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New LED lights make recycling center showplace for commercial energy-saving projects

Terry Rice, operations manager at the Kandiyohi County Recycling Center, said the new LED lights have made the facility an “astoundingly different” work place. Tribune photo by Carolyn Lange

WILLMAR — For 21 years, workers at the Kandiyohi County Recycling Center sorted and baled materials in large rooms with overhead high-pressure sodium lights that were so dim they were said to cast an “orangish-pinkish” haze.

“It was kind of like working at dusk all the time,” said Terry Rice, operations manager at the center.

Jay Baker, who supervises the county’s recycling program, likened it to working in a “dungeon — orange and dingy.”

An energy-saving retrofit to new LED lights has changed that.

All 62 fixtures were replaced at the end of December with new LED light fixtures that dropped the energy load by 10,000 watts and created a bright work environment.

“You almost feel like you have to put on sunglasses,” said Rice. “It’s really a different place,” he said, searching for the right words to describe the change. “Astoundingly different.”

The $22,000 county investment, which was paired with a $3,000 rebate from the Willmar Municipal Utilities, will be paid back in about 5½ years with decreased energy usage.

On top of that, LED lamps have a much longer life than other bulbs, which means reduced replacement costs and reduced maintenance time and expense involved with using lifts and ladders to reach high ceilings. The lights are also at full brightness the instant they are turned on, unlike typical auditorium (or school gym) lights that take several minutes to warm up.

“It’s a whole lot better lighting and it’ll save us a whole lot of money,” said Baker. “We get a lot more light out of the money spent.”

Dave Opsahl, Willmar Municipal Utilities energy services representative, said he was initially cautious of promoting LED lighting because of the cost of purchasing new fixtures. But improvements in LED technology and more affordable costs in recent years have made it a solid program to support through the rebate program, he said.

The recycling center, which was the first LED rebate project the Willmar Municipal Utilities participated in, is now serving as a showcase and model for other commercial applications.

“It’s a good project. I hope it encourages other companies to take a look at it,” said Baker.

Willmar Municipal Utilities offers rebates as a way to encourage people to reduce their electrical loads. “Every kilowatt that we save, we don’t have to generate,” said Opsahl. “The cost of energy is going up. We have to start to use it more wisely.”  

Willmar Municipal Utilities provides a $300 rebate for every 1,000 watts saved in these types of projects. That can cut the investment cost of new lighting by about 15 percent, said Opsahl.

Last year, Willmar Municipal Utilities rebates totaled $65,000 for energy-saving lighting projects.

Kandiyohi County Power also provides rebates for its commercial customers. Last year their rebates totaled $21,000 for commercial lighting retrofits, said Dan Tepfer, energy management specialist with the cooperative.

Working with the city and a local supplier, Border States Electric, made the LED retrofit project an easy choice, said Larry Kleindl, Kandiyohi County Administrator.

“The lighting was difficult for the clients working there to see. That was a big factor,” Kleindl said. “By improving lighting we also had a cost-savings.”

The West Central Industries clients who spend their days inside the building sorting newspapers, magazines and different classifications of plastics for recycling, gave the new lights a thumbs up.

While walking through the shop on Friday, Rice asked the workers to share their opinions.

“We love it,” was shouted from several corners.  

“We can see better,” said one woman.

“Before we couldn’t see nothing,” said a young man.

Opsahl said he hopes other businesses will consider making a move like the county did to improve lighting and reduce energy costs if they get a financial nudge.

“We know there will be more of them, but it’s really nice for somebody to start,” he said. “We just encourage them to do it and we can do that with a rebate.”

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

(320) 894-9750