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5 Things to Consider Before Starting a Lighting Upgrade

March 6, 2020

Facilities managers don’t have to become lighting engineers, but it’s important to know what lighting types are best for which spaces. Our guide presents a look at when, why and how to upgrade your lighting.

The most important thing your lighting projects can accomplish is putting the right lighting in the right place. That task is harder than it sounds, however. Lighting technologies are evolving constantly, and the changing market can make it difficult to know which new features could actually benefit your building and its occupants.

Facilities professionals don’t have to become lighting engineers on top of their many other tasks, but knowing your options helps ensure the right lighting is specified for every space in your building. Learn how to differentiate your upgrade options.

Why Reevaluate Your Lighting?

If your lighting is only doing one job—illumination—then it’s not working as hard for you as it could be. You may want to reevaluate whether your lighting is doing enough for you if it’s been several years since your last upgrade.

Specific lighting needs are usually dictated by a few factors, according to Bill Lally, president and founder of tech integration firm Mode:Green:

  • Energy code (specifically, the maximum allowable watts per square foot)
  • New lighting types that give owners and occupants more control, such as tunable white lighting that allows users to change the color temperature
  • Available daylight
  • Advances in lighting controls

“The energy code is one of the big drivers [of lighting upgrades], and wellness is theother driver we’re seeing,” Lally explains.“There are things like Bluetooth beaconing where you’re tagging a system to your phone or Apple watch so that a conference room comes alive when it knows you walked in.

We’re seeing the same concept for tuning lights – in a conference space or ballroom, you could have the lighting during the day be a productive bluish-white, and then at night when you’ve got a wedding in there, you push a button and it shifts into a more relaxed environment. [New controls] are changing the way design and space requirements are being used.”

LED luminaires and control packages are constantly evolving, making it hard to determine the best time to upgrade. Investments are at risk of becoming outdated shortly after they’re installed. Shannon Glover, a senior lighting designer for global design and consulting firm Stantec, recommends focusing on the appearance and functionality of new lighting rather than getting the next best thing. Are the qualities of your newest lighting package capable of serving you until your next scheduled upgrade?  

You can ensure the answer to that question is yes by basing your specs on fixture quality, color rendering and temperature that are appropriate for the space they’re in, and control flexibility.

“In some sense you start with the maximum potential requirement in terms of lumens, color temperature, dimming and color tuning, etc. the space might need,” says Tanuj Mohan, founder, chief technology officer and chief product officer of Enlighted. “Then, with a five-year horizon, you optimize for cost. Steve Jobs said that ‘everyone needs to learn how to code—it teaches you how to think.’ Upgrades are a bit like that. The easiest and most powerful upgrades come from a digital platform that can leverage software upgrades to do new things with the existing hardware.”

3 Top Lighting Trends

These three trends seem to be gaining popularity in commercial lighting projects. Could one of them work for your next upgrade? 

Intelligent Lamps 

“Intelligence itself is moving away from large dimming panels and infrastructure and into the bulb itself,” explains Bill Lally, president and founder of tech integration firm Mode:Green. “It’s changing the way designers are designing systems. The controls typically work off Wi-Fi or Zigbee as opposed to having it be wired into control points. The bulb has various functions of color and zoning, so in an application like an office, it gives the lighting infinite flexibility as far as how you want to zone that space instead of having to rewire the whole area.” 

Tunable White 

Now that it’s possible to adjust the same luminaire between warm and cool white, end users are discovering new ways to employ these technologies. Imagine how warmer or cooler white light could benefit people in different types of spaces. For example, an office might use cooler light to stimulate productivity in workspaces but employ warmer light in the cafeteria. 

“We’re looking at using it in classrooms where students are making projects with fabric or paint. You can adjust the light to adjust how you perceive the objects in the space,” says Shannon Glover, a senior lighting designer for global design and consulting firm Stantec. 

Dim to Warm 

A similar technology, dim to warm, transitions the lighting toward a warmer color temperature as you dim it, Lally adds.  

“You can control the intensity and brightness separately from the color,” Lally says of dim to warm bulbs. “It gives a whole new flexibility for designing in these spaces. You can have a light at 100% brightness that’s still an orangey candlelight.” 

