Energy-Saving Reflectors Boom

Utility rebates boost sales of lighting inserts

FOR manufacturers of reflective products that improve the efficiency of fluorescent lamps, the future looks bright. As utilities look to avoid outlays for new plants, and businesses look to cut their electric bills, sales are thriving for the mirror-like ``specular reflectors'' that can make one fluorescent bulb do the work of two.

``Things are really booming for us on the East Coast,'' says Sheila Ryan of Parke East, one of about 20 United States companies that make the reflectors.

With power companies in the Northeast promising to spend billions of dollars over the next decade to promote conservation, it is little wonder that the Austin, Texas, firm is opening a distribution center in New England. The region's utilities have led the way in offering incentives to customers who invest in conservation (see story at left).

``With the advent of the rebates, credibility has been established for the reflector products,'' boosting sales even in nonrebate areas, says Jim Zarlenga, marketing manager for Silverlight Corporation, a manufacturer in Burr Ridge, Ill.

Flurry of activity

The incentive programs turned on a spigot of cash so quickly that, in addition to the more established suppliers, ``you're getting ... any tin-bender out there starting to sell products,'' complains John Kennedy, vice president of IntroTech Energy Inc., an Allston, Mass., energy products and services company.

The effectiveness of the reflectors depends not only on the materials, but on whether the device is well-suited to the particular situation, Mr. Kennedy says, holding that 40 different measurements are needed to determine the size and shape reflector that will fit a given fixture.

In a typical retrofit, two out of four lightbulbs might be retained in a fixture, and one ballast instead of two (ballasts control the electrical charge). The reflector makes up much of the difference by directing the light more efficiently, which also reduces glare. In addition to cutting electricity used by lamps and ballasts, air conditioning costs also go down.

But the purported gains in efficiency are often exaggerated, warns Fred Davis, who sells energy-efficient lighting products in Medfield, Mass. Reflectors are often added at the same time as a fixture is cleaned and the lightbulbs replaced, and those factors can make gains seem overly dramatic. He cites studies showing that reflectors typically provide 60 to 80 percent of the original lighting with half the bulbs, not a full 100 percent.

In addition to Silverlight, which is a division of the British firm Courtaulds PLC, the main producers of reflective materials include Pre Finish Metals Inc., Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing Company (3M), and Alcoa. The first three make a silver film that is laminated onto a metal base, while Alcoa's Everbright product is polished aluminum.

``We see ourselves doubling in size'' over the next couple of years, Mr. Zarlenga says, noting that growth hinges on how the rebate programs develop.

Silverlight is the only producer with complete vertical integration, making everything from the silver film to finished reflectors, Zarlenga says.

Pre Finish Metals has seen sales growing at about 50 percent a year, says Scott McGowan, marketing manager for the company's Specular+ product. He says 40 percent of 1990 sales went to original-equipment manufacturers, while other manufacturers produce more heavily for the retrofit market.

Companies are reluctant to divulge sales figures. Paul Clark, marketing manager for 3M's Silverlux brand, says the market is ``many millions of dollars.''

Programs to increase

With energy usage concerns heightened by the greenhouse effect as well as the Gulf crisis, conservation incentives are expected to increase nationwide.

The utility programs for subsidizing investments in energy-efficient lamps and other conservation measures costs utilities far less than adding new generating capacity, says Thomas Feiler of Cambridge Energy Research Associates in Cambridge, Mass. Conserving energy costs 2 to 3 cents per kilowatt hour, compared to at least 6 cents for new generating capacity, he says.

Even without rebates, payback on a reflector often comes in less than two years. The payback time depends on ``burn time'' (how long a given fixture is in use) and on local energy costs.

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