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Shedding Light on Retrofits

A lighting retrofit can reduce energy consumption, improve working conditions and make businesses more attractive to consumers. Here are some tips to help make your next retrofit more successful.

By Elizabeth Smyth

A lighting retrofit can reduce energy consumption, improve working conditions and make businesses more attractive to consumers. Here are some tips to help make your next retrofit more successful.

According to information published by the Energy Information Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Energy, nearly 82 percent of the 2.2 million pre-1980 commercial buildings in the U.S. are using the same lighting technology now that they have used for the past 30 years. This may have been an acceptable statistic 20 years ago, but the energy-saving options available today leave no excuses for clinging to antiquated technology. Here’s a basic primer on what you need to know when it comes to upgrading your client’s lighting system.

Establish the Objective

Modern lighting options cover far more than the simple choice between fluorescent and incandescent lamps. The controls, ballasts and even the fixtures themselves have evolved into highly specialized components, meaning you must fully understand your client’s objectives before upgrading out-of-date lighting systems.

For some clients, the utility bill is the bottom line; whatever fixture and lamp combination costs the least to install, operate and maintain is the default choice. A client’s facility may require light of a certain brightness or color quality. If this is your concern, then you will probably focus on lamp selection. Some clients are concerned with maintaining lumen output with a reduction in energy consumption, regardless of the cost. These people may look to expensive, high-end LED lamps that allow their facility to lower its carbon footprint, while also promoting their “greenness” and attracting more environmentally conscious consumers.

From there, you will need to determine if a lighting retrofit or relight is needed. It is essential to know the difference between these two industry-specific terms so that you understand what kind of service you are being quoted.

When a contractor quotes a relight, the quote is essentially for a new lighting system without regard to what is already in place. The contractor considers the needs of the facility in terms of lighting color or warmth, brightness or lumen output, and energy efficiency. Relight proposals favor efficiency and productivity over upfront cost. For facilities with fixtures already in place, relights can be expensive propositions. They are usually better suited to new buildings where the designs and specifications have yet to be finalized.

Existing facilities wishing to their lower utility costs are usually more interested in a lighting retrofit. As the name implies, retrofits merge new technology into existing systems. The simplest retrofit is the replacement of inefficient incandescent bulbs with efficient fluorescent or LED bulbs. These bulbs cost more than incandescents, however, the longevity of LEDs or fluorescent bulbs more than makes up for the initial purchase costs.

Modern fluorescent and LED bulbs are designed with standard bases so that these bulbs can be used in any ordinary light fixture. In some applications, however, switching from one type of bulb to another will require the replacement of the fixtures. This is a cost that should also be figured into the economy of the retrofit.

Learning the Specifics

Just as it’s vital to understand your client’s main objectives when approaching a retrofit or relight project, it’s important to understand the various characteristics of the lighting options on the market to ensure that you’re specifying the right product in the right place.

Projects focusing on cost savings will almost certainly begin with bulb replacements. The lamps are low-hanging fruit that translate into short payback periods. High-intensity discharge bulbs are extremely bright, but they are also extremely hot. This makes them unsuitable in many locations. They also use the most energy of any modern lighting option.

LED bulbs have phenomenal useful lifetimes, but the numbers can be deceiving. The output of the bulb degrades over time, and there is no real standardized method for measuring its useful life. It may still put out light after 100,000 hours of use, but the quality of that light will not be the same as it was at 50,000 hours of use. They are very small, and obtaining significant lumen output requires the use of multiple LEDs. Very bright LEDs can be quite expensive.

Fluorescent bulbs are designed with specific wavelength ranges in mind, and can be purchased to provide light in almost any spectrum desired. They last 10 times longer than incandescent bulbs but are not prohibitively expensive. They do, however, have two drawbacks. The first is that they are temperature sensitive. In cold temperatures, they take longer to come on and reach their full output. They also contain toxic materials, usually mercury, and can be problematic when a facility has large quantities to dispose of.PageBreak

Controlling Your Light

In addition to the lamps, lighting controls are often replaced in a lighting retrofit. The standard control used to be the basic on/off switch. When employees went into an area, they manually turned the light on. In the best case scenario, they turned the light off when they left that area, but many facility managers will tell you that’s wishful thinking.

Because of that, modern lighting controls are automated. In the most basic automated controls, fixtures are independently fitted with daylight sensors or occupancy detectors. When the sensor detects that someone is in the area, the light switches on; when motion in the area ceases, the light switches off after a defined period of time. Daylight sensors monitor the external light level rather than motion. As the sun sets and the area darkens, the sensor activates and turns on the light. When the daylight returns and the ambient light level rises, the sensor switches the light off again.

Independent fixture controls increase the efficiency of the lighting by ensuring that the light isn’t on when it might not be needed. The additional energy savings usually decrease the payback period of the retrofit.

Automated circuit-level controls are a more advanced control option. Instead of relying on motion detectors or external light sensors for every fixture, circuit-level controls connect the light fixtures in zones that you define. When a motion sensor detects a person entering a defined area, all of the lights in the defined zone come on. The lights stay on until the person is out of range of any motion detector in the zone. These controls aren’t as efficient as independent fixture controls, but they are usually seen as more convenient. We usually feel more comfortable in an entirely lit area rather than being surrounded by darkened rooms that are illuminated only when we enter them.

Smart lighting is the most complex and expensive control option, but it offers simultaneous control over every fixture in the facility. In a smart lighting system, every fixture has a sensor and is interconnected through a centralized control. The lights in one area may come on at 60 percent or 40 percent, based on the detection of motion in a different area where the lights are on at 100 percent. This allows workers in an otherwise dark warehouse to see all around them, with lighting at 100 percent intensity on directly overhead. The lights dim and brighten according to their movement from sensor to sensor. This is by far the most comforting option, but it is obviously also the most complex.

Getting Help

So, now that you have an explanation of the options, you’re an expert in lighting and able to instantly recognize the best options for your own facilities, right?

Well, that might be stretching it a bit. We discussed some of the efficiency and use considerations, but there are many more. In addition, there are also many rebates and tax incentives to consider. A lighting retrofit calculator can help estimate the savings that will be realized by a retrofit project, but the best course of action is to consult with a licensed CSLC professional.

The CSLC certification is the first—and currently only—sustainability certification for lighting professionals. Individuals with this certification are trained in energy calculations and lifecycle costs of various lighting technology. They know about the transportation and disposal requirements of lamps, which delivery systems can provide the highest lumens, and what types of control systems are best for a given application. They are even trained in productivity as it relates to lighting and in the environmental and societal impact of different lighting technology.

When it’s time to design a lighting retrofit at your facility, get the help you need from a licensed professional. That will give your project the brightest possible outcome.

Elizabeth Smyth is a media consultant specializing in sustainable business practices. She regularly writes for Precision Paragon, an energy-efficient commercial lighting manufactuer.