The ABCs of Lighting Retrofits

The ABCs of Lighting Retrofits

New technologies and financial incentives boost lighting retrofits in gloomy construction market

Unless you've been living under a rock, you probably know the United States is experiencing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The nation's construction industry has been hit especially hard, suffering double-digit declines in almost every sector. Like a pebble thrown into a still pond, the effects of this downturn have rippled across the electrical industry. Many construction projects have been canceled or put on hold, leaving some electrical contracting firms struggling to keep their heads above water.

At the same time, local, state, and federal governments are implementing energy standards and regulations as well as enticing financial incentives to compel Americans to curb power usage. Savvy electrical contractors are using these opportunities to provide customers with various energy-reduction strategies and inject additional cash flow into their own businesses. Lighting retrofits are one of the simplest, fastest, and most economical ways to achieve these goals.

Retrofit benefits

According to the Green Energy Parks Partnership — a joint program between the National Park Service and the U.S. Department of Energy — lighting retrofits offer several advantages:

  • Energy savings

    Lighting retrofits can significantly lower energy consumption as well as energy bills while maintaining or improving lighting levels. Upgrading lighting technologies may also allow individuals greater control over lighting, which could allow for further energy savings.

  • Enhanced lighting quality

    Retrofits can improve lighting quality by targeting problem areas with specific design considerations to overcome lighting issues. Furthermore, the latest technologies add greater reliability to the lighting system, which can result in fewer short-term lighting quality issues. Improved color, less flicker, and great light output can also result from employing newer technologies.

  • Reduced maintenance and labor costs

    Newer lighting technologies possess a longer life span, meaning fewer lamps to replace and fewer personnel needed to perform maintenance work. Establishing a routine maintenance program in conjunction with a lighting retrofit simplifies maintenance practices and further reduces operating costs.

Low-hanging fruit

Most lighting retrofits begin with the obvious. “Approximately one-third of a facility's electricity costs go toward lighting, so starting with lamp and ballast upgrades gives you a lot of bang for your buck,” says Joe Aceto, a journeyman electrician who is the coordinator of maintenance, operations, and transportation (MOT) for the Redlands Unified School District (RUSD) located in Redlands, Calif. Under his direction, RUSD has performed major lighting retrofits at 18 of its 24 elementary, middle, and high schools. “For example, T12 to T8 retrofits enable you to use the same fixture, as does switching from traditional incandescent lamps to CFLs,” he notes. “First-generation T8s can also be retrofitted with new electronic ballasts for even greater efficiency.”

Installing lighting controls, such as dimmers, timers, occupancy sensors, and photosensors, is another easy and low-cost method of retrofitting a lighting system. Because these products take the human element out of operating lights, lighting controls can be especially effective when used in restrooms, hallways, and classrooms.

In addition, de-lamping can net big savings. “At RUSD, we went from four 40W T12 lamps to three 32W T8 lamps and ended up with a higher lumen output, which made the building occupants very happy,” Aceto remarks. “Another way we saved energy was by reducing the number of ballasts in each fixture from two to one.”

More complicated lighting retrofit measures include the use of magnetic induction-type and solar-powered luminaires for outdoor applications, such as parking lots, and employing dimmable ballasts for fluorescent fixtures. “The downside to this is that you now have to install dimming controls, and the cost of dimming ballasts can be quite high,” Aceto points out. “If you're replacing thousands of ballasts like we did, it gets pretty pricey, and your return-on-investment time frame becomes undesirable.”

Grab a ladder

Although exchanging energy-hogging lamps and ballasts for more efficient ones might seem like a no-brainer, it isn't without challenges, says Steve Giacin, president of Kaiser Electric. Headquartered in Fenton, Mo., Kaiser Electric recently launched the P2 Green Initiative Program (, the result of a growing demand by clients and end-users who want help reducing their overall carbon footprint. Part of this initiative involves lighting retrofits. “One hurdle of a retrofit is to keep the light output the same while reducing the energy costs,” Giacin explains. “Fortunately, there are a lot of products on the market that make our job a lot easier. The products have gotten so good that if you mix the right ballasts and lamps together, you'll get the same — if not higher — lumen output you were achieving before, but with a lot less energy usage. This, in turn, reduces heating and cooling demand so that HVAC units can be sized smaller. It all ties together. You just want to make sure you're not losing ground.”

To discover if a lighting retrofit can garner even further energy savings, both Aceto and Giacin recommend performing a lighting audit. A typical audit involves six steps:

  1. Identify all common application areas.

  2. Identify the lamp types and their wattages.

  3. Identify the number of lamps per fixture.

  4. Estimate average time of use per fixture.

  5. Estimate the energy use for each application.

  6. Complete the audit summary form to compare all applications and target the highest energy users.

The only tool needed to perform an energy audit is a calculator. In fact, several Web sites have simplified this task by providing online lighting retrofit saving calculators. Two online calculators Aceto recommends can be found at and

Reach higher

Thanks to the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which established tax credits for homeowners, home builders, and commercial building owners who employ certain energy-efficient improvements, and other financial incentives offered by most states, the cost of investing in new lighting technologies can be significantly lowered. For example, RUSD's local electric utility, Southern California Edison, offers Public Utilities Commission (PUC) incentives that are collected monthly from rate payers and placed into an account to help fund retrofits and other energy-saving projects. The PUC authorizes the utilities to disperse the funds on a 3-yr cycle. To learn more about rebates and incentives offered by specific states, visit the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (DSIRE) at

“Rebates and incentives can help push energy reduction, but the saying that you have to spend money to make money really rings true when it comes to lighting retrofits,” adds Aceto.

Sidebar: Determining Retrofit Type

According to Joe Aceto, coordinator of maintenance, operations, and transportation (MOT) for the Redlands Unified School District (RUSD) in Redlands, Calif., you should choose the type of retrofit based on up-front cost and return on investment. Answer the following questions to help determine the type that's right for you.

  • Is current lighting T12 with magnetic ballasts?

    If yes, then replace with T8 lamps with electronic ballasts.

  • Is current lighting T8 but more than 7 years old?

    If yes, then replace early T8 systems with new electronic ballasts and lamps. High-performance T8 lighting can cut energy use by 7% to 17% while providing the same illumination levels.

  • Should you de-lamp?

    If you have a 4-lamp fixture, yes.

    If you have a 3-lamp fixture, de-lamping is not recommended, unless the area has natural lighting.

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