learned the importance of parts and labor warranties on lighting the hard way when the drivers on all the LED fixtures newly installed at one of the stores failed within a few months and had to be replaced. He also hasn’t seen much savings on his utility bills since his three convenience stores and gas stations changed out their canopy and interior lights to LED last April.
But, he said, the company is continuing to add LED lighting in the stores’ coolers and is also tackling the lighting at the seven tunnel car washes. One reason is the aesthetic advantage of brighter yet not blinding light produced by LED without the distorting twinkle effect of halide bulbs.
What he is really counting on, though, is a reduction in maintenance.
“We had a lot of ballast going out with halides, and the fluorescent bulbs were costing us a lot of money,” Alford said. “Both types of bulbs also deteriorate and produce less light over time.”
Alford hopes to get seven to 10 years of consistent light without changing the LED bulbs.
To turn the lights in the stores and the car washes on and off at remotely scheduled times, the company uses a PLC (programmable logic controller). The same system is used to control the speed of the brush motors in the car washes and Alford has been studying the benefits of adding control of the refrigeration to the system.
“We heard that we can really save some big money by doing that,” he said.
SUBSIDIES & REBATES
At 108-store, Beaverton, Ore.-based Plaid Pantry, 100% of the stores’ retail floor lighting has been converted to LED and 95% of the coolers and freezers with the remaining 5% soon to be replaced, said Jonathan Polonsky, company president. Because some of the stores are leased in shopping centers and not all landlords are on board with LED, the company has been able to upgrade the exterior lighting at about half of its locations.
Upgrading was a priority not only because the utility company was offering a subsidy of dollars off per linear foot, but even more importantly because “fluorescents were not doing a good job showcasing our products.”
“The subsidy may have encouraged us to move at a faster pace, but making our products look their best was our main motivation,” he said.
Because Plaid Pantry stores are open 24 hours, consistently bright lighting is particularly important to make the stores stand out and look more attractive and safe to visit at night.
“We got immediate positive feedback from our customers and vendors and that tends to make me believe it was a good investment,” Polonsky said. “It also doesn’t hurt that we got a 100% ROI in energy savings in two to three years.”
About six years ago, Holt Oil Co. started to change over the lamps on the exterior canopies of its Holt C-Store locations to LED. Now all the exterior lighting and three of the interiors for 10 of its company-operated locations in North Carolina have been upgraded.
“We got tired of changing light bulbs,” said Louis Cox, president of Holt Oil.
With some rebate money from the utility company and co-op money from Exxon Mobil, he found the cost of upgrading to be “pretty reasonable.” Like NOCO’s Robinson, he found that he needed fewer bulbs to get the quality of light he wanted. Most importantly, Cox said, the brightness of LED draws more attention to the stores and offers customers a warmer welcome and sense of safety than the yellowish glow produced by fluorescent fixtures.
But, Cox said, there is still a place for some fluorescent lighting at his stores. Because LED lighting focuses in one direction, the gap space between the canopies and the stores’ front doors was darker than the company wanted. The addition of a few fluorescent fixtures quickly solved the problem.