Sign Industry Dodges EPA’s Energy Star Standards

This article originally appeared as Wade Swormstedt’s editorial in the April 2005 issue of Signs of the Times magazine.

 “Virtually all of the Energy Star products, including exit signs, are commodities.”

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) initiated its Energy Star program in 1992. The voluntary program, which partners with more than 8,000 public and private organizations, reportedly saved U.S. businesses and residences more than $8 billion in energy costs in 2004.

More than 40 Energy Star qualified-product categories have been established. The Energy Star website states that product parameters include performance standards, not merely energy savings, and that “product performance can be maintained or enhanced with increased energy efficiency.” And these standards aren’t ramrodded down an industry’s throat.

The website states, “To develop Energy Star product specifications, EPA and DOE use a systematic process that relies on rigorous market, engineering and pollution-savings analyses, as well as input from industry stakeholders.” The website specifies a 15-step “specification development cycle.” Step 1 is “stakeholder notification”; 6 is “stakeholder meetings”; 8 is “post drafts and stakeholder comments to website” and 13 is “officially launch specification with industry and stakeholders.” What’s not to like?

So far, the “sign” industry has only been affected via ubiquitous exit signs (found in public buildings), which fall under a product-category headline of “lighting.” Now, 41 exit-sign companies put Energy Star labels on their products. Given the United States’ more than 100 million exit signs, “If all U.S. companies switched to Energy Star qualified exit signs, they would save $575 million in electricity costs. Exit signs that have earned the Energy Star operate on five watts or less per sign, compared to standard signs, which use as much as 40 watts per sign,” the website reports.

Powerful documentation. Enough so that, in Colorado, House Bill 05-1162, which recently passed, and is now in the state Senate, specifies Energy Star provisions. Within this energy bill, it states, “Illuminated exit signs shall have an input power demand of not more than five watts per illuminated face, measured in accordance with the U.S. EPA’s ‘Energy Star’ exit-sign program.”

Energy Star provisions, like the National Electrical Code (NEC), aren’t law, per se. However, evidence suggests municipalities may now routinely copy both.

Perhaps building on the success of the exit-sign provisions, Energy Star began examining the illuminated-sign industry last year. A consulting group hired to assess it produced an 11-page “scoping” report.

At this point, the International Sign Assn. ‘s (ISA) director of government relations, Thomas Claus, Esq., requested and later received this report. Subsequently, Claus spent hours with Peter Banwell, the team leader of sales and marketing for the Energy Star program. Claus had deep concerns: “They didn’t think signs were speech. They thought they were toasters.”

Indeed, virtually all of the Energy Star products, including exit signs, are commodities. They’re similar in size, materials, location, etc. Claus said Banwell seemed truly surprised that the scoping report would be contested. Claus feared that, had the process continued, all electric signs would have been limited to similar energy requirements. The EPA didn’t realize most on-premise signs are custom-made products comprising myriad materials, shapes, sizes, venues, etc.

Additionally, the scoping report referenced the NEC, but emphasized “The NEC provides only minimum standards; state or local governments may set more restrictive regulations.” Claus said the report rarely italicized any sources it cited. The added italics clearly suggested more restrictive standards as logical. Of course, the NEC doesn’t, in any way, suggest the best way to illuminate any sign. It merely says that, if you are doing such an installation, here’s how it needs to be done.

ISA issued a February 18 press release stating that the EPA had reconsidered creating illuminated-sign standards. It quotes Energy Star’s Ann Bailey: “Based on the results of this market research, ! have decided not to pursue an Energy Star label for commercial signs.”

I left a message for Bailey, and Banwell called me back the next day. He explained that the EPA originally wanted to look at commercial signs’ “energy-savings potential.” However, he said they found an industry so fragmented, “it wasn’t worth our time.”

As an analogy, Banwell cited dehumidifiers. In round numbers, the EPA could talk with 10 companies and capture 80% of the market. However, they found thousands of very small signmakers.

Similarly, dehumidifiers have only a few key components, with scant variation. However, in looking at the sign industry, the EPA found neon, LEDs, fluorescent, incandescent, HID, fiberoptic and other light sources.

For once, a federal-government entity listened to the tiny sign industry. Plusses and minuses were rationally analyzed, and logical decisions were made. For once, a preconceived notion wasn’t blindly pressed forward. A system of checks and balances actually worked.

Wade Swormstedt

Wade Swormstedt

Wade is Executive Director of the Foundation for the Advancement of the Sign Industry. Formerly he was Editor and Publisher of Signs of the Times magazine.

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