Manchester Energy Efficiency Project: A Special Series
By sometime early next year, there will be 12,000 new LED lights making schools and town buildings throughout Manchester brighter than ever at a much lower cost than before.
Chapter 4: 12,000 Points of Light
By Jim Farrell
Buckley Elementary School will soon be Net Zero Energy and is deservedly the marquee project in Manchester’s expansive sustainability campaign but crucial work is also happening one light fixture at a time in 18 municipal buildings all over town. By sometime early next year, there will be 12,000 new LED lights making these buildings brighter than ever at a much lower cost than before.
“It’s time-consuming work but makes a big difference in the long run,” said Kevin Pratt, who is the foreman of a team of electricians that recently has been reporting every afternoon to Manchester High School to install LED lights throughout that building before they move on to the next.
Pratt works for Plainville-based Possidento Therrien Electrical Contractors (PTE), which is subcontracted by Prism Energy Services (of Quincy, Mass.), two of the companies with a role in just the lighting phase of the town’s sustainability project.
“Saving energy reduces Manchester’s carbon footprint and saves taxpayer’s money, it’s a win-win goal,” said Chris Till, the town’s facilities manager. “We are doing everything to make that happen and that includes changing light fixtures and light bulbs -- literally thousands of them."
Which is where the teams from Prism and PTE come in.
“We probably average about 100 fixtures a night,” said Pratt, who’s usually accompanied by another 6-8 licensed electricians and a couple of apprentices. The number of co-workers each day and thus the pacing of work are dependent on what inventory is available and that’s been an issue of late, part of the international supply chain crisis.
At Manchester High alone, about 4,000 lights and fixtures will be swapped out, with incandescent, halogen and fluorescent (both standard and compact) bulbs replaced by light-emitting diodes, better known as LED.
LEDs are essentially tiny semiconductors and are far more efficient and last much longer than the alternatives that include those classic incandescents, which in fairness have had a pretty great run since being invented by Thomas Edison in 1879.
Town-wide, Till said the light swaps will cost about $3.2 million (with about $1.2 million of that defrayed through an incentive program offered by Eversource) with the switch projected to save about $350,000 a year or about $7 million over 20 years.
There is so much work being done that the town split the project in two, with Prism executing the lighting work in seven school buildings while Earthlight Technologies will be handling 11 town buildings including Mary Cheney Library, Lincoln Center and the Senior Center.
“We’re excited to be part of this ambitious energy efficiency project in a neighboring community,” said Sam Schneider, president and co-founder of Ellington-based Earthlight. A family-run operation (Sam’s four younger brothers are also involved in the business along with their father Tim, who is the CEO and co-founder), Earthlight’s focus is energy efficiency, solar power, battery storage, and EV charging stations. They have 105 employees and do work throughout Connecticut, Massachusetts and beyond. Sam says few communities have gone all-in the way Manchester has. “It’s a very impressive commitment and a wise investment,” he said.
Work on the town buildings had been slated to start a couple of months ago but is just getting started and is expected to continue through March, with the reason no surprise to those keeping up with current events. Said Sam: “The supply chain problems are real and we are doing the best that we can to keep projects moving along.”
As for the work itself, there was plenty done before even orders were placed -- starting with a comprehensive audit of every fixture in each building to figure out the smartest lighting replacement strategy.
The initial stage of the audit was done by a team from Loureiro Engineering.
“Identification of opportunities -- that’s the first step,” said Nate Strong, who as a VP with Loureiro sometimes gets out in the field and was part of the walk-through team that visited WORK_SPACE, which was the smallest of the town buildings to be audited.
Strong said the work begins with an assessment of a building’s ‘envelope’, which refers to what separates the interior from the exterior -- windows, doors, roof, floor, foundations, and insulation.
Auditors then evaluated every component of each building’s energy system. This means they looked for leaky fittings and inefficient pumps and such, but also reviewed utility records to determine how much energy and heat were being wasted and what return might be realized from particular investments.
“We investigate to produce directional information,” said Strong, adding that his company then supports the client in the analysis that follows, work that includes back-and-forth with utility companies as remediation options are developed.
The Loureiro audit gave the town a road map that was then divided into two phases -- the lighting work (which was later halved between town and school buildings) and what’s being called ‘Phase 2’, which mostly involved upgrading heating, cooling and other such systems.
The Phase 2 audit produced some surprising results. “Our buildings are much more energy efficient than anticipated,” Till said, noting that there were fewer energy-savings opportunities discovered than had been anticipated. “The buildings have been evaluated at different times in the past and inefficiencies have already been corrected.”
But as expected, the switch to LED promises substantial returns.
Before ordering replacement lights and fixtures, though, both Prism and Earthlight had to do their own detailed audits to plan their work.
