In his more than 15 years in the commercial lighting industry, Roger Buelow had never heard of the “Spiderman test.” It was 2004 and Buelow, vice president of Ohio-based Energy Focus, had just completed several months of rigorous testing for a new LED-based light fixture designed specifically for naval destroyer ships. Naval Sea Systems Command, the organization responsible for setting specifications for naval ships, had subjected the luminaire prototypes to a series of grueling assaults, and Buelow thought he'd seen it all—salt sprays to replicate rough seas; extreme temperature shifts to duplicate the heat of the equator and the cold of the North Pole and South Pole; impact with a 450-pound hammer to simulate missile fire; and intensive vibration to mimic other combat conditions. The fixtures were even tested to ensure low-electromagnetic interference, so as not to impede the Navy's weapons and radar systems.

The prototype—a hanging globe light that looks a bit like a jelly jar—was being installed on a destroyer for further feedback in November 2004, when it caught the attention of a Navy electrician. “This may not pass the Spiderman test,” he mused. Buelow soon discovered what the electrician meant. During long trips at sea, sailors, bored and looking for entertainment, have been known to traverse corridors by swinging from one fixture to the next. “The lights needed to be robust enough to handle that,” Buelow says.

Richard Borge

Turns out the lights are plenty robust. The U.S. Navy's Program Executive Office for Ships (PEO Ships)—the organization responsible for building and outfitting naval vessels—installed the prototypes for full-scale evaluation onboard three destroyers in 2007 and 2008. The trials have been a great success and PEO Ships anticipates qualifying the LED fixtures for widespread use later this year. “We've been doing incandescent lighting in the Navy for [many] years,” says Glen Sturtevant, director for science and technology for PEO Ships. “These [LED fixtures] are head and shoulders above the traditional lighting we've been installing.”

Energy Focus wasn't always in the business of developing new technology for the military. Originally founded in 1985 as Fiber-stars, the company built its reputation on fiber optic products and lighting for museums and retail applications. In 2000, the company began working with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency on an initiative to create high-efficiency distributed lighting that could better use optics to spread and focus light. The research resulted in a patented optic to reduce glare. By 2006, the company was collaborating with Sturtevant on the naval lights. Sturtevant says partnering with commercial companies like Energy Focus helps foster new applications for both the military and civilian marketplace. “If a product survives a Navy ship environment, it can survive any application ashore,” he says.

Energy Focus has since brought their advanced LED technology onto dry land. The design of the naval light has been reconfigured for commercial environments. The marine-grade electronic specifications were adjusted to make the units lighter and more affordable, and the Navy's specific color temperature requirements were altered, resulting in three new consumer products.

Energy Focus brought their Navy-tested technology to the commercially available LED DockLight (above) and the LED LandScape outdoor fixtures (below). Energy Focus

Energy Focus

First there is the LED GlobeLight, which offers high-intensity lighting with, according to the manufacturer, 50,000 hours of lamp life and low power consumption. Corrosion resistant and vapor tight with a high-impact glass casing, these luminaires can survive in temperatures as low as minus 45 degrees Celsius, making them ideal for extreme settings such as walk-in freezers.

Energy Focus then added beam-forming optics to create two exterior lights. The LED DockLight model is an industrial fixture that can handle intense outdoor conditions, while the LED LandScape model—which was given a flat lens to deflect snow—provides an adjustable exterior up-light with 700- to 1,400-lumen output. The commercial versions use more common fasteners and mounting bolts, instead of the more expensive marine-grade stainless steel.

Energy Focus had help bringing these products to consumers. In 2007, Joseph Konrade of the Federal Energy Management Program of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) approached the company about collaborating on new applications. Konrade's job is to figure out ways that the DOE can test energy-saving and sustainable technologies in federal and civilian buildings in order to accelerate widespread adoption. “The one thing that we were hoping for was duplication of the [Energy Focus LED] technology in a number of other federal facilities,” explains Konrade.

He suggested testing the GlobeLight fixtures in the oversized freezer storage rooms at the Fort George G. Meade commissary in Maryland. The existing 100W gel-coated incandescent lamps and fixtures were replaced with 15W white LEDs, and the results were striking. Energy consumption was reduced by 85 percent and the new fixtures will provide five years of continuous use—whereas the incandescent lamps needed to be changed an average of eight times a year.

Today, Energy Focus is seeing their commercial products utilized by top companies throughout the United States. There are some major grocery store chains, like Albertsons, who are using the GlobeLight fixture in freezers and display cases. The LandScape model is being used to light government buildings in Cuyahoga County, Ohio. And FedEx recently selected DockLight as their luminaire of choice for all of their loading docks. “This is a great example of finding new applications for new lighting technology,” says the DOE's Konrade. “The lights perform very well.”

Sturtevant believes this is a model example of how the military and the lighting industry can work together to achieve better results. “We work in both directions,” he explains. “We not only foster research in the military, we look to see what's going on in industry that can be modified to our needs. We collaborate and create these strategic partnerships. We are interested in transferring products back into the commercial sector as much as we can.”

Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson is a Baltimore-based writer who writes frequently for design publications and is a contributing editor for ARCHITECTURAL LIGHTING's sister publication, ARCHITECT.