Take Five: Lighting designer sings the (praises of) blues

Rod Heller doesn’t really sing the blues; he sings their praises. With all the data emerging about how professionals perform under different colors of light, Heller recently discussed light-spectrum research at places like Harvard Medical School, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and the U.S. Department of Energy. Heller, a lighting designer for Energy Performance Lighting in McFarland, said the research is changing established beliefs about the impact of lighting on productive work.

Some believe that energy-efficient lighting is the low-hanging fruit of the green movement. I would imagine you think they are dead wrong. Why?
Lighting is changing so much, so fast, that nobody has a handle on it. The people who are doing the majority of lighting upgrades, they go in and they will get only 25% or 30% in energy savings. They don’t know lighting.

You should look at the ballast, you should look at the lamps, and you should look at the efficiency of the fixture. How much light are we getting out of it? Most fixtures are only about 60% efficient, and if you can get it up to 80%, 85%, or 90% efficiency, and if you are getting that much more light out of it, that means it takes much less energy to produce light.

Another thing, which to me is a mortal sin, is they don’t take into account what is being done under the lights. You’ve got to understand that with lighting in existing buildings, the vast majority of it was designed for a paper-based task. How many people work on paper now? The majority of work is done on a computer screen. With a computer screen, you want lower light levels so that you have greater contrast between the screen and your background. It’s actually easier to see the screen when you have lower [background] light levels.

The other thing that plays into this is light and human health. Ten years ago, there was the discovery of a new photoreceptor in the back of our eye, and it works off of light in the blue spectrum.

What have we learned about the kind of light that makes us either healthier or more productive, especially given the photoreceptor you’ve just mentioned?
What it comes down to is that 100 years ago, and really for the previous million years, we spent 95% of our time outside under blue sky. That is where we evolved. Only in the past 100 years have we been under light that is typically more in the yellow spectrum. Nobody thought anything of it because it was better than a whale-oil lamp. The only time most people think about lighting is when they flip the switch and it doesn’t come on.

What we’re learning and understanding now is that we need more blue in our light because of that photoreceptor. It works off of light in the blue spectrum. If you think about it, during the entire day, when we are outside, the sky is blue and we are under the blue sky all the time. That signals this photoreceptor that it should be suppressing melatonin, and it should be producing dopamine, serotonin, and cortisol, and that is when we’re most productive.

What I always tell people is the light we’re under most of the time is light that is more in the yellowish spectrum. If you think about it, that’s the same color as the sun when it’s either rising or setting. Well, we shouldn’t be working under light all day long when the sun is rising or setting. We evolved under the blue sky when we were out in the middle of the day.

What else have we learned from light-related research, especially the impact of the circadian rhythm?
The circadian rhythm is our internal body clock, and we’ve got a 24-hour cycle based on that – where we have dopamine, cortisol, and serotonin produced during the day and melatonin at night. What they are finding is that when that cycle gets disrupted, there generally are more health problems, such as with women who work third shift – the nurses. In the largest study ever done on 130,000 nurses who work third shift, they [the United Nations and the World Health Organization] found that women who work third shift for more than 20 years have a 60% higher chance of getting breast cancer.
Men who work third shift have a higher chance of prostate cancer, diabetes, and heart problems. Is it directly linked to lighting? We don’t know, but there is a disruption in the circadian rhythm, and there is evidence of more health problems. The research is ongoing, and the American Medical Association last month recognized light at night as a human health problem. We’re hoping that more dollars will go into research on these potential issues.

How do you expect this research to impact workstations?
We’re hoping to do more research on getting light from the blue spectrum to the human eye. Maybe desktops are illuminated, and the LEDs [light-emitting diodes] are playing more toward the human eye to deliver more blue light to the eyes without creating glare on the computer screen so that it’s still comfortable to view.

There is new technology that is actually kind of mind-boggling because if you think of a light bulb that everybody knows and is familiar with, that is going to go away. That is gone in the near future. That is not going to be gone because of government mandates. It’s going to be gone because of the new technology evolving. There are organic LEDs, which are a very thin carbon nanotube light source that are extremely interesting, and then there are light-emitting chemicals, or LECs, that you essentially can paint on a wall and that become a light source. It’s not only a light source, it actually could be your TV screen and computer monitor at the same time. It’s very versatile, and that is how the technology is evolving.

We’re trying to go step by step and identify how light affects the human body and what is the best light to use in a work environment during normal waking hours, versus our relaxing, wind-down hours in the evening.

How are manufacturers responding to the third shift lighting concern?
They don’t get it. The alarm has not rung. Put it this way, the attorneys haven’t found out about it yet.

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