At MHS, for example, two Prism field engineers spent about two nights inside the building, which at 392,290 square feet is the largest municipal structure in town. They identified 500 different spaces (from the gym and cafeteria right down to closets) that had a combined total of about 130 types of lighting fixtures, and compiled voluminous reports with hundreds of photos and dozens of pages of data and notes that were then used to figure out what would come next.
Existing lighting infrastructure included outdated linear fluorescent T12 tube lights, antiquated and inefficient halogen and incandescent lamps and more. Prevalent fixture types ranged from linear troffers (primarily recessed but also surface mounted) and linear strip fixtures to pole-mounted area lights, wall-mounted exterior wall packs, exterior flood lights, screw-base lamps etc.
Matt Jayne, an electrical project engineer at Prism, was among those heavily involved in the planning and design work that followed -- and it turns out that while “changing a lightbulb '' can be analogous to executing a simple task, that isn’t always the case.
“It can be tedious and time consuming,” Jayne said of the work to figure out the smartest way to go from what is to what should be. (In the adjacent photo are, from left, Jayne, Steve Possidento of PTE and Matt Menard, also from Prism.)
Factors that were considered when deciding just which LEDs to install included the cost (and projected energy savings), aesthetics, logistics and what Jayne called ‘future proofing.’
Start with cost. It’s cheaper to replace just the ballast and bulb rather than an entire light fixture, and sometimes that’s what is happening -- but usually because of some mitigating factor. For example, Pratt said that as his crew works its way through MHS they sometimes find that fixtures have been sort of trapped in place by, say, an unrelated plumbing project.
Pratt estimated that about 10 percent of the lights swapped out at MHS have retained the original fixture.
In most cases, though, the original fixture comes out and an entire new light fixture needs to be installed, and that’s when aesthetics become an issue.
As noted above, MHS had about 130 different types of fixtures before work began. When it's over it will have about half that, so there will be a more consistent (and modern) look for those whose eyes drift up as they walk the building.
Of course, each building presents different aesthetic issues. Bennet Academy and Highland Park Elementary, for example, were renovated relatively recently (in 2007 and 2012 respectively) and so the older fluorescent technology is being replaced by retrofitting the LEDs into the existing, architecturally stylish high-end fixtures.
Most important, though, is the sensor technology built into the new LEDs.
Sensor technology is not new but has come a long way since the days when you worked in an office with lights that would go off every so often, forcing you to wave your arms to come out of the dark.
Some LED lights can be so advanced that some have RF Doppler sensors that can pick up a person’s heartbeat.
Sensors are not just more effective at determining who is an area that needs to be lit, they also have a host of other current and potential uses. Photosensitive, temperature, voice, infrared and other types of sensors can be used to form an intelligent control system. In addition to "on/off" functionality, signals can control the switching time, brightness, color rendering and color change of LED lights to achieve what’s called intelligent lighting control.
Which brings us to commissioning. That’s a phrase that famously refers to the act or ceremony of placing a ship in active service but it’s also used by lighting design teams. Commissioning in the lighting field is a quality assurance process that takes place after everything is installed and the sensors need to be programmed to make sure the lights function as designed.
The first and only building where the LED install is complete is Martin Elementary School, and the last step there was when an engineer used a smart-phone app to program the sensors. It’s all done using bluetooth technology and includes grouping and linking fixtures.
That’s how, for example, lights in a hallway can be programmed to turn on sequentially as someone walks down the corridor.
“It’s called ‘distributed intelligence’,” said Jayne, referring to the ability of individual components to make their decisions locally based on information available in the immediate vicinity.
In addition to detecting motion, sensors also measure how much natural light is in a space. This allows for dimming or switching off the LED when sufficient ambient light is present (or, obviously, when a space is unoccupied). This is especially valuable when spaces get supplementary -- but unevenly distributed -- light from windows and skylights.
Programming can be done to achieve what’s called daylight harvesting, the term used to describe an automatic strategy in which interior electric lighting adjusts to maintain a target level, reducing energy costs.
“There’s an art to it,” said Matt Menard, Prism’s director of business development, noting that with so many options available it always comes down to the question, “what do we do here?”
Jayne concurred and said that “granularity of data” has made lighting design challenging but rewarding, “especially when you finish a project and it all comes together.”
About this series: Buckley Elementary School in Manchester is being renovated to ‘net zero energy’, a project that is expected to take about 14 months (from ground-breaking to ribbon cutting) and during that time there are a series of other ambitious sustainability projects underway in public buildings throughout town. Jim Farrell, who is the school district’s communications director and a former career journalist with The Hartford Courant, is writing about the work in installments. Click here to see earlier chapters.
Also: For a list of all 18 municipal buildings scheduled for the LED upgrade, click here.