Illuminating UChicago: A glowing transformation on the main quadrangles

A mission to save on labor and utility bills through the use of energy efficient lighting led to a glowing transformation on the University’s main quadrangles.

More than 4,000 exterior lighting fixtures dot the University of Chicago campus, from the famous Oxford light poles concentrated in the main quadrangles to ground-level lights that illuminate academic buildings and laboratories to the pedestrian crossings that link the University with our neighboring communities.

Electrical experts within the Facilities Services Operations group a few years ago began installing LEDs, or light-emitting diodes, to replace burnt out metal halides.

And in fiscal year 2013, Facilities Services tackled a marquee project – installing 22-watt exterior-rated LED lamps in the Oxford light poles on the main quadrangles in place of the former 100-watt metal halide lamps and ballasts.

“This is the first step toward having consistent color and light levels emitting throughout our exterior lighting on the quad,” said Electric Shop Supervisor Pete Hickling, who said the old bulbs emit light in shades of green and pink as they age, creating an uneven appearance.

LEDs offer a longer-life and lower maintenance costs in comparison to their predecessor metal halide blubs, which require electrical ballasts to operate. LEDs operate without ballasts, and are projected to last at least twice as long as a metal halide, resulting in lower maintenance costs and less bulb waste.

LEDs, however, are significantly more expensive than their predecessors, thus Facilities Services pursues retrofits only when the metal halides fade or burn out.

“We’re trying them in different places and different areas of campus, but retrofitting is complicated because we have a lot of old historic fixtures, including chandeliers and incandescent lighting,” said Sumit Ray, director of the engineering and utilities unit. “We have to test and try out various LEDs to ensure we are achieving the same look.”

LEDs can be found in various places around campus, including historic Bond Chapel and in the pedestrian walkways across the Midway Plaisance.

“This is a great example of one of the many ways we are making our buildings and grounds more sustainable,” said Ilsa Flanagan, executive director, FS Sustainability. “And while it's great that energy efficiency saves us money, just as importantly it helps the University meet its climate commitment and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions 20 percent by 2025.”

But retrofitting old fixtures with new isn’t as easy as changing a light bulb. And Facilities Services works diligently to ensure any changes instituted on the main quadrangles, which contain 210 of the University’s 245 Oxford light poles, do not alter its historic appearance.

While Hickling conducted extensive research to find the right LED retrofit from various manufacturers, some of the success of LED pilot project on the main quadrangle can be attributed to old-fashioned footwork.

On two separate occasions, before dawn and after dusk, University Architect and Associate Vice President Steve Wiesenthal, Facilities Operations Executive Director Joel Schriever, and Hickling set out on foot to observe the new Oxford pole LEDs. The success of the program hung in the balance: if the glow from the LEDs appeared brighter, or softer, or with any color variance at all, the project could be at risk.

In the darkness, with temperatures below freezing, the group observed the glow of three different LEDs to determine which produced a glow similar to metal halide bulbs.

“Now we have solid, consistent color throughout the quad,” Hickling said.

“The look of the quad is just tremendous, especially at night. The physical appearance, the solid, consistent glow, is just superb.”

On the quad, the LEDs in the Oxford poles will save the University approximately $10,000 annually in energy costs. And expert electricians in the Operations group can focus their skills on more complicated lighting issues than changing out burned bulbs, Hickling said.

Moving forward, plans are in place to continue retrofitting the unique sconce lights that flank the entryways of main quadrangle buildings. In addition, Hickling’s group is also tackling a project to devise a proto-type retrofit for the ground lights, which illuminate the main quad buildings from the ground level.

-- By Amy Lee, communications strategy manager

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