Q&A: Helm eager to bring lighting ‘evangelism’ to Trane

Nov. 10, 2021
A self-professed ‘lighting geek,’ Trane’s new lighting strategy director Ellen Helm looks forward to applying lessons learned over the LED lighting transition to the company’s advances into building HVAC and lighting systems integration.

Personnel moves in the LED and solid-state lighting (SSL) sectors that LEDs Magazine serves often get noted internally, but it can be difficult to keep up with the comings and goings in our editorial content. LEDs Magazine and the Lighting conference & exhibition team had recently been in communication with Trane Technologies regarding participation during this year’s virtual Strategies in Light event, as well as some other opportunities. Now, some of you in our audience may be puzzling over our mention of Trane Technologies if you are more familiar with the organization as a provider of climate control or heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems. However, the company has for some time been moving into energy services and advanced building technologies that would naturally evolve into integration of multiple systems for the built environment.

These efforts have paved the way for Trane’s development of a holistic approach to indoor environmental quality (IEQ) and ultimately a play in smart buildings as well as lighting for health and wellbeing (what is commonly called human-centric lighting). In a happy coincidence, we realized that the former director of product marketing for the Appleton LED lighting group at Emerson, Ellen Helm, just stepped into the role of director of lighting strategy at Trane. We wondered how Helm’s prior experience establishing Appleton’s SSL products as robust, energy-saving alternatives to conventional light sources that provide quality illumination in harsh and hazardous environments would translate to this still-growing crossover market space and sought out an interview.

LEDs Magazine: To start, let’s get some information on your recent background at Appleton, Emerson’s hazardous and industrial lighting division, and experience before heading over to work at Trane Technologies.

Ellen Helm: Two years ago, I took on a larger role at Emerson as director of product management for all of Appleton’s electrical & construction materials (ECM). That meant I didn’t get to do as much pure lighting as I had done since coming onboard. The lighting strategy at Appleton was set up nicely, so I refocused my attention on our enclosures and controls line, panelboards and motor controls, and also worked on the connected lighting product line that Appleton just launched. I had to stop being the “lighting geek” and transfer that to someone else.

And I missed it, so that’s part of the whole Trane conversation. I love lighting. I’m one of those evangelists people about lighting!

LEDs: Well, I read your posts on LinkedIn, too, and I’ve seen that you’ve often had a lot of things to say about different [lighting] techniques or products that are coming out and applications. So what prompted your move to Trane Technologies as director of lighting strategy?

EH: I loved what I did at Appleton. I started there in 2014. They had decided to grow an LED lighting business organically, from a base that was almost entirely high-intensity discharge and fluorescent. They had kind of missed the transition, but they weren’t alone. Some of the lighting companies didn’t see the revolution that was coming. When I joined Appleton, we had two LED products, we didn’t have a portfolio. Emerson had just put a new president in place who moved over an amazing VP of engineering from another business unit. They put me in place and we started building out a team. We developed an entire line of hazardous location products that are — I still think even though I’m not there — the best on the market. We were trying to tackle what makes good lighting.

In 2014, some of the available LED lighting was horrific: It was spotlighting on the ground, lots of bright spots, dark spots, and many of the LED products that were available weren’t meeting lifetime claims. Manufacturers and end users alike were trying to understand what L70 meant. I came into it at the right time and became an evangelist for what good lighting is, and what we need to do for our customers. I had refinery guys coming to me and saying, “You’re telling me that this light fixture is equivalent, but it’s not. It’s not working. We’re getting dark spots and it’s unsafe.” We worked with those customers to define what good lighting looks like. What does it mean? How do we make you safer? How do you not over-illuminate? Because, of course, the refineries look like Christmas trees lit up 24 hours a day. In 2019, I co-authored a paper for PCIC [IEEE IAS Petroleum and Chemical Industry Committee] on how to not over-light — how we look at equivalency with TM-12-12 [Spectral Effects of Lighting on Visual Performance at Mesopic Light Levels] — and we provided case studies and strategies for re-evaluating light levels with LED.

So I loved it. It was great fun. We developed great products. I had no intention of leaving. When Trane called, my first response was, “Why would I go to Trane?” I’m a lighting person. But I quickly learned about Trane’s focus on indoor environmental quality through air temperature, air quality, acoustics, and lighting — together in what we call Wellsphere, a holistic approach to give customers the best possible spaces. When you start thinking about that from a lighting perspective, it all makes sense. It really to me is about how we make these environments safer and more comfortable.

