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ETC helps California theatre go all LED

Sunnyvale Theater in California is benefitting from 80% savings in running costs following LED retrofit.

Not every theatre can go all LED, but Sunnyvale Theater in California has made the bold choice to do so. Thanks to a lot of careful research, the right conditions and the advanced features of ETC’s LED luminaires, the theatre’s new LED-only lighting system has been a major success.

The venue’s previous lighting system was installed in 1992, but after 20 years of service, the theatre had trouble with its control desk, transformers needed replacement and the power supply in its 140 dimmers no longer worked and couldn’t be serviced. Staff began looking at new solutions, and considered three different systems: conventional (tungsten) only; hybrid (both tungsten and LEDs); or all-LED. They worked with ETC dealer Musson Theatrical, got support from ETC representative Wunder Lighting and Controls, did cost analyses, tried out a lot of different equipment and assessed the needs of their theatre, in order to weigh the three systems against each other. They took the first step toward a new system by purchasing an ETC Ion lighting control desk, knowing it could handle any fixtures they chose.

After being impressed by a Source Four LED demonstration run by Musson, Sunnyvale Theater technical coordinator Bill Rupel convinced the city’s management and purchasing office to release extra funds to buy five Source Four LED units so his staff could experiment with them in typical production situations. “We worked them hard,” describes Rupel. “We used them as specials, for colour and black and white patterns, and we were popping lenses in them.” The staff had them set up side by side with conventional fixtures and saw that the ETC LED luminaires could be used all over the stage and in any position.

“We wanted to show the theatre staff that this technology was going to be bright enough and versatile enough,” says Dinna Myers, Musson’s director of sales and marketing, “and that it had the kind of longevity they needed for this kind of investment.”

Sunnyvale’s LED system

In the end, the staff at Sunnyvale decided that the LED system was a viable option for their lighting upgrade, choosing to install Source Four LEDs and Selador Desire D60 Lustr+ luminaires for front of house and on stage lighting, and 40 Selador Classic LED battens to illuminate the cyclorama from above and below. They also added ETC Sensor3 power control racks with ThruPower, which have both dimmer modules and relay modules. That way, if a visiting lighting designer wanted to use the conventional Source Four fixtures that the theatre keeps in stock, they could power both the tungsten and LED luminaires.

The previous connectors across the building were swapped for Edison connectors, to ensure that the fixtures would be plugged into the right circuits. “The benefits have far outweighed any downside,” says Rupel. “With this system, the possibilities are huge.”

The theatre has two resident companies and many outside groups that use the space. Every day there are two children’s shows in the morning, rehearsals throughout the day, and rehearsals and shows at night. That leaves the theatre staff with very little time to prep for each performance. Designers are further challenged because there is a rep plot that cannot be changed for different shows. With the LED-only rig, the lighting staff save a lot of time and has much more simplified programming and setup between shows, because they don’t have to swap out gels or hang and focus lamps. “No matter what the experience level is of the groups who come in, we can provide better customer service,” says Rupel. “Our customers come in and want to do a show in a short amount of time and they want it to look really good. I feel like we can do that better now.”

The new system has given a lot more colour flexibility to the venue. All the ETC LED luminaires feature the x7 Color System, which provides a nearly limitless range of coloured and white light by combining up to seven LED colours per luminaire, so lighting designers have been able to achieve looks they couldn’t with their previous system. “When someone wants green, you can light up the whole stage in green,” explains Rupel. “Once, our resident community theatre lighting designer Ed Hunter created a grey sky that I just kept staring at. It was this look of an overcast day from the front light, and it was just so grey. There was also a murder scene where we flooded the stage with red. You’d get this gasp when it hit, because you’re not used to seeing that much saturation from every angle.”

Cost savings

Despite the higher upfront cost of the fixtures, the theatre staff have calculated that installing only LED luminaires will save them a lot of money over time. They didn’t have to purchase two new transformers at a cost of £47,000, or pay electrical contractors to run more conduit and install more copper throughout the building. The venue no longer has to pay for lamp replacements, which cuts down on costs and waste going into landfills. The fixtures’ reduced maintenance saves them £600 per year. There is also reduced risk, because technicians aren’t up on ladders doing weekly fixture maintenance.

But the biggest savings come from the reduced power it takes to run the LEDs. The theatre has cut its energy expenditures by 80 per cent – a total of some £10,000 a year.

They also garnered an award of excellence from their California Parks and Recreation Society district, which recognised the move to an all LED rig as a ‘best practice’ for municipal venues. Since the installation, electrical company PG&E has approved a wide variety of ETC LED fixtures on their rebate list to help offset costs when retrofitting traditional tungsten theatrical fixtures.

“This is a landmark event, says Mike Wunder of Wunder Lighting and Controls, “because no theatrical fixture has ever been approved for a rebate and it’s also the first colour-changing LED to make the list.”

Open house

The theatre’s staff were so pleased with how the ETC luminaires have performed, that they held an open house to show them off. The presentation included sample performances of the types of shows that the theatre hosts – a dance performance, a singer, a scene from a play, and a rock n’ roll band – in order to demonstrate the luminaires’ vast capabilities. After the show, the rig was lowered and guests were invited to go on stage and see the luminaires up close. They were even allowed to control the lighting themselves, using the ETC iRFR app on an iPad.

“We used the installation to show the local entertainment technology community what they can do with ETC LEDs,” says Myers. “ETC LED fixtures really can dim like the traditional theatrical sources we’re used to. Designers will be satisfied with the colour shift, they won’t sacrifice intensity, and their lights are not going to flicker. This technology works in this application, and it’s time to embrace it.”