INTERCOURSE, Pa. - Developments in light-emitting diode (LED) technology have allowed a company headquartered in the heart of Lancaster County's Amish community to create an alternative to traditional buggy headlights - a light that lasts about 16 times longer than incandescent headlights.
"It's really not about us embracing the new technology and going wild with it as (much as) it is for us to employ the technology in such a way that it's practical," said Elam S. Beiler, an Amishman and co-owner of SunLine Solar Inc., the 10-employee firm headquartered in a converted barn in Intercourse.
Beiler started the company in 1994 after developing a hand-held device that tested the charge of buggy batteries. From there he branched out into selling the Amish solar panels to power their sewing machines, well pumps and medical equipment.
Pennsylvania state law requires horse-drawn buggies to be equipped with a pair of headlamps if used at night or in areas with low visibility. Incandescent lights only last six to eight hours, meaning the Amish must continually recharge the deep-cycle 12-volt batteries that power them.
Beiler's buggy lights can go about 100 hours between charges, and because there's less chance the lights will lose power after dark, they are also safer, he said.
The breakthrough came last year, when Lumileds Lighting LLC of San Jose, Calif., introduced the Luxeon V, which the company says boasts a fivefold increase in brightness compared to existing LED lamps.
The Luxeon V is now found in display spotlights, landscaping illumination, and accent lighting, and automobile manufacturers are experimenting with it for use in their own headlights, said Lumileds spokeswoman Fran Douros.
By bundling eight of the quarter-sized light cells inside a rectangular casing, along with the electronics needed to operate them, Beiler created the next generation of buggy headlight.
They're not cheap, running $125 apiece (compared to $50-$70 for the traditional style). But in just six months, SunLine has sold about 1,000 pairs, and several thousand sets of its $100-a-pair LED taillights.
About a third of their customers are in Pennsylvania, with the rest spread among larger Amish communities in Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky and smaller groups in Texas and Florida. Although not all of their sales are to the Amish, they target the sect through advertising in Amish publications, fliers, and word-of-mouth.
A small fraction of their sales are made at company headquarters, but the majority are distributed by mail, in Amish stores and through the network of buggy manufacturers.
SunLine also sells solar battery chargers, energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs, and stand-alone, solar-powered shed lights. For farmers who don't want to run a power line to a remote outbuilding, the self-contained lighting systems can be a godsend.
"All that we do is about independent living, off-the-grid and all that," said SunLine general manager Steve Mellinger, who is not Amish.
Despite their use of horse-powered transportation, their ban on television and their preference for a style of wide-brimmed hat that dates to the 16th century, the Amish do not prohibit the use of modern technology per se.
What's important to them is how those innovations might affect the health and cohesion of their own family and community, said sociologist Donald B. Kraybill, author of several books on the Amish.
"They do not have a negative opinion of technology. In other words, they are not Luddites that say technology is bad," said Kraybill, on the faculty of Elizabethtown and Messiah colleges. "They selectively use (it)."
Many of the country's 1,400 Amish communities, for example, sanction the use of in-line skates, chain saws or camping equipment. All maintain a long-standing prohibition against hooking up to the national power system, but many employ such stand-alone energy sources as solar panels and diesel-fueled generators.
Some Amish business people use telephones, electricity, and even Internet access at work, but it's generally better if those modern conveniences are owned by a non-Amish partner. And there's a distinction between using them at work, or in the barn, and having them inside their houses.
"The further (they) move away from home, the fewer restrictions," Kraybill said.
Combining solar power with efficient LED lighting represents "a huge leap of convenience" for the Amish, and has already taken hold in communities in Ohio and Illinois, said Kraybill.
Beiler jokes about taking the Space Shuttle to work, but pointedly downplays how his products may make life easier for the Amish, focusing instead on their safety features.
So far his church has approved of his business, but it's clear there are limits.
"Rebel," he said, "is my middle name. Just kidding."