Lutron Electronics strives to conserve
Upper Saucon Twp. company reduces energy use without sacrificing comfort.
Michael Pessina, president, talks about the vision for Coopersburg-based Lutron Electronics. (Harry Fisher, THE MORNING CALL)
It also showcases the company's energy-saving technology, which can help significantly reduce costs in commercial buildings.
Overhead lights and window shades are linked through a system that can detect the amount of natural light shining through windows and the position of the sun at different times of the day and in different seasons.
The system adjusts light brightness and shades automatically in response to the amount of sunlight shining through windows and motion detectors that sense the presence of workers. The changes the system makes are nearly undetectable. Window shades slowly drop to reduce afternoon glare. A bulb slowly dims.
The family company has come a long way since its founder, Joel Spira, invented an efficient way to dim incandescent light bulbs in his Brooklyn apartment more than 50 years ago. His groundbreaking invention, now on display in the Smithsonian Institution, was the first dimmer switch mass-marketed for use in homes.
As the company has grown, its products have become more sophisticated and diversified. Today, Lutron carries thousands of products sold around the world. Dimmers and shades help keep electric bills in check at the 52-story New York Times building in Manhattan, where Lutron products have helped reduce electric consumption by two-thirds. And do-it-yourselfers can find Lutron dimmers in hardware stores for about $15 to reduce home energy costs and get optimum lighting.
Lutron is harnessing wireless technology to develop products that can be put in place without punching holes in walls and running wires, significantly reducing installation costs.
Despite the technological progress, the company's underlying goals haven't changed much since its founder tinkered with light switches in his apartment.
"Even from the beginning, we were conservation-minded," said Susan Hakkarainen, Spira's daughter and Lutron's vice president of marketing and communications. "People are looking at energy and realizing there's a cost. They're asking themselves 'What can I do to conserve energy.'"
Lutron has a large headquarters in Upper Saucon. The private company reveals few details about its operation, including its revenues and its number of local workers, which The Morning Call estimates to be roughly 1,100. Sales, research and development and quality control are all conducted in the Lehigh Valley.
A model home interior on the property shows how Lutron products can deliver optimum lighting in kitchens, bedrooms and living rooms. Interior designers and homebuilders take tours to see how Lutron's dimmers, temperature-control systems and shades can be linked through a home energy control system.
In another building, Lutron engineers simulate lightning strikes and other energy surges to see if Lutron products perform safely under extreme conditions. Noise detectors monitor products for hums or buzzes that sometimes occur with electronic devices. Air-powered pistons turn switches on and off thousands of times to test their longevity. Products are even tested to make sure static electricity won't cause them to malfunction.
One of the quality control favorites is the smash test. A plastic tube is mounted to the wall. A Lutron switch is placed at the bottom of the tube and then an engineer drops a 2-pound ball on it to test its durability.
Despite the energy savings offered by light controls, most buildings don't have them. Only 14 percent of residential and 30 percent of commercial buildings have dimmers, motion sensors or other technology to reduce electric costs associated with lighting, according to a January report by the U.S. Department of Energy.
That means there's still a huge market for companies like Lutron even if construction of buildings is slow.
Lighting accounts for about 30 percent of overall energy costs in commercial buildings, which is why dimmers and motion sensors are more prevalent in those buildings. In homes, lighting accounts for about 10 percent of energy costs, behind heating and cooling.
One obstacle facing Lutron is that many commercial buildings use fluorescent bulbs that can't be dimmed, said Robert Karlicek, a professor of electrical and computer systems engineering at Rennselear Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York and director of the Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center.
For those buildings, installing light dimmers requires replacing fluorescent ballasts, which increases the upfront costs and can make owners reluctant to make the investment, Karlicek said. Adding to the confusion are fast-moving changes in the light industry. Most incandescent bulbs are being phased out through government mandates and more efficient compact fluorescent bulbs will face increasing competition from advances made with light-emitting diodes that are being developed as efficient, long-lasting light sources in homes and businesses, he said.
"It's a very complicated marketplace right now," said Karlicek, who has visited Lutron facilities as part of his research. "We're on the tip of a major revolution in lighting, and there's a huge upside for Lutron. People will be looking for more and more ways to save energy as prices keep going up. LED lights will save a lot of energy, but LED with dimmer controls will be the Holy Grail."
Lutron has kept on top of the changes in the lighting market. It makes dimmer switches that are compatible with different types of bulbs to eliminate consumer confusion. And as construction of homes fell during the Great Recession, the company introduced lower-cost products that appeal to those renovating homes.
Lutron has adapted wireless technology in its products so a homeowner can install battery-operated shade systems without having to punch holes through walls to run wires. The products cost less to install, meaning consumers can recoup their investment more quickly through energy savings.
Lutron President Michael Pessina said the company's products save about $1 billion each year on energy costs.
"We want to give our customers a fast return on investment," Pessina said. "Energy conservation is prime on people's minds."