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LED Lighting: Easy to Sell, Difficult to Source & Program

LED Lighting: Easy to Sell, Difficult to Source & Program

By Bridget McCrea

As the challenges associated with buying and installing state-of-the-art LED lighting mount, contractor frustration increases and distributors pitch in to help.

Business has been pretty brisk this year for King’s Electric Service in Cincinnati, where numerous commercial, institutional, and industrial projects have come online in 2016. “We feel pretty good about our workload right now as an electrical contractor,” says Matt Hittinger, project manager. “We’re looking pretty busy at least through July at this point.” Business is so good, in fact, that King’s Electric can be selective about which projects it bids on. “That’s always a nice feeling,” says Hittinger, whose firm handles both new construction and remodeling/rehab projects.

With any new onslaught of work and projects comes additional challenges, of course, and King’s Electric hasn’t been immune to those hurdles. “The biggest issue we’re having right now involves light fixtures,” says Hittinger. “It seems as if even the large manufacturers are having trouble keeping up with production—particularly when it comes to LED lighting.”

The biggest problem, from Hittinger’s vantage point, is the fact that the technology behind the LED lighting is continually changing and improving. As a result, no one is mass-producing these items right now. “It’s not like there’s inventory ‘sitting on the shelves,'” he points out. “Every order—regardless of size or scope—is being handled on a ‘made to order’ basis.” This highly customized approach negatively impacts electrical contractors like King’s Electric, which doesn’t have the luxury of “changing the project schedule” just because it can’t get the right light fixtures to the right place and at the right time.

“I would say that this is probably our biggest challenge right now in terms of our dealings with distributors,” says Hittinger, who notes that some of the production times being put forth by “larger manufacturers” are decent. On a positive note, he says those manufacturers are doing a good job of improving the technology itself and making LED light fixtures that are both energy efficient and long lasting. “It seems like every month we’re hearing about a new project that’s even more efficient than the last one,” says Hittinger.

“That’s exciting for us because in the end, those improvements help us to sell the product,” he continues. “The cheaper it is, or the more return on investment that a customer will realize, the easier it is for us to sell on the front end.” The very nature of LED lighting fixtures also helps the products sells themselves. For example, Hittinger says the products go beyond just the standard “on and off” features to include capabilities like dimming and color changing. The latter usually requires programming, however, and can create additional delays and complications from the contractor’s perspective.

“This is another challenging area because many times a particular fixture with lighting control includes in its price the cost of having a technician come and handle that programming,” says Hittinger. “That could mean having someone come to the jobsite from as far away as California. Logistically, that is tough to schedule.”

Then, if any issues come up during the programming process—not uncommon within the LED space, according to Hittinger—the delays can stretch out even further. “We have felt like the commitment on the part of manufacturers has been pretty poor in this area,” he notes. “They seem to be doing their best to keep good on their promises, and at getting these products programmed, but maybe the experience/expertise just hasn’t caught up yet.”

Doing its Part to Help
As electrical contractors scramble to keep up with demand for LED lighting on both new and retrofit construction projects across the nation, at least one NAED member is stepping up to the plate and doing its part to help “fill the gap” between its manufacturers and customers. “We’re seeing a lot of demand for LEDs right now,” says Jim Dunn, executive vice president at Warshauer Electric Supply Company in Tinton Falls, N.J.

“On the residential side in particular, the LED dominates,” Dunn continues. “On the commercial side, we’re seeing a lot of incandescent metal halides/high-pressure sodium lighting both in new projects and on LED retrofits.”

To help its contractor customers efficiently select, order, install, program, and/or otherwise handle these and other state-of-the-art products, Warshauer started an “Energy Audit Department” in 2014 as a subset to its existing Commercial Lighting Department. Headed up by Shawn Renner, one of the distributor’s younger commercial lighting sales engineers, the new department was born out of the “many requests that we were getting for LED retrofitting in existing buildings,” says Dunn.

Renner joined Warshauer in 2012 as part of the firm’s Management Trainee Program, where he spent time in every department, learning the ins and outs of the firm’s product and service offerings. He then took on the role of Warshauer’s LED specialist and utilizes his knowledge to perform energy audit site visits. These visits are designed to identify all of the ways in which customers can reduce operating costs by changing lighting layout and design, upgrading fixtures and controls, and by taking advantage of various rebates and incentives offered through New Jersey’s SmartStart Buildings and Clean Energy Programs.

“We’re not an energy service company,” Dunn points out, “but we had so many requests for LED retrofitting in to existing buildings that Shawn became very proficient at it. We decided to buy the software he needed to be able to perform the audits, and as an offshoot he also became proficient at the various rebates that are available in the state of New Jersey. Today, he can offer our customers the ‘whole solution’ when it comes to LED lighting.”

By that, Dunn means Renner can walk into a space, look up at the ceiling, recommend the right replacements, plug the information into a software program, and tell the contractor what the upfront costs and labor costs will be for the lighting retrofit. He also provides information on potential rebate amounts and return on investment. And while this isn’t a full-time job for Renner, who also handles commercial lighting sales jobs, demand for his expertise is growing, according to Dunn.

“This is definitely a growing opportunity area for us, particularly now that we have an expert onboard who can address our customers’ increasing need for LED expertise and support,” says Dunn. “There just aren’t a lot of distributors doing this right, especially here in New Jersey. In fact, even on a national basis I’m not sure how many firms have in-house LED/lighting energy audit experts who can offer this level of expertise.”

McCrea is a Florida-based writer who covers business, industrial, and educational topics for a variety of magazines and journals. You can reach her at bridgetmc@earthlink.net or visit her website at www.expertghostwriter.net.


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