Memphis’ Lumalier rides power of UV to disinfect, cut carbon

By , Daily Memphian Published: February 14, 2023 1:34 PM CT

All through the pandemic, more than a fringe benefit at Lumalier has been the icy-blue halo of ultraviolet light —germicidal energy — surrounding all the work areas, just beneath the ceiling.

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“We did not have one instance of COVID transmission here,” president David Skelton tells visitors, inviting them, even at the height of the scourge, to take their masks off and breathe the pristine air in the offices and the manufacturing area out back at 1931 Thomas Road in Northeast Memphis.

“This is a safe zone.”

Southland Manufacturing started 60 years ago on South Dudley Street as a lighting vendor for Kemmons Wilson’s Holiday Inn. Now Lumalier is bracing for an uptick in sales born of the pandemic and an unrelated rush to reduce carbon emissions.

Sales of Lumalier’s products — 20 or so UV-C disinfecting lamps and larger units that fit in HVAC units to purify the air in entire buildings — shot up more than 800% in the pandemic.

<strong>Ashley Shipley</strong>

Ashley Shipley

Skelton and his crew weathered that storm and now are preparing for what could be an even larger push as new sectors— big box stores, manufacturing plants and restaurants — prepare to invest in air-quality, many for the first time.

“The majority of our customers were usually hospitals and places where sterile conditions— air quality — was really important,” said Ashley Shipley, subject matter expert at Lumalier.

“We never did restaurants. We never did food manufacturing. We never did retail. All of those have come online since COVID,” Skelton said.

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At its core, it’s wavelengths and energy

Ultraviolet light is the light on the shortest end of the wavelength spectrum, somewhere in the range of 400 to 100 nanometers. The portion that kills germs — germicidal-UV or GUV — occupies the lowest rung, from 280 to 100 nanometers.

It has been used to sanitize for more than 100 years, including by Neils Finsen, the physician-scientist who won a Nobel Prize in 1903 for discovering that UV light disables the bacterium that causes tuberculosis.

Until the COVID pandemic, retailers and other companies outside of the health care industry weren’t super aware of air quality, says Troy Cowan, coordinator the International UV Association’s health care working group.

“The big guys, like Walmart, Costco and all those guys, I can certainly see them wanting to figure it out. They’re trying to keep their people and clientele safe.”

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No one knows when the next pathogen will hit. Outbreaks of bird flu meant tens of millions of chickens and turkeys had to be killed in the U.S. in 2022.

In the case of COVID, emerging variants require new vaccinations.

“The vaccines will always lag behind what the organism is doing. GUV does not have that lag because GUV attacks the reproductive system of the virus. It essentially gives the virus a vasectomy,” Cowan said.

Lumalier designs systems that disable viruses, molds and bacteria by zapping their DNA with ultraviolet light. In the case of COVID, it takes 750 microwatts per second.

“We actually can customize the amount of UV that we’re injecting into your HVAC system to give you a per-pass kill rate on the contaminants that concern you. We can do with great certainty. So, it’s not just one size fits all at all. It is what is your concern,” Skelton said.

While no one in the business is much interested in talking about COVID now, he said, the pandemic raised the awareness to the point that the EPA, CDC and the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) now endorse the use of GUV to control other outbreaks, including influenza, and cut carbon emissions.

“We just did Reagan and Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C. for influenza,” Skelton said. “They said, ‘We want 1100 microwatts crossed on everything because we want Influenza A controlled in all of our buildings.’”

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ASHRAE says companies that use GUV in their HVAC systems can save 15% to 20% on energy costs by reducing the buildup of mold and mildew that forces air handlers to work harder.

“When you’re talking decarbonization, GUV can also decrease use of chemical pesticides, cleaners to clean the floors, to disinfect the bathrooms,” Cowan said.

Shipley attended ASHRAE’s annual conference last week in Atlanta. The interest in ultraviolet light as a disinfectant and tool in decarbonization was higher than she’s ever seen. For instance, she said, a session in which ASHRAE discusses recommendations for a specifications handbook on UV use usually attracts 20-30 people.

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“This time, they had over 100 people there. You had heads of the Department of Energy, the head of FDA, EPA. They were all there. The head of Walmart was there,” she said.

“A lot of people are taking UV very seriously, and UV sales are going to skyrocket. In the next 10-20 years, UV is probably going to become if not a requirement, at least a best practice for the federal government. It will be codified,” Shipley said.

The new business is already on Lumalier’s doorstep.

“We’ve got one client that’s working on government contracts worth over $20 million. It’s a federal government project, so we’d be in every state,” Skelton said.

It and other projects are in the testing phase, which means Lumalier’s products have been installed and now are in the measurement-verification stage.

Lumalier has been designing and installing UV systems since the 1980s when the original lighting company diversified after its largest customer, Holiday Inn, moved out of town. 

Previous owners Charlie Dunn and son Chuck Dunn expanded it, making among the top four or five in the UV sphere in North and South America. Until the pandemic, sales were roughly $2 million.

Skelton, once one the Dunns’ largest customers, bought the business in 2004.

He’s seen business spikes before. 

“Back in the H1N1 outbreak, our phones rang. During Ebola, our phones rang and we sold millions of dollars of UV to outfit ambulances all the U.S.”

Before, business eventually returned to normal after every spike. Not so with COVID when the sales went straight up in a matter of weeks, about an 800% increase.

“We’re at about 500% now,” Skelton said. “That’s the thing with COVID. Sales went up and came back down but they didn’t go all the way back. We’re now like a $6 million or $8 million company.”

During the pandemic, Skelton sold a portion of the business to Chattanooga-based United Enertech Holdings, a move he says he had to make to cover $5 million in back orders.

“I don’t have any partners. I don’t have a line of credit. We built this business out of our pocket, just my wife and me.”

Six months after COVID hit, four of the five biggest companies had been purchased by conglomerates, he says.

“It was a bunch of people like me owning these businesses and doing $2 (million) to $5 million a year.”

The market now teems with competitors selling UV solutions, including bulb and filter kits available in hardware stores for home use.

As the popularity of UV increases, so will the need for oversight, Cowan says.

“We’re expecting to see more suspect technologies come on the market. We are actively pursuing the development of standards and specifications that people can start to use to figure out which units are good, which units are being produced by reputable manufacturers and which ones to avoid.”


Lumalier David Skelton Ashley Shipley Southland Manufacturing
Jane Roberts

Jane Roberts

Longtime journalist Jane Roberts is a Minnesotan by birth and a Memphian by choice. She's lived and reported in the city more than two decades. She covers business news and features for The Daily Memphian.


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