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Rochester Hills company sees light in pandemic

Ashley Zlatopolsky
Special to The Detroit News

COVID-19 has created financial problems for many businesses, but a Rochester Hills-based company switched gears to help fight COVID-19 and now finds demand for his business.

Eric Hansel, founder and owner of Expert Lighting Group in Rochester Hills, said his company moved in March to focus on Ultraviolet C, or UV-C, lighting to help businesses fight the coronavirus when the pandemic first hit Michigan.

The virus initially had a negative effect on his business, said Hansel, who has four full-time employees and one independent consultant. The company is continuing to hire additional subcontract workers to keep up with demand, he said.

Rochester Hills-based Expert Lighting Group installs UV lighting to help fight coronavirus.

"Pivoting to ultraviolet, we felt was a necessary move for survival," Hansel said. "When the coronavirus hit, people stopped going into commercial buildings. We were seriously threatened by the virus because everyone was homebound. My pipeline of projects was depleted by about 85%. It was a fantastic pivot to move to ultraviolet."

UV-C is a type of ray given off by the sun that has the power to kill or inactivate bacteria from a variety of viruses and superbugs, including the coronavirus, Hansel said. 

The century-old technology has been used by federal buildings and hospitals for decades to disinfect surgical suites and other spaces, but the pandemic has sparked an interest for businesses that are now considering how to best filter their air to keep staff and customers safe, he said. 

As more companies sent employees home to work, the need for traditional lighting decreased, he said. Instead, Hansel said he noticed a growth in demand for new safety features to be installed in buildings, especially for businesses with high-traffic areas such as churches, banks and senior living facilities. 

The growing interest in UV-C lighting prompted Hansel to do some research.

“It’s a technology that’s been around for a long time,” he said, “but it hasn’t been introduced to the mainstream yet.”

Hansel compares UV-C lighting to LED lighting, which 15 years ago was a fairly new concept but now is used everywhere.

"We believe ultraviolet is something that has a benefit to every building across the country," he said. "It’s just a matter of communicating the benefits.”

How UVC lighting kills bacteria

The radiation from UV-C disinfects air, water and nonporous surfaces. UV-C lighting installations often look like regular light fixtures or smoke detectors, which Hansel said don’t interfere with day-to-day activities. Most people won’t even notice them, he said. But by letting building visitors know they exist, it helps create “peace of mind.”

Before COVID-19, many businesses used standard air filtering systems that Hansel said weren’t robust enough to capture virus particles. But UV-C lighting, he said, is an “effective, affordable and efficient measure to clean the air that has been proven.”

Hansel said UV-C lighting, when used in a senior living facility, may cost the business less than $15 per staff member and resident annually.

"A standard light fixture in a cubicle farm in an office building may cost $200 for materials and labor," he said. "You may need 100 of those for the large area. A UV light fixture in that same space may be $1,200 for materials and labor. You may need 20 of these for the large area."

Air recirculates through an HVAC system, passing by the UV-C light which deactivates anything airborne, he said. It’s a technology also used in water treatment to kill bacteria in places such as wastewater plants. While it’s not a foolproof plan to completely remove COVID-19 from a building, it can make a significant impact on air quality, he said. 

“We all have accepted the fact that if someone comes to work and they’ve got the flu, that two days later someone else in the office is going to get the flu,” Hansel said. “Using ultraviolet to disinfect the air and help eradicate viruses will work just as effectively in that scenario. Now, if you’ve got the flu and you sneeze on me from two feet away, is this going to stop me from getting the flu? No, probably not."

UV-C is effective against viruses and bacteria by damaging genetic material, said Beth Wallace, senior director, infection prevention and epidemiology at Beaumont Health.

"In the environment, such as patient rooms, it can’t replace the manual cleaning processes, only serve as an adjunct," she said. "It also only disinfects what it is actually able to contact, so surfaces in shadows are not disinfected."

UV-C is effective against the virus that causes COVID-19, but poses logistical challenges, Wallace said, adding that "for whole-room disinfection, the units are quite costly and add time to room turnover. The technology is evolving, and becoming more usable. An example of this is fixed UV-C lighting that can be in a closet or cabinet to disinfect items.”

Even with UV-C lighting installed, Hansel said people must follow CDC guidelines for handwashing, social distancing and mask-wearing.

Bringing UV-C lighting to Michigan businesses

Hansel and his team are currently installing UV-C lighting in exterior areas at 26 senior living facilities that make up NexCare Health Systems, a Michigan-based senior living centers group. When it is safe to do so, the plan is to also install UV-C lighting inside.

“Knowing that particles in the air can last a long time, and having something as effective as this means the world,” Hansel said of UV-C lighting’s impact on senior living spaces. Since bacteria carrying droplets can stay airborne for up to 45 minutes, “it could help save lives,” he said.

Mike Perry, CEO of NexCare, decided to use UV-C lighting to tamp down on COVID-19 issues hitting senior living areas.

“We're a health care company that had some pretty significant issues with the COVID-19 virus that we're continuing to battle today,” he said. “As a company, we decided to look at different patient-safety strategies going forward with this virus and perhaps future viruses.”

Part of the plan was installing UV-C lighting across the facilities, which can be used to help eradicate many types of airborne viruses that the elderly are especially susceptible to. “The population we serve is very vulnerable,” Perry said, “and we take that very seriously.”

Also in the works are UV-C lighting projects for bank brunches, a national food chain and a megachurch, although Hansel can’t yet reveal their names. Expert Lighting Group partners with Michigan vendors including UV Angel to secure their supplies, so everything is locally made and sourced. They’re also in talks with statewide universities to determine other industries to break into.

“There is a huge demand,” Hansel said. “I believe that 10 years from now, UV-C lighting in a commercial, industrial setting is going to be just as commonplace as LED lighting.” 

“Clean air has a lot of other advantages to it, you know, but at the moment,” he continues, “deactivating the coronavirus certainly is top of the list.”

Demand for UV-C lighting has helped Expert Lighting Group expand outside Michigan, Hansel said.

"We're quoting jobs outside of Michigan," he said. "We had a meeting with an association of cold storage facility operators and are talking to a few throughout the country. We just quoted a job in Hawaii a few weeks ago. People are reaching out to us from all over. It's just a matter of timing now (before we can install)."