Lutron: A little romance, a lot of efficiency

When a  missile engineer named Joel Spira invented the solid-state dimmer in 1959 and formed a company called Lutron Electronics, he wasn’t selling energy efficiency. He was selling mood lighting and romance.

A Lutron magazine ad promised “exquisite lighting moods for every room in the house.” A mid-1960s dimmer was dubbed the Capri (!) and packaged to appear like a bottle of perfume.

Turn the lights down low” sang country-pop crooner Marty Robbins back in 1965, surely to Spira’s delight.

Today, Lutron is a lighting powerhouse and, while it still sells dimmers for the home, it has expanded to offer more than 19,000 products for homes and commercial buildings. Privately-held (and intensely private), Lutron is headquartered in a small town called Coopersburg, PA, where Spira, who is 85, still comes to work four days a week.

I met recently in Washington with Tom Ike, Lutron’s vice president for global sales, and Susan Hakkarainen, who is vice president of marketing and communications as well as Joel Spira’s daughter. They told me about Lutron’s history of innovation and commitment to quality, but they kept me in the dark about its business, declining to reveal its revenues, profits or even how many people work for the firm. They did say that Lutron is global in scale, selling in more than 100 countries and manufacturing in Mexico, China, St. Kitts and London, as well as in Pennsylvania and Ashland, Virginia.

Also, according to Tom Ike, Lutron has been growing by double digits, even during the recession and the deep slump in the housing and commercial real estate markets. It has never laid off workers during a downturn. “Our objective is 20% growth a year,” he said. That’s impressive.

So are the array of technologies that enable people to reduce their electricity costs and carbon footprint, sometimes by as much as 60%. Some are quite simple: If you are tired of hectoring your family members to turn the lights off when they leave a room, you can buy a Lutron’s Maestro wireless occupancy sensor for as little as $27 that will turn lights on automatically when you walk into a room, and turn them off when you leave. Save energy and aggravation too!

Lutron still sells lots of dimmers for the home “That was the foundation that the company was built on,” Susan says. The dimmers work with halogen and incandescent bulbs, dimmable CFLs and dimmable LEDs, the smallest but fastest growing segment of the market. Style still matters; dimmers come in 27 colors. Dimming the lights, not surprisingly, saves energy as well as changing the mood in a room.

Other products designed for the home can turn out all the lights with a single switch, control lighting from a smart phone, wirelessly raise and lower shades, automatically dim lights when the sun comes out, and eliminate waste from appliances that are plugged in but not in use. Many are wireless and can be installed without professional help, the company says.

According to Tom Ike, about half of the company’s business still comes from the residential market and about half comes from commercial buildings. Commercial products are considerably more sophisticated, controlling a single room or an entire campus of buildings. Lutron products help illuminate such iconic buildings as the Empire State Building and Statue of Liberty in New York, Windsor Castle in the UK and the Bank of China’s headquarters in Beijing.

I have no idea whether Luton’s products are better or worse than competitors, but I’m writing about the company to make a broader point: We remain wasteful society and, while it’s true that US carbon emissions are dropping, they could be much lower. Every light that’s left on needlessly adds to emissions. According to the Energy Information Administration, lighting in residential and commercial buildings accounts for about 18% of the electricity consumed by those buildings and about 13% of total U.S. electricity consumption.

And, if the economic and environmental case for turning down the lights aren’t convincing, there’s always this from Lauryn Hill or this from Josh Turner or this from Bob Marley. Just sayin’.

As Joel Spira recently told his local newspaper, The Morning Call: “Some day I’ll be gone, but dimmers will be with us forever.”

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