Zoo gets the LEDs out

Annual show of 900,000 lights makes bright case for energy efficiency
by: JAIME VALDEZ, As event technical coordinator at the Oregon Zoo, Russell Guinn is in charge of the 900,000 lights that illuminate the holiday ZooLights festivities. More than half the lights are energy-efficient LEDs.

Nobody wants to see the Oregon Zoo's annual ZooLights at their best more than Russell Guinn. Not parents hoping to keep kids distracted for a while. Not the kids themselves.

Part of that is because Guinn is still a bit of a kid himself. But the easygoing 59-year-old also is fulfilling a mission as event technical coordinator at the Oregon Zoo.

He's the guy who puts the lights in ZooLights, which is expected to lure as many as 80,000 visitors during a five-week run that ends Dec. 31, weather be darned.

At the zoo's main entrance, fireworks fashioned from strings of bulbs bolt up a towering fir tree and explode in its branches. Inside, the outlines of beasts lurk along walking paths as the zoo train passes, bedecked in glowing shapes.

Throughout the zoo, no fewer than 900,000 individual lights are in use creating the vibrant, nocturnal wonderland. And thanks to technology - and Guinn's vigilance - more than half of the lights now are light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, replacing conventional incandescent bulbs that use many times more energy.

That fills Guinn and his conservation-minded colleagues at the zoo with plenty of holiday joy.

He says energy savings with the LEDs are hard to measure in dollar terms because of the zoo's vast and varied power usage. 'As big as we are, the rate can vary at time of day and how much you use,' he says.

But he offers some other numbers that make a pretty strong statement. 'On a regular incandescent C9,' he says, referring to the familiar, teardrop-shaped bulbs that homeowners would string up outside the house in days past, 'that's 18,000 watts of usage. On the LEDs, it's 144.'

That plays well at the zoo, where programs to limit and reuse everything from water to food waste to office paper are in place.

'I'm not looking at it as much from the money side as from the conservation/green side,' Guinn says. 'The large mission is conservation and not just conservation of animals, conservation of resources. We're looking to use as little energy as we can.'

'Whenever we can take steps like the low-energy lights, that's a win-win for us,' says Tony Vecchio, the zoo's director. 'It never ceases to amaze me. It just seems like doing the right thing environmentally ends up being the right thing as a business. This is another example.'

Lifespan balances out cost

For now, Guinn says, LEDs don't come cheap. A string of 50 incandescent lights might cost him $2.50, he says, while 35 LEDs could run three times as much.

'But then,' he says, 'they last forever.'

Guinn says the superiority of the LEDs only starts there. Incandescents are vulnerable to both rain and the predations of curious young fingers, which can disable an entire string of lights by pulling out one bulb. The LEDs are encased in virtually indestructible 'molded in' plastic that will neither break nor fade.

The old days of having to wonder if half of his lights will stay on at any given time are gone, he says. 'The LEDs are on all the time. If we see one or two lights out in a string, we won't worry about it because we've got so many out there.'

Guinn began working at the zoo in 1992, four years after ZooLights began. He was aware of LED technology but wasn't able to acquire the lights until 2000. 'I had read about them,' he says. 'LEDs had been around for years, but nobody had figured out how to make it work in 120 volts. When that happened, I jumped on it.

'I got them really cheap because they couldn't give them away. Nobody knew about them.'

Light guy makes a river, too

Sustainability issues aside, the more than 500,000 LEDs in the holiday displays have turned Guinn loose creatively.

'When you're doing this large of scale, it saves so much energy and so much time; it enables you to get better and better,' he says. 'I was limited on what I could put out there six years ago, I was using every outlet I could find. The ability to expand what we're doing made it a more exciting experience.'

'We have a river out on the concert lawn. We've got hippos and crocs in three dimensions. I dreamed about this, but I couldn't do it with incandescents,' he says. 'The power usage would've been astronomical.'

Plus, Guinn says, 'we didn't know how incredible these lights are to look at. We have trees covered in blue lights. People are just amazed at the color.'

His team still uses some incandescents because the LEDs are directional and difficult to position on the wire structures used to create animal silhouettes. As it happens, that's a good thing for some zoo residents.

When Guinn and his crew toil in their drafty workshop, the building's two resident cats can be counted on to get close to anyone working with the incandescents and the heat they generate.

'Skippy would sit on my lap,' Guinn says. 'She loved that. With the LEDs, she'll come up and she'll go away.

'We have to sacrifice some things.'

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When: 5 p.m. to

8 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5 p.m

to 8:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, through Dec. 31 (closed Dec. 24-25)

Where: Oregon Zoo, 4001 S.W. Canyon Road, 503-226-1561

Cost: $5.25-$8.25, free for children 2 and under