May 2000

Light the way

ORNL-inspired collaboration provides public housing with durable, efficient lighting

Collaboration among ORNL, Auburn University and several private companies literally is lighting the way for those who live in public housing projects. ORNL has played a major role in initiating a DOE project to develop energy efficient lighting systems that are resistant to vandalism and theft.

An ORNL-inspired collaboration is dispelling the darkness that plagues public housing.
The new lights are designed to replace original 1960s-vintage fixtures throughout the Chicago Housing Authority’s high-rise family housing. The old lights had service lives cut short by an extreme environment that included both the Windy-City weather and criminals, who prefer darkness over light in public areas.

“Age and exposure to the elements deteriorated many of the original incandescent fixtures,” says Bob Wendt of the Energy Division’s Buildings Technology Center. “In addition, the lights, even when they were operable, were subjected to theft and vandalism to put them out of service.”

Chicago temperatures can range from –30ºF to 105ºF. Aside from the weather, human insults visited upon the lights included assault by clubs, spray paint, gun shots and cigarette lighters. Bulbs also were frequently stolen.

For the residents of the housing projects, the lack of lighting amounted to a direct threat on their safety and security. What was needed in Chicago’s public housing was a weatherproof, vandalproof, low-maintenance and energy efficient light fixture.

The polycarbonate lens has stood up well under one of the more common vandal attacks—battering with a blunt instrument—and less well with another, in which holes are melted in them with a cigarette lighter.
Researchers in the Buildings Technology Center were aware of the Chicago Housing Authority’s lighting needs through other activities with the agency, and the center had been working with Auburn University’s Department of Industrial Design on another project. After getting the university and the housing agency together, Wendt arranged a subcontract for Auburn to develop a new, more robust light as a student design project.

From an initial selection of more than 50 design concepts, the Chicago authority, ORNL and the Auburn students and faculty narrowed the selection to three finalists. The winning design is a 13-inch-square fixture made of 16-gauge steel. It has slanted sides to reflect light and a polycarbonate lens. Two 18-watt compact fluorescent bulbs provide 20 percent more light than the original fixtures’ two 60-watt incandescent bulbs. Better yet, they last about 10 times longer, a noted advantage when maintenance budgets are tight to nonexistent.

The polycarbonate lens has stood up well under one of the more common vandal attacks—battering with a blunt instrument—and less well with another, in which holes are melted in them with a cigarette lighter. However, the design allows for optional flame-resistant features if they are required.

This design by Auburn students has proved read for the rigors of public housing.
During an initial field test of the lights in Chicago’s Robert Taylor homes this past winter, they held up well.

The housing officials and residents may have been most impressed with the lights’ performance. Although conventional incandescent lights could last up to 1,000 hours, they were often stolen or broken within days. The new, more durable fixtures would likely increase the service life and the fluorescent bulbs, with a push-in base, are a less desirable target for thieves, Wendt says. They are expected to last up to 10,000 hours.

“After we field tested the handful in the Robert Taylor Homes, the Chicago Housing Authority ordered 1,800 more to complete a total of 11 buildings, which will be installed this summer,” Wendt says.

The success of the collaboration drew the attention of Chicago media. The Chicago Tribune featured the lights and the partnership that created them in March, and a story about the project aired on the Cable News Network and other outlets shortly after that.

Lithonia Lighting is currently producing the fixtures for the Chicago Housing Authority. The Buildings Technology Center historically has worked with industries and universities to come up with new designs and technologies for buildings. Several projects are currently ongoing or in the works with universities, including historically black colleges and universities and minority educational institutions. These projects all have the aim of achieving increased energy efficiency.

Efficiency is a result with the Chicago project as well. A more pronounced benefit, however, is a better, safer and more secure environment for the residents of the public housing facilities.

“It says in the Bible that ‘The people that walk in darkness have seen a great light,’” Wendt says. “While not biblical in proportion, these lights are already improving the lives of people who were having to live in darkness.” —B.C.


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