When to Propose Lighting Upgrades 

LED luminaires won’t burn out for a long time, but there are a few reasons you might decide to replace them before they’ve failed. 

  • The LEDs are old enough that they’ve dropped below 70% of their original light output.
  • The existing lighting has a deficiency, like poor color rendering or inadequate light output. 
  • You’re about to renovate anyway and want to address an existing problem with the lighting infrastructure. 
  • You’re moving into a new space or expanding into an adjacent one, and the lighting setup in your new square footage doesn’t meet your needs. 
  • You don’t have enough control and want to switch to a system with individually addressable devices in each fixture. 

Whatever your reason, Glover recommends speaking with a lighting consultant so you can make sure your new system will be flexible enough to meet your needs now and in the future. Have an idea of what issues you have with the current lighting system and what problems you need to solve.

“If it’s an established facility, we’ll tour or visit their current building to see what they have and ask what do you like, what do you not like, what’s working and what isn’t, and develop a palette of options,” says Glover. “We’re big proponents of physical mockups where we obtain sample luminaires and display them for the owner to review. They can see, touch and feel, and I think it makes a huge difference.”

Case in Point: Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum

Museum lighting can cover the full spectrum of lighting requirements, from bright retail lighting in the gift shop to dramatic installations in theaters or exhibit spaces. Shannon Glover, a senior lighting designer for Stantec, shares insights from designing the permanent gallery of the new Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum.

Lighting can deliver cues and wayfinding, not just illumination. The museum experience starts with an orientation in a theater and continues up three flights of stairs with lighting and short films cuing visitors to continue upward.

Photo: The third floor of the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum features the Pivot to America exhibition. Bright white light makes the red, white and blue Texas Upstander Wall pop, and illuminates 12 kiosks on the process of repairing injustice for different groups of people; Credit: Paul Go Images

“The logistics of it were really tricky, just from the idea of how we’d move people through a three-story stairwell,” Glover says. “It took a ton of work and effort between the museum staff, media designers and lighting team to make sure that the light fixtures have enough light so that people could see to climb the stairs, but not so much that it washed out the videos. They change color too, so you see the film on the landing and then the lights change color to let you know it’s time to go.” 

Don’t be afraid to use lighting to set a mood or create an effect. Museums do this masterfully, but the same concept could apply to other building types—think of a relaxing social space in an office building or a hospital chapel. The owners of the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum were “adamant that they did not want it to be a depressing, morose place,” Glover explains.

Photo:Lighting plays a key role in illustrating the Shoah floor. The exhibit starts out with a calm white palette, then progresses into dark brown as visitors approach the portion of the exhibit on the concentration camps. A stark chandelier pairs bare lightbulbs with personal items Jews might have taken with them to the camps. The exhibit then transitions back into lighter tones as the visitors move toward the liberation of the camps. The museum’s stakeholders wanted to create an environment that was powerful and educational, but not theatrical. ​Credit: Paul Go Images

Make sure the lighting engineers work with other disciplines. For this project, the lighting engineers couldn’t afford to work in silos—they needed to coordinate closely with AV specialists and others, especially on the staircase exhibit. 

Master the learning curve. A new facility or an extensive upgrade might leave you with a new control suite that your team isn’t familiar with. Make sure the implementation team goes over how the lighting control system works with your staff—not just how to create a schedule, but how it works in concert with other systems. The lighting system manufacturer can also provide valuable training. 

How to Upgrade Your Lighting System 

The goal of your lighting upgrade should be to deliver light that’s comfortable for people in the space as efficiently as possible. Consider these five keys for lighting upgrades when you’re weighing your options. 

1. Choose the right infrastructure. 

You don’t want your system to be outdated as soon as you buy it. Mohan recommends investing in a lighting control system with software that’s easy to update. 

“Make sure the system has headroom and is all digital,” Mohan suggests. “The CPU or MCU [the brain of the system] should be upgradeable over-the-air and have spare cycles and memory to do more in the future, not cost optimized to do just lighting or HVAC control. The communication (network), both within the device and to a gateway, should have spare bandwidth to communicate more information in the future if needed. The sensors (motion, light, temperature, etc.) should be reconfigurable with software to provide more or different data if needed in the future. For example, not a photodiode that’s good only for daylight harvesting, but a full spectrum digital light sensor capable of identifying color temperatures and differentiating sunlight.” 

