Lighting Retrofit

Question: How many Harvard graduates does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: One. She just holds the light bulb and waits for the world to revolve around her.
Photo credit: NAVFAC via Flickr

Lighting retrofits are not only easy, but also offer some of the most attractive return on investment (ROI) opportunities in terms of operating capital. While considered the low-hanging fruit of the energy efficiency market, utility incentives often exist to further encourage efficiency upgrades. Lighting is responsible for approximately 25% of the electricity used in buildings, whether they are residential or commercial. In most existing buildings, lighting components, such as lamps (bulbs) and ballasts, are outdated.

Commercial Lighting Retrofit

For commercial real estate owners and operators, capital expenditures (CapEx) on a retrofit of older model lighting technology can often yield a return on investment (ROI) far exceeding typical stock market returns.

A lighting retrofit often starts with an audit, similar to a Level 1 or Level 2 whole building energy audit. A typical commercial lighting audit involves a walking tour of the facility with the lighting auditor/retrofit specialist taking notes and measurements, and requesting at least one full year of electricity bills/usage to be provided by the building owner. This type of audit information is typically required where a building owner wants to participate in federal, state or local incentive programs or programs sponsored by a local utility. While lighting components (lamps and ballasts) will certainly be considered during the audit, the auditor should also request details on building hours of operation. An experienced auditor will also take notes for suggestions for improvements to a building's lighting controls or fixtures, if they can be reasonably improved.

Lighting auditors typically apply "Hours of Use" baselines for different types of buildings and/or businesses when estimating savings from improvements to lighting or mechanical systems. For instance, a hospital may have a Lighting Hours baseline of 7,674 hours per year (21.02 hours per day), whereas a sports arena/stadium may have a significantly lower Lighting Hours baseline of 1,954 hours per year (5.35 hours per day), presumably because it is only in full operation a few days per week during games, etc.

To find incentive programs in your area, or for an expansive list of national, state and local energy incentive programs, visit

Fluorescent vs. HID Lighting

Owners with inefficient High Intensity Discharge (HID) lighting, such as high pressure sodium, metal halide or mercury vapor technology, are excellent candidates for lighting upgrades. By upgrading these inefficient lighting technologies to contemporary fluorescent lighting, such as T8 or T5HO (High Output), buildings can use approximately 50% less energy, while maintaining a lumen output that is equal to or greater than that produced by the HID fixtures they were using before. Furthermore, energy savings can be enhanced when considering the cooler operation of the fluorescent fixtures and/or the introduction of lighting controls or occupancy sensors.

T8 and T5HO lighting are available with high Color Rendering Index (CRI) lamps which increases the ability to render colors accurately. CRI is a scale that represents a lamp's ability to render color on a scale of 1-100, with 100 being full color rendition. T8 and T5HO lamps achieve a CRI of 80-90, whereas most HID lamps range from 3-80. In warehouse settings, such as a Costco, Home Depot, or other big box retail, upgraded HID lighting can also be helpful for sales as more full colors of products on display are visible, increasing appeal of the products, while reducing customer eye fatigue/increasing comfort.

T12 Lighting Phase Out

Building owners should not delay upgrading T12 fixtures with magnetic ballasts. By doing so, facilities owners can expect energy savings of up to 45% and simple paybacks of 1-3 years.

Owners who delay retrofitting past July 2012 may not only find themselves suffering from inefficiency, but also paying a premium for replacement bulbs and ballasts due to supply constraints. The U.S. Department of Energy began its mandatory domestic manufacturing phase out of magnetic ballasts for T12 lamps for commercial and industrial applications. Instead, manufacturing technology and production will be focused on T8 and T5 systems.

The mandatory phase out is increasing local and utility-based support for upgrading energy efficient lighting systems. Utility programs use financial incentives to help real estate owners and operators offset the costs of purchasing and installing new, whole building T8 and T5 fluorescent systems. In some cases, utilities will pay up to 50% of the installed cost (including labor) for qualifying T12 replacement and retrofit projects. Utilities will typically NOT support partial retrofits and/or one-off fixtures.

Certain T12 fixtures will continue to be manufactured, including T12 ballasts that are designed to dim fixtures by greater than 50% of their full light output, those designed to support 8' high-output fixtures designed for outdoor advertising and those that are labeled for use in residential properties.

Residential Lighting Retrofit

In residential settings, by making relatively inexpensive changes to lighting, homeowners can realize significant savings. For instance, because incandescent bulbs waste approximately 90% of their energy used to heat, by replacing incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs, homeowners can realize quick savings and pay for themselves in approximately 1 year. Compact fluorescent bulb technology has improved considerably and can last up to 10x as long as incandescents. If you live in a warm climate, by swapping out your CFLs, you may also reduce your air conditioning costs. On August 23, 2012, Consumer Reports released a study, which found that 90% of Americans have replaced incandescent lighting with energy efficient lighting, including CFLs and LEDs.

However, Consumer Reports also found that nearly 75% of consumers have purchased CFLs, making them much more popular than LEDs. Similarly, Precision Paragon found that 84.3% of energy efficient lighting professionals believed that they will predominantly use linear fluorescent lighting for relighting projects in 2012, while 10.3% will predominantly use light emitting diodes (LEDs).

The main reason that CFLs are more popular than LEDs is the price. Consumer Reports found many good CFLs that range from $1.25 to $18, while LEDs ranged from $25 to $60. While the upfront cost is a barrier to LEDs, the report found that even the $25 LED model lasts 75% longer than an incandescent and can save $130 over it's 23 year lifetime. In comparison, a CFL saves about $60 over its lifetime.

However, LEDs are predicted to decrease in price over the next decade, which could make them more competitive with CFLs. According to Pike Research's study, LEDs are expected to displace more than 52% of the global market for lamps in commercial buildings by 2021, thanks to decreasing prices and improving efficiencies.

4 Ways to Avoid Common Efficient Lighting Problems

Sometimes, CFLs and LEDs get a bad rap because certain models can glow in odd colors or appear too bright or dim. Consumer Reports gave tips for avoiding 4 common energy efficient lighting issues.

1. Avoid dim bulbs by purchasing ones with higher lumens. For example, a 60 Watt (W) incandescent bulb should be replaced with an energy saving lightbulb with at least 800 lumens.
2. Avoid weird light colors by choosing the right Kelvin (K) number - higher K numbers mean cooler colored light. Warm, incandescent light is about 2700 Kelvins.
3. Choose lighting with a higher CRI to avoid unflattering light.
4. Avoid early burnout by checking if the bulb works in the fixture you're using. If bulb does burn out early, bring it back to the manufacturer or retailer.


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