Aging Lighting – Replace or Retrofit?

03/25/2013 | By Janelle Penny

Dig down to your project’s benefits

Rarely are the details of a lighting upgrade black and white. Are there incentives that make an energy efficient retrofit worth the higher upfront cost, or are you better off replacing burned-out lamps with like technology?

Weigh these factors to gain a clearer picture of where you stand.

The Total Cost of Ownership Model
To truly understand all of the costs and savings opportunities in a project – be it lighting, a piece of equipment, or a whole building – use the total cost of ownership model to compare your options.

The basic concept utilizes multiple factors (space management, operations management, etc.) to determine total costs and savings and calculate a project’s ROI.

In many cases, these same four components will help you determine the value of a retrofit project vs. a replacement, according to Josh Millman, managing partner of Facilities Planners & Architects:

Project delivery management: Involves the costs of preparing for and installing the new system – e.g., time required to research and specify a particular system, create any needed permit drawings, procurement, relocation, etc.

Operations management: Weighs the operations cost per square foot, energy usage, and replacement value of the system, plus the costs of necessary preventive maintenance and estimated costs for standard repairs and emergencies.

4 Costly Mistakes for Lighting Projects

The estimate from your contractor isn’t the final word on project costs. These four issues could drive up your project’s cost and complexity, leaving you investing more than you budgeted for.

1) Having a one-track mind: Don’t focus solely on the material cost of a retrofit, says Kurt Vogel, director of product development for Acuity Brands Lighting. “If you have a four-lamp T12 fluorescent troffer, and you just swap out lamps and ballasts to change it to a four-lamp T8 fluorescent troffer, it squanders the opportunity to do things like delamp, look at different technologies, or change the look of the fixture,” Vogel adds. “The simple swap is inexpensive, but it’s the lowest common denominator in terms of the potential of a retrofit or fixture upgrade.”

2) Picking the wrong retrofit kit: It seems like a no-brainer, but it’s not uncommon to see an inappropriate kit in a fixture not designed to hold it. “For instance, people will take a parabolic fixture designed for three lamps where the lamp placement is critical to the lighting performance, and they’ll put a two-lamp reflector retrofit kit in it,” Vogel explains. “Now the lamps aren’t in the position they were designed for behind the louver, and while they’re getting great energy savings, the quality of light for the people who have to work in the space is diminished dramatically.”

3) Underestimating the time investment: Many factors can throw off your contractor’s estimate for how long the job will take, and some aren’t readily apparent from the outside – for example, a contractor may not discover that HVAC equipment or network cables are reducing access to old fixtures until he or she is opening up your ceiling. Know what’s overhead to minimize unfortunate discoveries that drive up labor costs. “The worst case scenario is that they’ll get up into the ceiling plenum and spot some asbestos,” Vogel says. “What started as a simple fixture replacement now becomes a big abatement project that’s very expensive.”

4) Overlooking code compliance costs: When a fixture is changed, the contractor has to bring the new installation up to current code, which can be a costly proposition in some cases. “This potentially means new sizing requirements and doing work to support the fixture, which isn’t always anticipated,” Vogel notes.

Capital asset management: Incorporates the projected costs of capital renewal and replacement of the system. Key performance indicators – such as the Capital Renewal Index for replacements or the Facility Condition Index and recapitalization rate for retrofits or upgrades – will help you predict the capital reinvestment you’ll likely face based on the system’s lifecycle and current condition. As a reference guide, Millman recommends IFMA’s Asset Lifecycle Model for Total Cost of Ownership.

Space management: “For building systems, the space management aspect is the annual cost to accommodate churn,” similar to capital asset management, Millman explains. For a lighting project, space management includes the man-hours required to relocate light fixtures each year based on the facility’s churn rate.

“As you start peeling the onion, you may discover that the financial opportunities or risks warrant measuring other areas,” Millman says. “It depends on the significance of the decision or the probability of the risk.”

Illuminate Payback Periods
As is always the case, project costs and energy savings tip the balance between a retrofit vs. a simple replacement.

North Carolina Central University is proof, having started two affordable LED retrofits with fellows from the Environmental Defense Fund’s Climate Corps, a program that places specially trained students in companies, schools, and municipalities to find opportunities for cost savings and develop plans for implementation.

One Climate Corps initiative to replace 100 metal halide street lamps with LEDs will cut the school’s energy use by 80% and save $21,000 annually, paying for the $65,000 project in three years. Similarly, a retrofit of 30,000 emergency circuit lamps that must run 24/7 is costing the university $2 million but will save over $600,000 annually, resulting in a payback period of three and a half years.

The payback period on both retrofits (now in progress) is a little longer than the two years many FMs target, though it’s by no means an insurmountable obstacle.

However, while cost numbers are important, they’re not the only issue to consider, especially if the costs and payback periods of a retrofit vs. a replacement are similar.

“A lot of spaces are overlit, particularly ones that were designed a long time ago,” Vogel explains. “It’s about providing the appropriate light for the space, which can make the energy savings increase even further. Take that into account if, for example, you’re wondering about going to T8s or T5s.”


Janelle Penny is associate editor of BUILDINGS.


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