[ October 8–11, 2019    McCormick Place    Chicago, IL USA ]

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LED light for food processing facility

We’ve covered a lot of ground in this interview series so far, delving into everything from thermal processing equipment to maintenance management software, and from how to find engineering talent to how to build great processor-supplier relationships. One area we haven’t explored yet is the physical environment in which the equipment, software, and people operate every day: the food processing facility.

To learn more about that environment, we spoke with Berwin Lewis, the general manager of industrial lighting supplier LED in Action. He explained how the right lighting can help processors tackle some of their biggest challenges, namely, food safety, energy efficiency, and downtime.

LED in Action has been around since 2009, but Lewis has been involved in different areas of the food and energy industries for much longer. Early in his career, he even managed a farm, growing hay for dairy cows and racehorses. He got his energy chops at a geothermal systems company that served residential consumers.

In 2008, Lewis co-founded Back to Earth Energy, which is the parent company of LED in Action. At first, the energy company specialized in heavy industrial markets, like steelmaking and coal mines. But in 2015, they saw that the food industry had an enormous need for better lighting, especially with new food safety regulations coming into play.

Food safety and compliance: It’s all about the CRI

When it comes to lighting, food processing facilities must meet a host of regulatory requirements, including those set by NSF International. The FDA and USDA also specify lighting requirements. For example, the USDA requires general food processing areas to have a CRI of 70, while food inspection areas must meet a CRI of 85.

What is this measurement and what implications does it have for food processing?

CRI stands for “color rendering index.” With values ranging from 0 to 100, the CRI is a measurement of how accurately a light source renders color in reference to the ideal light source, that is, the sun. True sunlight has a CRI of 100, meaning that it renders the entire color spectrum perfectly.

In the food industry, accurate color rendering is important for assuring the quality of a product. It’s also essential for compliance as it’s one of the things food safety inspectors look for. Lewis notes that compliance is the top reason food processors are making the switch from older metal halide lighting to LEDs.

“The CRI requirement for food inspection areas used to be in the high 70s, then it was 80, 83, and now 85,” Lewis says. “Obviously the trend is going higher because a higher CRI helps inspectors make a more accurate assessment.”

Lewis believes that in the future, the requirement will climb higher still, which is why all of the lights LED in Action supplies to the food industry are rated CRI 90 or higher (95 is currently the uppermost limit). “Let’s not just shoot for where the industry is right now, because history tells us it will change. Our goal is to make sure we (and our customers) stay ahead of the curve.”

Energy efficiency

Another reason LED lights have become more popular is their significant energy savings compared to traditional technologies. In the past, many plants switched from older high pressure sodium to metal halides to reduce power consumption. But, today, metal halide is the old technology, and not nearly as efficient as LEDs, which can result in energy savings of as much as 65-70%.

LEDs also provide increased lumen output (in layman’s terms, more light). As an example, Lewis says that you can usually replace a 400-watt metal halide bulb (which in reality consumes about 470 watts) with a 150-watt LED bulb. You’ll also get better light because of the higher CRI and greater lumen output.

The switch to more energy efficient lighting doesn’t just mean savings on your monthly electricity bill. In many jurisdictions, government programs provide rebates for using energy-efficient lighting. (If you’d like to calculate your potential rebate, use this handy calculator provided by LED in Action.)

“Government programs drive a lot of interest in LEDs,” Lewis says. “If companies can get a rebate, they’re highly motivated to make the switch. The bonus is that they also get better lighting and a safer environment to work in.”

Less downtime and lower labor costs

Compliance and energy efficiency may be the prime motivators for LED lighting, but the real value comes from the lower total cost of ownership. “You don’t usually think of getting an ROI on your lighting,” Lewis says. “But LEDs can pay for themselves in two years, sometimes even less.”

The sticker price for LEDs may be higher than for metal halides, but the total cost of ownership is significantly lower. This is because the lights last five to ten times longer, which means you have to change them less often. That cuts downtime and labor costs.

Fluorescent and metal halide lights both have a very steep degradation curve. Lewis explains: “After one year, you might be getting only 60% of the original light output; after two years, maybe only 40%. A typical light has no payback because you have to replace it so often. That means paying $60 for a new light bulb, $70 for the electrician, $250 for the lift, and so on. It adds up quickly.”

In contrast, with an LED you lose only about 2% over two years, and it takes about a decade for the light to degrade 20%. In a food processing facility, an LED bulb can easily last three to five years and still provide the required quality and quantity of light, rather than six months to one year for a fluorescent or metal halide bulb. “This is where your ROI becomes much more important than the upfront cost of the product,“ Lewis says.

The future of lighting: Helping to make people healthier

Lighting technology continues to advance, and Lewis identifies a couple of areas he expects to see develop in the next three to five years. The first is more human-centric lighting. “In a natural lighting situation, you have morning light, bright noonday light, and then evening light,” he says. “Our bodies are attuned to that. Especially for shift workers, it’s much healthier to have lighting that mimics natural light.”

He also thinks we’ll see more laser-type lights. “It’s just a guess, but lasers might be the next phase of lighting.”

Whatever that next phase is, you can be sure that Lewis and the rest of the team at LED in Action will be ready to help you select and install the best lighting at your food plant. Fortunately, you don’t have to wait until PROCESS EXPO 2019 to see what’s new. Check out their website for their latest lighting offerings specifically designed for food processing applications.