Considerations for Planning an LED Lighting Retrofit

Credit: Adam Daley-Cree

Lighting can be an easy route to cost and energy savings. Reducing the amount of wattage used correspondingly reduces your utility bill. Maintenance costs can also be decreased with the installation of efficient lighting.

“Retrofits come and go with the cost of energy,” observes Bill O’Connell, technical sales manager for Ledvance LLC. With the prices of LEDs falling, it’s more affordable to upgrade than it was even two to three years ago. “It makes sense.”

Also driving retrofits are local mandates, such as one in Pennsylvania (PA Act 120) that requires utilities to produce the same level of energy as in 2009; incentives offered by utility companies, such as New York City’s ConEd’s incentives for peak demand in an effort to remove a nuclear reactor; or California’s incentives based on a new power plant; and a corporate focus on “LEED, Energy Star, and being green,” O’Connell says. “In the past eight to 10 years, the focus of commercial spaces has been on carbon emissions.”

There are many benefits to doing a retrofit. O’Connell lists a few: save energy, reduce the load on the air conditioner (due to less heat), and working toward LEED can impact the lease or rent.

You can save the most by investing the most, he says—as much as 60 to 70%—by moving to LEDs, depending on where you’re starting from, such as a standard full wattage T8 system. “Lighting is low-hanging fruit; you can offset the cost of a new chiller system, pumps, et cetera.”

Your strategy will depend on your objectives, states Jeff Spencer, director of product management and market development, commercial for Juno Lighting Group. What are your objectives?

  • To save energy and money on an ongoing basis?
  • To improve the quality of the lighting?
  • To improve the aesthetics of the space?
  • To improve productivity?
  • To add capabilities such as tunable white or color tuning? “For example,” explains Spencer, “the Indy ChromaControl retrofit products have the ability to tune the color temperature of the light, which can impact the mood of the tenants, making them more alert, calm, focused, et cetera.”

Once your objectives are clear, determine how much light is needed. “Some spaces are over-designed,” says O’Connell. “Figure out the task and the light required.”

That could involve an audit. Mark Mackey, sales manager for Bulb Daddy in Reno, NV, suggests contacting your local energy company to discuss an audit. “You’ve got to know where you’re at in the beginning.” If you have an overall plan or budget, you can do a retrofit project in phases by doing one area at a time, but without an audit, you don’t know where to start.

After the audit, choose a good contractor, Mackey advises. “Ask questions, check references.” Bulb Daddy often serves as a bridge between the contractor and the end-user.

Questions to ask a contractor include:

  • Which items have a warranty?
  • How long is the warranty period?
  • Do I call the installer or the manufacturer to make a claim?
  • Do you offer a warranty on labor?
  • What brands and types of products will be installed on my project?
  • Who will do the installation: you or a sub-contractor?
  • Who is responsible for recycling or disposing of the lights that were removed?
  • Are there any rebates or incentives available? Will I be reimbursed by you or the utility company, or will the cost be deducted from the bill? Who will complete the paperwork?

It’s important to find a good partner to help you through it, O’Connell believes. “Each client has his own needs; a creative consultant can help. There are a lot of steps.” Whom can you trust? “Someone not tied to one manufacturer or product, someone who owns the in-house design, has longevity and experience, and understands rebates.” Sometimes the utility company can guide you.

“Hire a professional partner with knowledge,” advises Wendy Dry with the Retrofit Companies. “You will have unfortunate results if you don’t. Develop a plan.”

Do Your Homework to Save
Even if you find a good consultant, be prepared. Start by choosing the technology: LED or fluorescent. Most use LED because they have a longer life. According to Dry, very few retrofits use fluorescents. In fact, she says, there’s a “large percentage of projects where a T8 is not a good choice.”

For added efficiencies, O’Connell suggests consulting local energy codes about adding controls for extra energy savings such as daylight harvesting and motion sensors for less-used areas. “Find out what help is available. Check incentives to offset costs at the state and local level, and with the utility company. Consult the utility or other organizations. Go to the utility company’s website.”

