Lighting is one of those business aspects we really take for granted. Hit the switch and lights go on. Great! Don’t come on? A bummer — maybe we should replace that dead bulb.

We are all aware of the many, major technological aspects that have invaded our work places in the past few decades: CNC controls on all kinds of machines, laser systems, advances in adhesives and coatings, new tooling, computer-enhanced drawing and production systems, fabulous faux finishes, hardware improvements. The list seems endless.

Most company owners with whom I meet feel real pressure to actively embrace technology and broaden their participation in at least some of these areas. But tough economic times remain a frequently cited reason for avoiding implementation of changes that are needed for businesses to participate in any new technologies.

When one thinks about all the innovations that loom before them, it is hard to look up — literally look up — and see one place that would tangibly improve performance immediately and is an affordable investment. I am talking about shop lighting.

Most companies I visit are still lit by the boxed fluorescent fixtures that have been the illumination of choice for almost a century in offices and shops around the world. Look at the ceiling in your production area. If the bulbs in your fixtures are in the same condition as most places I visit, they are a mixed bag of colors from pinkish or yellowish to bluish white. They may be flickering. They probably have ends that are burnt black. The light they exhibited when they were new has lost an average 10 percent of its brightness every year.

Dim prospects for quality control
For color matching and stain matching, do you still find yourself going out the back door into the sun to see, because you have learned that fluorescents provide a poor ability to match colors correctly? What I want to report today is this: There have been significant changes in the world of fluorescent and other interior lighting and they can make a difference in your shop.

In the early 1980s, the issue with fluorescent bulbs was that high amounts of mercury were found to be leeching into landfills (and into our food chain; remember mercury in swordfish?) when bulbs were disposed there. As a result, the Federal Government imposed strict new mercury standards to force the industry to re-think the process.

 
The type of lighting a company has in its production area can have a significant impact on the
quality of the work and the comfort of workers.
 
Fluorescent tubes used in lighting, commonly used in
woodworking shops, can be upgraded to long-lasting
color-balanced premium versions.

In the 1980s, a typical fluorescent bulb had 85 mg of mercury. Today, most have about 15 mg and premium bulbs are as low as 2 mg, with mercury contained in a secure time-release capsule. These bulbs are rated safe for disposal in any U.S. certified landfill, without any hazardous materials constraints.

The fluorescent bulbs that most shops use are 4 feet or 8 feet long. They comprise more than 90 percent of fluorescents used in small business. For decades, the bulb of choice has been the T12 type, which is 1.5 inches in diameter.

Today, most power companies offer rebates to commercial entities that replace their T12s with T8s, because they operate at about 58 percent of the cost of equivalent T12 bulbs. Rebates in Arizona, as an example, are currently $5 for each T12 bulb changed over to T8, mitigating any original investment cost. (Check with your own utility to see what opportunities there are for rebates).

Shedding some light on lumens
To understand lighting technology, it is important to learn about seeable lumens and its corollary, lumen maintenance. Codifying seeable lumens provides a way to rate brightness. Lumen maintenance refers to how much of a bulb’s original brightness will be maintained over its life.

Another important indicator is CRI (Color Rendering Index). The CRI rating tells just how accurately color is visible under the rated light. Premium bulbs possess higher CRIs, as well as significantly greater seeable lumen ratings and up to 95 percent lumen maintenance. As might be expected, they cost more and they are not normally available in the big box stores or retail outlets. But such a purchase can be considered as a quantifiable investment, with an agreeable return to the investor.

The best premium-quality bulbs rate the highest in seeable lumens. Seeable lumens are those found between the ultraviolet and infrared spectrums, spectrums that cannot be seen by the naked eye. These bulbs are balanced-spectrum output, like natural sunlight.

A new premium fluorescent bulb starts out 69 percent brighter than lower-priced bulbs and has a 95 percent lumen maintenance score. So at the end of four years, while a standard bulb will have lost 40 percent of its light, a premium bulb will have lost less than 5 percent of its life brightness. This will make the premium bulb 134 percent brighter than the standard bulb at that point. In addition, some premium bulbs can be acquired with written guarantees of performance and life for as long as 10 years.

Premium bulbs really shine
Following are some of the areas in which premium bulbs offer advantages over standard varieties:
• Cost savings through energy efficiency.
• They are brightest and whitest, providing natural white light.
• Fewer mistakes usually occur when work is done under premium lighting.
• Premium bulbs eliminate color shifting. Balanced-spectrum lighting improves color matching of materials, textures and finishes and facilitates accurate stain matching.
• Eyestrain and headaches from eyestrain can be reduced when working with printed materials, such as plans and printouts. .
• Maintenance costs are lower because bulbs are replaced less frequently.

LED — light years ahead
The newest lighting involves a true change from old illumination technology and it is advancing swiftly: LED (Light Emitting Diodes). LED technology is adapting rapidly to provide lights that: operate in existing fixtures, operate up to 15 years of warranted life, are virtually unbreakable and operate at a fraction of the cost of operating any traditional bulb.

Current LED iterations are overcoming almost all obstacles to their becoming a lighting choice for everyday business. Unit costs on the best of these are coming down almost every month, as innovation roars through the industry. Major lighting manufacturers already assert that sales of their LED products will become one-third to one-half of their total by the end of this decade.

One LED lighting company has developed replacement panels that retrofit 2x4 and 2x2 fluorescent ceiling fixtures and also is beginning to offer fluorescent-shaped LED tubes that are warranted for 10-plus years with dimmable capability — an unheard-of option for fluorescent fixtures. LED lighting is barely at the front edge of its potential.

To sum up, what I see for cabinet shops is a truly bright future, pun intended. For a relatively small investment (hundreds of dollars for most shops or up to a few thousand for larger shops), there is enhanced performance capability, reduced energy costs, additional brightness, improved color recognition, increased bulb life and consistent white, bright light that lasts for many years.

Jon Elvrum is with Maintenance Engineering Ltd. of Fargo, ND, me-dtc.com. For more information, e-mail him at jonkatelvrum@cox.net.

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