I started thinking about what really excites me about lighting I’m a huge Mariana Figueiro fan [formerly of the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute]. I love to watch her and learn about the studies she’s doing on circadian lighting, and how her research is helping Alzheimer’s patients, and how good lighting can help kids. I love the stories about how lighting is impacting our world; for example, in horticultural lighting with indoor agriculture. My daughter lives in Milwaukee and talks about the lack of fresh produce in cities. How do we help so that the inner cities have an abundance of fresh foods? What can we do with indoor Ag? And Trane, as it turns out, is involved in all of that. Trane has relationships with thousands and thousands of building owners. They’re talking to them about their HVAC and their indoor air quality to start. But why can’t we talk about lighting in that same conversation?

Why aren’t we integrating HVAC and lighting controls? We know we can save a ton more energy if we integrate HVAC and lighting controls. I can have sensors that track how many people are in a conference room, say; and if there’s not a lot of people there, I can not only do something about the lighting, but I can give a signal to my HVAC system at the same time to make adjustments. We can significantly impact energy savings. If you look at the US Department of Energy studies, we’re not there — we’re not doing enough of that yet. So here I go again! It’s a good chance for me to be an evangelist and talk about what we can do next, what we can do better. It’s just the typical lighting industry thing, with those of us who like to constantly be pushing the next envelope and the next thing to make it better.

LEDs: I think it’s really interesting, especially what you said about Now I feel like I might riff on a new question, but you mentioned watching how the research through the original Lighting Research Center and Mariana Figueiro’s team has grown; and now as we know, most of those people that were studying lighting for health and wellbeing have moved to the Mount Sinai Center. Is there any other research going on right now that you’re really pumped about, that you are tracking to see how Trane can become involved?

EH: I follow as much of the research as I can! A few years back, I met with both the LRC group as well as LESA, the Center for Lighting Enabled Systems & Applications lab at RPI. Now, with the split in research center affiliations, the health work research is really interesting, especially for Trane’s K12 and hospital business. LESA is also doing a lot of the smart building research on HVAC and lighting integration. It’s not something I personally followed before coming to Trane, but those are some of the research activities that I’ll look into more now.

LEDs: So just to be clear, you’re referencing the new EBESS Institute that RPI has launched with regard to energy efficiency and smart buildings?

EH: Yes. I just noticed an article about some of their research grants on efficient buildings and building automation. Of course, that’s an important conversation for me how do we make the HVAC and lighting integration seamless and easy and more effective? That’s one of the areas I’ll be looking at in the next couple weeks to get smarter.

LEDs: Well, I think you already have a good foundation for that... You have a lot of lighting career experience, so how has that directed your path through the building and lighting systems & technology sector? Were there any particular events, or opportunities, that steered you toward the LED lighting side of things aside from when you mentioned you came to Appleton originally?

EH: So my career is a pretty winding road…

LEDs: I think those are the best kind.

EH: Yeah, this is something else that spoke to my heart at Trane. They had an article on their website about “re-internships” that support women re-entering the workforce, something I know well. I have an electrical engineering degree. I went to work in aerospace when I got out of college as an engineer and got my MBA, and I worked for a panel instrument and test equipment company for a while. I was running their new product development group which encompassed engineering, product management, and marketing communications. And my career was going, I was really after it. Then I had my first child. I was working 5060 hours a week and traveling internationally. This was back when there was no work from home or job sharing; it was all or nothing. I moved to a part-time job as a strategic advisor for a couple of years. I had two more kids, and I just couldn’t make it work.

My husband is also a professional and we were struggling to figure out the balance, so I stepped out of the workforce for nine years and I did mom things. I volunteered with PTA and Scouts and sold Pampered Chef and did all kinds of things. When my youngest was in first grade, I was approached by a man who owned his own business helping US companies source Asian products. He had two foundries in China that he worked with on castings, but he didn’t have anyone electrical. So he said, “How would you like to come work whatever hours you want?” He was five minutes from my house. “Come and go as you please and help me source electrical.”

The first thing we got into was sourcing switching power supplies, and I was involved with pairing up Inventronics and Thomas Research Products. Of course, in the midst of that, Hubbell bought TRP and that became a really big deal. In the process, I learned a lot about LED drivers, which is the heart of the luminaire.

That’s what started me. I remember learning about LED drivers how they work, what some of the problems were. That got me going in lighting, and that’s how I got recruited into Appleton. It was really kind of a fluke. The guy that owned this business played tennis with my sister-in-law, and found out that there was this stay-at-home mom that was looking to get back into the workforce… You know, things happen for very different reasons and in unique ways. I was open to a new challenge and away we went.

LEDs: That’s real on-the-ground networking! Not looking through LinkedIn profiles and trying to find a good match.

EH: Yeah. It’s been a really good ride, and I am a relationship builder. I like people. I don’t believe in networking on just LinkedIn. With this role now, I’ll get to do even more of that, because we need to have a lot of conversations about how we do HVAC/lighting integration, and how we get people using controls and thinking about how to do things better, so it all ties together.

