A $40,000 Mercedes-Benz coup sits on the showroom floor at Wilson Motors in Bellingham. White light glints off a curve in the hood.
Twenty-five feet up, newly installed LED lights shine on the cluster of new Mercedes, Toyotas and Scions on the floor. Wilson Motors got the LEDs in August.
“It’s a distinctly different light,” said Julian Greening, general manager. “It’s really nice on the cars, it’s really nice on paint, and it brings out the contours.”
Car dealerships are early adopters in the LED market. With LED light quality improving and cost falling, some researchers think the technology is just beginning to shine. LEDs can be 75 percent more efficient than other lights, according to energystar.gov. Last year, former Phillips Lighting CEO Ludo Carnotensis said LEDs could make up 80 percent of the lighting market by 2020, up from 12 percent in 2012.
2020 Led Lighting, a Bellingham company that designs LED lighting systems for commercial spaces, is already growing.
Mark Buehrer, founder and owner of 2020 LED, said his company is at the forefront of the industry due to his willingness to go through the process of getting new technologies accepted by permitting authorities, and his drive to find practical uses for new technology.
“Permitting is a huge obstacle,” Buehrer said. “We’ve been willing to go through the bureaucratic stuff and pioneer that part of the industry.”
Buehrer has designed lighting systems for buildings around the Northwest. Most of his work is outside of Bellingham, but Buehrer’s resume includes some projects in town, including the Wilson Motors showroom.
According to a study 2020 LED did while designing the system, Wilson Motors will save $13,966 annually in energy and maintenance costs, enough to pay for the cost of the project in two years.
Wilson Motors’ showroom lights are on 16 hours a day. With the old lights, seven or eight bulbs and three or four ballasts—the devices that regulate voltage and current—had to be replaced every month.
To do that, every car had to be wheeled outside while a contractor with a scissor lift replaced the bulbs and fixtures.
“That was my biggest disappointment in this whole facility—the old lighting in the showroom,” Rick Wilson, owner of Wilson Motors said. “The LEDs are absolutely phenomenal. I don’t anticipate replacing any for years.”
LEDs last approximately 50 times longer than typical incandescent lights and eight to 10 times longer than a compact fluorescent light, according to bulbs.com.
Whole systems design
2020 LED designs lighting systems for a boutique market, Buehrer said. They aren’t trying to come up with a template that can be used on every building, he said.
“We’re not going for the low-hanging fruit,” Buehrer said. “What we like to do is whole systems designs with interesting challenges.”
2020’s office and coworking space on Dupont Street serves as a portfolio for 2020 LED.
As Buehrer slides his finger across a touch-sensitive screen, the LEDs in a fixture above a corner desk change from bright blue to warm orange. The lighting remains nearly the same in the rest of the office.
The interesting challenge presented by 2020’s office, as in most offices, is the puzzle of accommodating people who want different amounts of light. It’s a problem the design of most office lighting systems doesn’t address.
They solve the problem by keeping the overhead LEDs dimmer than most offices, and providing LED lamps at each desk.
The path to LEDs
2020 LED is a subsidiary of 2020 Engineering, which Buehrer founded in 1995. 2020 Engineering focuses on environmentally-friendly and energy efficient civil engineering projects.
Buehrer has contributed to well-known projects including the Bullitt Center in Seattle, which the website World Architecture News named the World’s greenest building in 2013.
2020 Engineering designed the building’s rainwater harvesting system, compost toilets, and a treatment system for grey water.
“2020 is one of the top firms to go to for water-neutral projects. That’s their reputation,” said Alex Ramel, Sustainable Connections’ Policy and Energy Manager. “They’ve taken that same energy and applied it to lights.”
Sustainable Connections, an organization that promotes local economy and sustainable business, works with 2020 to help business owners apply for incentives and rebates for LEDs and other energy upgrades.
Buehrer became interested in LEDs as a way to make buildings more energy efficient. LEDs are a useful tool for creating a “net-zero” building—a building that produces as much energy as it uses.
“To get to net-zero energy, you need to supply all your resources on sight. Your systems have to be really efficient,” he said. “It’s much more cost-effective to be efficient than to pay for more solar panels.”
But Buehrer’s interest in LEDs goes beyond energy efficiency.
He can cite studies about health benefits and increased worker productivity resulting from LEDs that change in brightness and color, and mimic natural light by turning bright blue in the middle of the day and a warmer orange in the morning and afternoon.
Buehrer is a member of the Human Centric Lighting society, an international committee with a goal to promote LEDs and study how they can improve circadian rhythms and mood. The mission statement on the committee’s website says they believe adjustable LEDs will become “as significant as Edison creating the light bulb.”
Lighting evokes experience
Explorations Academy, an independent high school in Bellingham, upgraded their downstairs with a 2020 LED-designed system last school year.
The school paid for the project with help from the Community Energy Challenge and a private donor, the school’s founder and director, Daniel KirkPatrick said.
The lights in the school’s theater room have tunable colors, and classrooms have sensors that turns lights off if no one is in the room.
Energy savings motivated the switch to LEDs, KirkPatrick said.
“We’re a very green school,” Kirkpatrick said. “With everything we do we’re trying to get the message across that the earth is finite, let’s use it responsibly,”
They also use the adjustability of the lights, KirkPatrick said.
“Lighting evokes experience. Everyone walks outside on a sunny day and you know that the light affects the quality of your experience,” he said. “If kids are drowsy, we’ll bring the lights up. If we’re trying to get into a discussion that is pretty heartfelt and we’re talking about issues and relationships, we’ll bring the lights down. It’s really easy to do with this lighting system.”
LEDs in aquaculture
Buehrer is combining his interests in water efficiency and LEDs to design indoor aquaculture systems with LED grow lights. LED agricultural grow lights are the fastest growing area of 2020 LED Lighting, he said.
LED grow lights are 70 percent more efficient than traditional grow lights, and could make indoor agriculture more cost-effective.
“The urban agriculture piece has been my biggest obsession of the past four or five years,” Buehrer said. “That is where our interests merge.”
Buehrer is working on a project in New York that involves retrofitting 4 acres of warehouses. Plans for the building include fish tanks on the ground floor that could produce tilapia, salmon, and shrimp. Greenhouses on the roof would grow leafy vegetables with supplemental lighting from LED grow lights.
“That to me is where our engineering and LED lighting can get to something really interesting—the production of food,” Buehrer said.