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How many lightbulbs does it take to change an industry?

James Tiernan, Energy & Environment Manager from ASRA associate member Unite Students poses this question…

Back in 2012 we at Unite Students, faced a challenge: lighting our 125 buildings accounted for a quarter of our energy and a third of all maintenance jobs.

Our lighting was ageing and inefficient. The time was right to look at a modern solution – LED lightbulbs.

The first thought was for the wellbeing and success of our 44,000 students. LED offers an improved light which is more reliable than fluorescent bulbs, meaning a more enjoyable experience in a sustainable environment.

In-house trials quickly confirmed big energy and carbon savings were indeed possible. But it had to be done right – not all LEDs are created equal.

To meet our students’ needs high-quality products from a reliable source are vital for reliability, quality and aftercare. 

We were also mindful of technical issues like flicker, uncomfortable blue-light levels and compatibility. For all these reasons we decided to partner with a reputable LED lighting manufacturer, rather than go down the contractor route. With this model we could be certain of both the quality of lighting and energy savings.  

The truth and the light

Our first challenge was to convince senior Unite decision-makers that LED was the right way to go.

To get this across we built a ‘concept demonstrator’ showcasing new LED lighting alongside existing 28W 2D fluorescents. The impact was obvious, and critical in getting Board approval to tender. 

Next we needed to know exactly what we were going to do, how much it would cost and precisely what the benefits would be. Impressed as they were, the Board wanted more detail before giving the project the green light.

We wanted new purpose-made LED light fittings to optimise layouts, improve controls and move to 100% self-test emergency lighting. We also wanted to add some extras into bedrooms, like a dimmer switch and colour-tuneable lamp.

We held a tender launch event for suppliers – including site visits – then shortlisted three to undertake detailed surveys of 13 properties. They also completed a full pilot installation; providing first-hand experience of working in our buildings and allowing us to assess their installation, project-management and product performance. 

Two years and £21m

Following a detailed proposal from all three, the project steering group selected Philips Lighting as our lighting partner in August 2013. They took detailed surveys of our entire estate, allowing for a detailed business case to the Board. The project was approved in April 2014, and £21m set aside for two years of work.

With a quarter of installations now complete, our approach – in-house trials, a concept-demonstrator for senior buy-in and a strong tender process – has made the project a resounding success. 

We’re on track to achieve planned energy savings of between 6,000 to 9,000 tonnes of CO2 per year. And the improved lighting is making a transformational change to the look and feel of our buildings for our students.

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