I initially wasn’t sure this was the right role for me. I talked to a mentor of mine and said, “This isn’t the job that I was thinking would be my next role.” My next role was likely a VP of marketing role at Appleton or something along those lines not going to work for an HVAC/energy company, but it’s a new challenge. It lit up all of my hot buttons. It just sounded so cool! I was so excited about it that I had to go for it.

LEDs: It seems like you are a person that considers the fact that there might be an out-of-the-box path. How will that impact your role?

EH: My predecessor, Kandice Cohen [now director of electrification heat, and previously featured in LEDs Magazine Top 40 Under 40], and Doug White [lighting solutions manager] set up a great foundation and go-to-market business model for lighting solutions at Trane. Trane is working with some of the top lighting companies in the world to provide solutions. Now my job is to continue to scale the business, working with the rest of the organization. In the beginning I’ll be doing what I’ve always done a lot of relationship building, lighting education, and coaching people on what good lighting looks like and how we help customers.

Of course, I’m only a few weeks into the new role. My 30-60-90 is all about learning the Trane business. This is a completely different business for me with a lot of talented people that I need to get to know and learn from. There are new industry stakeholders and customer verticals to learn, as well.

I’m spending a lot of time getting out and trying to meet people. Add to that, we’re still in a pandemic and not traveling much, so I’m doing it all virtually, which can be a bit challenging.

LEDs: You are very well set up, though, to take what you’ve done within the lighting industry networking in terms of talking to people, getting to their root of their problem, and things like that probably is going to be an enormous part of making that message about the HVAC and lighting systems integration and helping to push progress forward with better buildings, smart buildings, connected campuses. It all is coming down to how do we improve these indoor environments for the qualities that people need to be safe and healthy, while supporting productivity and managing the burden of our environmental demands. So I think you’re in a good spot to do that.

EH: It’s a great time for it! You look at any Fortune 100 company and what are you going to see in their annual report? They’re talking about sustainability. Everyone cares about sustainability right now. Everyone cares about safe and productive workspaces. There’s a lot of focus on schools, too, and how to make schools healthier and better for our kids. There’s so much that we can do, and the culture at Trane is really open to letting people go do new things to make a difference. I’m super excited about it.

LEDs: So one last question, it’s just one that pops into my head because I really like it when people pose these kinds of questions: Totally off the work table, outside of the office, what sparks excitement in your off time?

EH: That’s easy. I’m all about my family. I have three amazing kids. My daughter is a physician assistant in Milwaukee. She’s getting married in January, and so we’re busy planning a wedding. My two boys are studying engineering in Milwaukee at Marquette, so they get to come home for visits. And I have (laying at my feet right now) a little “COVID puppy”-a one-year-old Labrador that I got during the pandemic. I’ve been married over 30 years. I’m all about time with my family. That’s my true passion.

Get to know our expert

ELLEN HELM is a lighting, electrical, and aerospace industry veteran with multi-faceted experience in electrical engineering, product management and development, marketing, and building customer relationships. Helm has written and presented educational materials for the electrical and lighting sectors, and worked for several years toward ramping up LEDification in the product line at Appleton. She is now director of lighting strategy at Trane Technologies. Helm hails from the Midwest and has a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering from Valparaiso University and a master’s of business administration from University of Colorado – Denver.

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Rensselaer’s LESA and CASE directors explain EBESS Institute objectives, and students demonstrate how a multi-disciplinary approach has the potential to transform the human experience in the built environment.

CARRIE MEADOWS is associate editor of LEDs Magazine, with 20 years’ experience in business-to-business publishing across technology markets including solid-state technology manufacturing, fiberoptic communications, machine vision, lasers and photonics, and LEDs and lighting.

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About the Author

Carrie Meadows | Editor-in-Chief, LEDs Magazine

Carrie Meadows has more than 20 years of experience in the publishing and media industry. She worked with the PennWell Technology Group for more than 17 years, having been part of the editorial staff at Solid State Technology, Microlithography World, Lightwave, Portable Design, CleanRooms, Laser Focus World, and Vision Systems Design before the group was acquired by current parent company Endeavor Business Media.

Meadows has received finalist recognition for LEDs Magazine in the FOLIO Eddie Awards, and has volunteered as a judge on several B2B editorial awards committees. She received a BA in English literature from Saint Anselm College, and earned thesis honors in the college's Geisel Library. Without the patience to sit down and write a book of her own, she has gladly undertaken the role of editor for the writings of friends and family.

Meadows enjoys living in the beautiful but sometimes unpredictable four seasons of the New England region, volunteering with an animal shelter, reading (of course), and walking with friends and extended "dog family" in her spare time.