Determine your budget, the desired payback period, and other goals. It’s important to share what you know about your facility with a consultant, if you use one: where you need more or less light, the occupied and unoccupied areas, your budget and payback requirements, and how the company runs and operates.

The “old lighting mentality” included a one- to two-year payback, although in reality, it’s four to seven on a good project. “You can double the light level and still save 85% on some facilities,” estimates Dry. Money is a challenge, Dry acknowledges, but there are lease options and financing options available. “Often, you find immediate cash flow after a retrofit.”

Photos: Bulb Daddy A project completed in 2015. An example of how you can improve the look of a project and reduce the energy footprint. This project had a 26-month ROI.

Credit: Bulb Daddy
A project completed in 2015. An example of how you can improve the look of a project and reduce the energy footprint. This project had a 26-month ROI.

Some companies offer rebates, Mackey notes. “Don’t miss out; that affects the budget and the decision.” Although he suggests trying to stick to a two- to three-year ROI, ROI is not always the be-all-end-all of decisions, he says. “There are maintenance costs to consider. Look at last year’s bills.”

Beyond the hard numbers, there are things to consider that are harder to quantify, such as lower energy costs and longer life, improved performance, improved productivity, and improved security. “Some things can’t be measured, but these should be factored in,” insists Mackey. “Consider security, maintenance, and productivity.”

Most retrofit initiatives have environmental and cost savings objectives, Spencer says. However, as with most things, there are always tradeoffs. Therefore, part of the consideration should be how to minimize those tradeoffs.

Identify and prioritize areas to retrofit based on ROI. A space that is not often occupied should be controlled with occupancy sensors. Look at what you’re paying, Dry directs. “Minimum savings is 30%. Energy bills will keep going up; they’ve never gone down in 24 years.”

Replace or Retrofit?
Do you need to replace the fixture? Reusing existing fixtures is one way to keep installation costs down, Spencer says. “For example, the Indy LED retrofit fixtures can be installed in three to four minutes into the existing fixture that is in the ceiling.”


Credit: Bulb Daddy

Check the condition and type of fixture, Mackey says. “If it works with ballast, you can replace just tubes. It saves labor, but the ballast condition is unknown, so you’re not saving money in the long run. Make sure you do your homework: no plug-and-play.”

However, when the choice is between a full-fixture retro­fit and “replacing the guts,” Gary Trott, vice president of marketing with Cree Intelligent Lights, says it’s generally “best to completely remove the lights. You’ll get the best experience. LED tubes provide no longevity, no quality. When you upgrade, make quality a priority.”

Instead of cutting costs—and corners—by replacing only bulbs, Mackey suggests relocating and reducing the number of fixtures. “Panels are a big thing,” he says, noting that they are available in two sizes: 2×4 and 2×8. “Hang them from the ceiling or put them in a grid in the ceiling. They are the wave of the future because they provide more light for less energy—more consistent, better light, and longevity.”

Besides, he adds, replacing lights as they burn out is expensive and leads to errors, such as putting different color bulbs in the same fixture or pairing a T12 ballast with T8 bulbs. “There are many pitfalls. Get the proper fixture for the application. Do your research. Sometimes you can go from four to two lamps and keep the color temperature at 4 K.”

One way to limit maintenance costs is to reduce inventory. Standardizing the types of bulbs and fixtures used in your facility eliminates a diverse inventory that takes up space and costs more. Using fewer fixtures also reduces costs, as does installing long-life products that simplify and shorten maintenance.

Mismatched bulbs in the same room or even fixture can produce yellowish lights that are noticeable when the rest are bright white. They can be disconcerting, distracting, and distorting.

“It’s not just about the numbers on the spreadsheet,” cautions Trott. “Think about the experience of the people in spaces. You can improve lighting quality and you don’t have to give up efficiency. LED technology provides great quality and savings.”

