How to shrink your electric bill

Innovative skylights help small business owners reduce energy usage and increase sales.


(FSB Magazine) -- After years spent watching his electricity bills climb skyward, entrepreneur Bill Wygal finally joined the green movement. The owner of five Ace Hardware stores in Northern California (Bill@billsacehardware.com), Wygal last year found a way to reduce the amount of energy used in two of his locations by at least a third. His bright idea: employing mechanized skylights that attract the sun's rays from dawn to dusk with solar-powered rotating mirrors to illuminate the interiors of his stores.

Small-business owners nationwide are paying more each year to operate their air conditioners, heaters, and lights. As FSB went to press, the national average price of electricity for commercial customers was 9 cents a kilowatt-hour, up 25% from 2000. Moreover, power generation for business is responsible for 18% of CO2 emissions in the U.S., according to the Energy Information Administration.

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Ciralight skylights use mechanical mirrors to harvest sunlight.
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Ciralight founders Michael Basch (on right) and Jacque Stevens

Well-designed natural-lighting systems can help reduce energy consumption in commercial facilities, particularly single-floor manufacturing or retail spaces. "Maximizing the use of daylight is probably the single most important strategy to achieving energy reduction in the nation's buildings," says Abby Vogen Horn of the Energy Center of Wisconsin (ecw.org), a nonprofit research organization in Madison. Apart from slashing utility bills and helping the planet, the use of natural lighting in retail outlets may promote higher sales and improve the performance of office workers.

Wygal chose an innovative technology from Ciralight (ciralight.com), a startup based in Park City, Utah. From a distance Ciralight's SunTrackerOne looks like a standard skylight. But beneath its acrylic dome sits a metal axis connected to three tilted aluminum mirrors of varying sizes. Powered by electricity from a photovoltaic cell, the reflective panels are programmed to follow the sun's arc each day. Light harnessed at the top of the structure passes through a prismatic lens and bounds down the shaft to a diffuser lens, which spreads the soft white light across the room and eliminates glare. The system is most cost effective when installed in regions with low sun angles, as in the northern U.S., and where utility rates and incentives are high.

Ciralight claims that by enabling clients to turn off most lights for seven to 12 hours (depending on the location and time of year), its skylights can reduce monthly energy bills by 15% to 30%. Each unit costs up to five times more than a standard passive skylight but emits as much as nine times more light when the sun is at its lowest, according to the manufacturer.

A new way to cut your %!@# power bill

The SunTrackerOne is based on a device invented by Richard Dominguez, the father of Cira­light founder Jacque Stevens and a pioneer in the active skylight industry. Dominguez, now 78, had initially licensed his intellectual property to So-Luminaire, where Stevens was president for four years. But the company soon faced design and manufacturing problems, and in 2005 Stevens left with the rights to her father's technology and joined with Michael Basch, 69, a Federal Express executive. In 2006 the two launched Cira­light and developed the SunTrackerOne, a model with updated electronics and design.

Ciralight's U.S. competitors, which include Solar Tracking Skylights (solar-track.com) and Natural Lighting (daylighting.com), have developed their own active daylighting system designs. Their technology is similar to Ciralight's. So far this burgeoning market has allowed all three players to grow. In the past year Ciralight has installed its systems in seven countries. Major clients include Office Depot and Linens 'n Things.

Each 16-square-foot unit emits enough natural light to cover 400 square feet of floor space. A unit costs $1,500 for installation in a new building, or $2,500 to retrofit an existing facility. The system can also be synchronized with a building's electric lighting system for an additional $10,000. If the skylights are not providing sufficient light, this new feature will turn on some of the electric lighting to brighten up the room.

Wygal's hardware stores are in and around Martinez, Calif., 30 miles north of San Francisco. Until last year his monthly electric bill ranged from $2,000 to $6,000 at a single store. He chose Ciralight's skylights over more costly photovoltaic panels. After spending $60,000 a store to install SunTrackerOne arrays and link them up with the electrical lighting system at two locations, Wygal has seen his energy bills shrink by about a third, depending on the time of year. (And he did it without any subsidies.)

Because Ciralight's skylights generate less heat than electric lighting, Wygal also found himself running his cooling system less and saving an additional $500 each month. "We rarely have to run the air conditioning," he says. If energy savings from Wygal's two daylit locations continue at the same rate, he will see a full return on his investment by year five.

Wygal has also noticed more sales and smiles in his daylit stores. The two outlets consistently show higher average sales and lower employee turnover than his other three stores. Wygal speculates that the flow of natural light in his two daylit stores makes the atmosphere more pleasant to work and shop in, and his reasoning may not be far off. Several studies, including ones published by George Brainard of Thomas Jefferson University and Herman Miller, have found that a person's health, mental capacity, and mood can be improved by the presence of natural light. Heschong Mahone Group, a building-efficiency research and consulting firm based in Fair Oaks, Calif., reported that a major retail chain had experienced higher monthly sales in its daylit stores .

As more light is shed on the benefits of daylighting, experts expect the market for these products to keep expanding. Ciralight's ready. With sales nearing $1 million, its future is looking bright. Top of page

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer LIBOR Warning: Neither BBA Enterprises Limited, nor the BBA LIBOR Contributor Banks, nor Reuters, can be held liable for any irregularity or inaccuracy of BBA LIBOR. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.