BRANDON — Like most auto dealers, Brandon Ford used to spend thousands of dollars each month on exterior lighting for its 8-acre dealership at U.S. 301 and Adamo Drive.
The utility bill seemed a necessary expense given the goal of selling cars after the sun goes down and the customer's desire to get an accurate rendering of the car's color.
So Brandon Ford relied on 20-year-old technology and used inefficient, hot-burning, intense metal halide lights that beamed down from more than 100 poles in its parking lots.
Now, after switching to new, high performance, fluorescent lighting with a long lifespan, the dealership saves thousands of dollars each month in electricity costs, lowers its kilowatt hour energy usage and indirectly removes 352 tons of carbon dioxide pollutants from the atmosphere each year.
Annually, the company expects to save more than $55,000 a year, not including additional maintenance savings due to the longevity of the lamps. It expects to recoup its investment in less than two years.
"We've had three months of billing to examine the installation and it was worth every penny," said Donnie Miller, fixed operations director for Brandon Ford. "What the consulting company that installed the retrofit said we would save is actually an understatement."
But Miller said the new system represents more than just a cost savings.
"Trying to do the right thing for the environment is important as well."
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In the snowy town of Manitowoc, Wis., Orion Energy Systems manufactures patented lighting-based energy management technology with a guarantee that energy savings will be substantial, without compromising quality or quantity of light.
"We look at it as a 'win-win,' " Orion spokesman Pete Barth said. "People think what we offer is too good to be true. Everyone benefits, and it's good for the environment. Our goal is to eradicate those high intensity discharge lights that were so popular in the '70s and '80s."
Brandon Ford appears to be leading the way for auto dealerships in the greater Tampa Bay area. The market for retrofits of this kind, which can be applied to malls, shopping centers and retail outlets, is exploding throughout the United States, according to Orion's integration partner, Southpoint Solutions.
Southpoint, which installed the Orion lighting system at Brandon Ford, calls it a "land grab" since almost every location of this kind has old energy eater HID lights.
"Florida is a target-rich environment and a huge opportunity to become aware of the new technology, programs and cost savings," Southpoint Solutions energy consultant Chip Dopman said. "Dealerships can look at a recurring monthly bill of up to $10,000 a month, and they accept it as the cost of doing business.
"We can show them energy savings that, in some cases, are up to 70 percent."
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Southpoint Solutions changed all the exterior light fixtures at Brandon Ford in about three weeks. In doing so, the company conducted several major advance tests to ensure that each fixture on the lot was working at maximum capacity at the predicted cost savings.
"Our meters can graphically show all the output. We don't just ask clients to take our word for it," Dopman said.
Generally, utilities look to save energy on peak demand during the day. Brandon Ford received no rebate for this project from TECO Electric because the lights did not meet the qualification that they remain on all day and night. Nor did the state or federal government offer any tax incentives.
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The dealership is a voluntary opt-in member of Ford's Go Green Dealership Sustainability Program. In 2012, it opted to change all the indoor lighting in the service department to the Orion energy efficient, T-type fluorescents with different fixtures, and TECO awarded a rebate.
Miller says the fluorescents significantly improved the quality of lighting for technicians in each service bay. Brandon Ford also installed two electric charging stations on the premises for customers with all-electric plug-in vehicles and plug-in hybrids.
For 2013, Miller plans to reinvest the exterior light savings into other green initiatives around the 20-year-old dealership, including changing the office and showroom light fixtures to high efficiency fluorescent lighting, similar to the type used outside.
"Cars come in complex colors now and these new outdoor lights provide a much better environment for sales. This will all become important to our customer when the green evolution continues and people become more educated about the impact to the environment."