Using the proper type and amount of lighting can improve visual comfort and aesthetics. “If you [are] going to change it, look at all of the options,” recommends Spencer. “You may find something you like better. We just finished a major project at the World Congress Center where they retrofit [more than] 8,000 fixtures with the Indy LED luminaires using Hyperbolic trims. As a result, they transformed the corridors into much more attractive spaces with a unique look, while minimizing their energy consumption.”

Good lighting design can promote job safety and help reduce inefficiencies in production. Quality lighting design and efficiency can help property managers lease spaces and keep tenants longer.

Trott explains that fluorescents rate about 80 on the color-rendering index of zero to 100, while LEDs tend to be around 90. “Buildings and people look more vibrant and colors are true. You can have high-energy efficiency and a high CRI of 90 plus.”

But, he warns, be sure to check out the company making the product. “How long has the company making the product been around? There are low-quality products on the market. Check the rated lifetime.” Make sure to choose high-quality lights for maximum efficiency, Trott continues. “Study the design of lights provided by an audit to get the correct light level. Workers are more productive and do more accurate work in better lighting.”

Moving from CFL or HID to LED will always improve the quality of light, Spencer confirms. “In general, you don’t want to make things worse, only better. LED technology can also have health benefits, increase productivity, influence behavior, et cetera. There are other niche applications as well, such as the textile industry where they would like to use different color temperatures to allow customers to see how products will look once they are installed in their offices or homes. They may use 3,500 K for products going into an office, and 2,500 K for products going into a home.”

Credit: Bulb Daddy A project completed in 2015 improved the aesthetic and reduced its energy footprint. This project had a 26-month ROI.

Credit: Bulb Daddy
A project completed in 2015 improved the aesthetic and reduced its energy footprint. This project had a 26-month ROI.

Ten-Year Plan and Other Money-Saving Ideas
When do you want to do an upgrade again? “It’s a big question,” says Dry. The answer can determine whether you do a full retrofit and what type of lights you choose. Many LED bulbs and fixtures on the market today come with five- or 10-year warranties.

Have a long-term plan before you start. Understand your options. If a building will be inhabited for the foreseeable future and it is using old lighting technology, it is a good candidate for retrofit, Spencer believes. But there are ways to cut expenses even with a full retrofit.

Look for one lighting family that can be used throughout the facility to simplify ordering and ensure consistency. Make sure it is versatile enough to cover all areas, regardless of the manufacturer, existing light source, ceiling height, and aperture size.

“For example,” says Spencer, “the Indy L-Series Family includes install-from-below fixtures where you can push the ‘old’ fixture out of the way in a closed ceiling and replace with a new one from below, and true-retrofit fixtures that will actually convert a traditional fixture into an LED fixture for 4-, 6-, 8-, 9-, 10-, and 12-inch aperture sizes. These fixtures are available with a wide range of reflector options for various applications including downlighting as well as single, double, or corner wall washing. They are also compatible with nearly any dimming or control protocol to avoid the need for the installer to run new control wires.”

Protocols include:

  • Forward Phase
  • Reverse Phase
  • 0–10V
  • DMX
  • DALI
  • Lutron Forward Phase
  • Lutron EcoSystem

Keep fixture cost down by choosing a fixture that is priced right for your application. “Acuity Brands offers a range of retrofit kits from very low-cost retrofit kits for ‘light commercial’ applications where almost anything will do, to very competitively priced specification-grade fixtures that will allow a facility to change out their lighting without sacrificing quality, performance, or aesthetics—and often improve all three,” explains Spencer.

Other cost savings come from minimizing fixture and installation costs. One way to curtail installation costs is to complete a project in phases, a plan that also minimizes disruption, which can be an important consideration for applications that don’t have after-hours access, such as hospitals.

When a project is segmented, Spencer says it’s imperative that the project manager find fixtures that are “future-proof. This is why the entire Indy offering has been designed using a ‘Platform Design,'” he says. The three elements to this platform design are:

  • Easy to maintain from below the ceiling
  • Future-proof
  • Backward-compatible

To save money in the future, the facility manager should look for fixtures that can be maintained when the light levels degrade without needing to buy and install new fixtures, he continues. In the past, to ensure proper light levels when a traditional lamp burned out, the original light levels were reestablished by installing a new lamp. “With traditional sources, when a lamp burns out, only the lamp is replaced, not the entire fixture,” says Spencer.