2. Check compatibility. 

All of the pieces of your LED lighting system should be able to work together. You don’t necessarily have to lock yourself into a single manufacturer, but buying components from too many different channels can introduce complications into your project. 

“LEDs work as a system. There’s the lighting element itself, which is the equivalent of the bulb, and then there’s a driver behind that controlling the dimmer and the electric flow to the circuit,” Lally explains. “All of those pieces need to match. There are also several ways LEDs can dim—for example, there’s electronic low voltage dimmers and 0-10V dimmers. Make sure all of the pieces, from the dimmer to the driver to the lamp itself, are all compatible and work together.”

A lack of coordination on this front can doom a project before it can get off the ground, Lally adds. Poorly organized lighting specifications are one of the most common project mistakes he sees in the field. 

“We’ll see that a system’s calling for a specific spec on a bulb or driver. Throughout the process, because of budgets, it gets value-engineered, and at that point they choose something that looks like the same thing but isn’t compatible,” Lally explains. “There have been projects where we rebought the lamps two to three times because the first one didn’t work and they went for the less expensive option. The second one should work, but didn’t. All of that can be avoided if it’s tested up front. Literally mock up the system on a bench with the dimmer, driver and bulb and run it through a few tests of dimming it and making sure it’s not going to flash or flicker.” 

3. Understand where not to cut corners. 

Some aspects of lighting upgrades just weren’t meant to be value-engineered. Don’t let your project fall victim to the ways in which lighting changes a room for the worse.  

“One mistake I’ve seen recently with regard to a school is that downward pressure on the lighting fixture budget leads to decisions that are not in the client’s best interest,” Glover says. “The less expensive light fixtures are sometimes made with less quality control. They might have a thinner lens that doesn’t diffuse the light as well, so you end up with spotty light patterns on the floor or ceiling. It might not hang straight, which can be aggravating. Lighting is often first to get targeted for cuts when it comes down to budget consideration. We try to talk clients through those decisions or save in other areas.” 

4. Embrace automation. 

New lighting control suites allow a “set it and forget it” mentality to a much greater extent than their predecessors after the initial commissioning is done, Lally says. Features like color temperature that emulates daylight throughout the day can be automated so that you don’t have to keep returning to your dashboard to make sure you’re mixing in the right proportions of yellow and blue. 

 “Some systems are set by longitude and latitude of the building so that once it’s set, the system will run itself and emulate the exterior light based on the time of day. It knows the date and time, and it knows the sunrise and sunset shifts based on astrological clock data,” Lally says. “The sunrise/sunset aspect has been implemented for quite a while, but the emulation of color temperature is new. The systems have become very flexible and user-friendly as far as how to achieve those different settings throughout the day.” 

Automation benefits individual users too, Lally adds. A recent project at the 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge Park combines lighting scenes and automated climate control in guest rooms, both of which deliver energy data to the management team. Guests control the lighting scenes from a single keypad. A “Good Night” button next to the bed shuts off every light in the room with one button. 

5. Choose a customer-friendly manufacturer. 

One thing that’s often overlooked in discussions about lighting controls is how to choose a manufacturer. Glover suggests “specifying a manufacturer who has excellent customer service, because nothing goes perfectly 100% of the time.” When something inevitably goes haywire, you’ll want a company that will truly partner with you to get your space back up and running as soon as possible. 

The lighting team working on the Dallas Holocaust Museum recently ran into some minor function issues with the museum’s lighting controls, but Glover reports that “the manufacturer was involved immediately. They’re troubleshooting and giving diagnostics from the computer system to figure out what’s going on so the museum doesn’t have to worry about it,” she adds. 

Lighting upgrade options are likely to keep multiplying, but knowing when and how to kick off your next project will help you start your project right. There’s no single right answer to which lighting types you should use in any given space—it’s about delivering results. 

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About the Author

Janelle Penny | Editor-in-Chief at BUILDINGS

Janelle Penny has been with BUILDINGS since 2010. She is a two-time FOLIO: Eddie award winner who aims to deliver practical, actionable content for building owners and facilities professionals.

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