Better Bulbs For Business

One year ago, in the February 2010 issue of Planet Kansas, I wrote about my experience in a local Perkins Restaurant.  My family and I were eating our breakfast when I noticed that all of the light fixtures in the store were filled with incandescent light bulbs.   I decided to count the number of bulbs in the store to figure out how much energy and money this restaurant could be saving by switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs).  To my surprise they had the potential to save over $4000.00 every year.

I was so inspired by this discovery that I spent the next four months telling as many business owners as I could about their potential opportunity.  Over the course of this campaign I visited and left lighting evaluations for over 50 businesses, many of which were unplanned instances where I noticed incandescent bulbs at a restaurant or business I was visiting.  I created documents that allowed me to quickly calculate a business’s potential savings and leave the manager with an easily understandable lighting evaluation of their store.  My hope was that the huge financial savings would be too enticing for business owners to pass up.  There were many disappointing moments during this campaign that made me feel like quitting and occasional victories that motivated me to carry on.

A couple of my victories were with Cheri Esmond, the owner of 5 Perkin’s Restaurants and Ruth Green, the owner of My Favorite Things in Overland Park.  Cheri had already switched a majority of her bulbs, but fast tracked the process when she heard about the huge energy savings.  She also informed her district and regional managers, who took the information all the way to the Vice President of Perkins Restaurants.  Ruth allowed me to replace every bulb in her store with CFLs.  Her initial cost was only $217 with electricity savings of $2700/year.

 

While in the process of writing this article I stumbled upon two victories I had no idea existed.  They were both instances where my family and I were eating at a restaurant and I decided to give the manager a quick lighting evaluation.  The first surprise victory was at Fritz’s Railroad Restaurant in Shawnee.   The store switched about 50 bulbs that were on for 15 hours/day.  They should now be saving about 22,000 kWh and $2200 per year.  According to Susan Brown of Brightergy.com, formerly The Energy Savings Store, “It would take about 75 solar panels, or a 15 kW photovoltaic system, to provide this same amount of power, and a system this size would cost about $90,000 before government incentives.”  Fritz’s Railroad Restaurant achieved this amount of power savings by spending only $100 on CFL light bulbs.  The second surprise victory was La Hacienda, a local restaurant my wife and I frequent.  I had given the manager a lighting evaluation early last year for their 15 exterior lights.  Over the course of the next year I noticed that not a single bulb had been changed.  A few days ago my wife and I pulled up to the restaurant and noticed that all 15 lights had been switched to CFLs.   Because the lights are left on for 24 hours/day they are now saving an estimated $1048/year with an initial investment of only $30.

To put this into perspective, a few years ago I decided to spend $4500 to upgrade to a more efficient heating and cooling system.  This project reduced my electricity consumption by about 3000 kWh/year and had a reasonable 10-15 year payback period.  By spending only $30 to change 15 light bulbs, La Hacienda reduced their electricity consumption by 10,500 kWh/year and had only a 10-15 day payback period.  It is also worth noting that 10,500 kWh is the entire annual electricity consumption of the average U.S. home.  I challenge anyone to find another technology that can reduce a household worth of electricity consumption for only $30.

These seemingly unbelievable statistics have been the inspiration and motivation behind all of the time and effort I have spent on this campaign.  Rather than fuss over every last watt in my own home, I have decided my time would be better spent spreading this compelling information and educating others to the huge positive impact that CFLs can have on our environment.

So why, with CFLs able to make such a remarkable impact is there so much negativity directed towards them?  Things like quality of light, delayed startup, higher initial cost, and bulb appearance plagued CFLs in their early years, although they have come under the most scrutiny with the environmental community for the 4-5 mg. of mercury that is contained inside each bulb.  Mercury is a highly toxic substance and its presence in CFLs should not be ignored, but when taking into account the fact that mercury is released into the air from burning coal for electricity, incandescent bulbs release far more mercury than CFLs.  According to the My LED Lighting Guide, “coal plants emit between 0.027 to 0.093 milligrams of mercury per kWh of electricity produced.  If we use the average of these two figures we can calculate that by switching to CFLs, La Hacienda, the restaurant mentioned above, is preventing 630 mg of mercury from being released into the air every year.  The 15 CFLs they are now using only contain 60-75 mg of mercury combined & it can and should all be recycled.

While CFLs are not a perfect solution, they have their place in our struggle to become a more sustainable society.  Would our environment be a better place today if we had said no to the first wind turbines because they killed birds or were too noisy?  Would we be better off today if environmentalists in the 1950s shunned solar panels because they were too expensive, or because they consumed too much energy and raw materials to produce?  I think the obvious answer to these questions is no.   We are going to have to weigh the good and the bad of any new green technologies and realize that very few solutions to our environmental problems, if any, are going to be perfect.

If you or someone you know is interested in joining or learning more about this campaign, come visit us at http://connect.sierraclub.org, click on the teams tab, and search for “Better Bulbs For Business“.  Help us reach our goal of conserving 100 households of energy.

By Doug Stecklein

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