Because LEDs don’t burn out, there is a real threat that light levels will degrade much more than is acceptable, and in some cases, to a dangerous level, depending on the space and application. “Indy offers a low-cost Lumen depreciation indicator option that will inform maintenance when it is time to replace the LEDs due to degradation,” indicates Spencer. “Not having this option may become a major problem in facilities with LED lighting in the future. Of course, ballasts must be replaced after several years, as well, for CFL and HID. LED fixtures should work the same way. We call this being ‘backward-compatible.'”

Be Intelligent
Don’t think of it just as an energy project, Dry proposes. Consider it an improvement in how you run your business. Allow it to piggyback on other efficiencies. “Tie in security issues; motion detectors save security guards a trip to investigate.”

Security cameras work better if the light is better, Mackey adds. A lighting upgrade can assist with security and improve safety. “You’re always going to need lights,” states Mackey.

Spencer agrees, advocating using the highest efficacy to save energy and money. “Maximize energy savings by starting with the light fixtures with the highest efficacies. Further savings with sensors and controls. Maximizing energy savings will, of course, translate into cost savings.”

Adding lighting intelligence such as occupancy sensors or daylight harvesting can save up to an additional 70% of energy, Trott estimates. “It used to be too complicated, but now it’s easy. Lighting intelligence is a payback-neutral or -accelerating option. That’s a compelling argument.”

The ZR series and CR series troffers are good for a one-for-one replacement, but lighting intelligence, such as SmartCast Technology can accelerate payback and savings.

Cree recently completed a project with mindSHIFT, a leading IT outsourcing and cloud services provider, using SmartCast Power over Ethernet LED lighting, integrated with a Cisco network for the build-out of its cloud mounting services facility in Long Island, NY.

SmartCast PoE is an intuitively simple, scalable, and open platform. The system embeds intelligence to make buildings more efficient and people more productive, while delivering better light for less energy than ordinary LED lighting systems.

mindSHIFT sought a lighting system with IT integration that would help them meet aggressive energy savings goals while providing intelligence benefits such as control, data collection, and analytics. Working with A+ Technology & Security Solutions as the systems integrator, Cree’s SmartCast PoE LED lighting integrated with a Cisco standards-based PoE-powered network to create a Digital Ceiling solution. It was deployed across 40,000 square feet of data center and office space.

The overhead lighting for the campus is delivered by Cree’s CR Series LED troffers, including the CR22, CR24, and CR14. The architectural troffers provide a combination of extreme energy productivity and a more personalized light experience that’s intuitive and simple. Featuring adjustable color temperatures, the dynamic lighting solutions enable better control over spaces while simplifying project specification, ordering, and installation. Using SmartCast PoE Technology, the troffers deliver efficiency with up to 4,000 lumens of 90+ CRI light, while achieving up to 130 lumens per watt.

This platform provides power and networking for the lights with a standard ethernet cable, eliminating the need for separate data and high-voltage power connections. It also delivers energy savings up to 70% greater than LED lighting alone, and allows mindSHIFT opportunities to utilize its connectivity for data collection, systems integration, and future applications.

“We’re trying to save the world from bad lighting,” concludes Trott. It can be done one retrofit at a time.

Audit The Auditor

It’s important to know the relationship between the firm conducting the energy study or lighting audit, and the crews that will install your energy-efficient lighting upgrade. Find out how much it costs. Is there an upfront fee or is the cost rolled into promised savings provided by an energy-efficient lighting upgrade? Ask for clarification about the services being provided. Do they provide product specifications and recommendations or do they perform the work?

Don’t settle for standard recommendations to reduce energy consumption. An audit should thoroughly explain the lighting upgrade model, show what your facility will look like after a retrofit, demonstrate how the lighting solution will save energy and meet your needs, and take into consideration your facility’s requirements. Ask for good-better-best examples.



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