7 Tips to Maximize LED Retrofits

March 22, 2016

Get your money’s worth out of your lighting upgrade.

What are your priorities for your next lighting project? Are you aiming for energy savings? Is the constant need to replace failed lamps cutting into the time you could be spending on other maintenance? Or are you just not happy with the quality of your existing light sources?

LED lighting could help solve these issues. This ultra-efficient light source is more affordable than ever thanks to plummeting component prices and energy efficiency incentives. If you’re thinking about taking the plunge, make sure your LED retrofit delivers maximum value with these tips.

1. Define the Problem

What issue are you trying to solve with an LED retrofit? Are you mainly prioritizing energy savings, or are there other problems that the new installation needs to solve too?

The General Services Administration (GSA) recommends asking yourself these questions to help define your needs:

  • Is the space already overlit?
  • What are your current and future lighting needs?
  • How long do you plan to occupy the space?
  • Do you want to incorporate sensors into fixtures?
  • What control capabilities are you looking for, even beyond your lighting system?

For the Waukesha (WI) School District’s natatorium, energy savings was a high priority, but the need to improve lighting conditions was also urgent. The existing metal halide fixtures had a half-life of about 8,000 hours, by which point they would lose around 40 percent of their original light output, says Jeff Gatzow, vice president of Optec LED Lighting, which manufactured and installed the new LED lamps used in the natatorium project.

Bringing in a lift to change the lights was so needlessly complicated that the bulbs typically wouldn’t be replaced until they failed, which created a safety issue, notes Tom Cherone, master electrician for the Waukesha School District.

[Related: LED Lighting is a Touchdown for Packers Stadium]

“The maintenance was also extremely time-consuming. We had to shut the pool down because you can’t have people around when you’re working with an aerial lift,” Cherone says.

“The fixtures were tempered glass—if the glass breaks and falls into the pool, you don’t have a lot of options other than draining it, which becomes extremely expensive when you have to pay for sewage and water fees to refill 480,000 gallons. With the new LED heads, each one is a sealed unit and the components are sealed as well so if they do fail, it’s a simple operation to just drop the head and put a replacement in its place.”

To get a handle on your building’s needs, Vikrant Mahajan, product marketing manager for OSRAM SYLVANIA, recommends assessing every space in the building to examine existing light levels, control requirements, maintenance expectations and other factors that could impact your LED choices.

One way to do this is with a comprehensive audit that accounts for every light source in your building. Juliann Rogers, director of energy for CKE Restaurants Holdings Inc., oversaw an audit and LED retrofit of 204 Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. restaurants nationwide. The company participated in the DOE’s Interior Lighting Campaign, which encourages FMs to install high-efficiency lighting and has set an initial goal of 1 million efficient troffers installed.

“We had retrofitted several dining rooms with LED kits two to three years ago. We didn’t want to tear those down and reinstall them because they were still fairly new, so I provided my auditor with a scope of work that said to audit the kitchen only in any restaurant where we’d already retrofitted the dining room,” Rogers explains. “I would recommend having them audit the entire restaurant. If a fixture is LED already, they can make a note about that, but at least you’ll know.”

2. Understand Unique Challenges

Special spaces may have more requirements than a standard office. For example, the natatorium project required fixtures that were IP rated for at least a damp location. “Even though it’s a controlled environment with air conditioning and dehumidification, humidity still creates a problem,” Cherone says.

Preventing glare was also crucial for safety and navigability, so Optec used an indirect lighting strategy where the light was angled onto the ceiling first and then back down into the water to ensure the pool was adequately lit while minimizing glare.

Weather and the ability to stand up to tough kitchen environments were crucial considerations for the Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. retrofits, Rogers notes. She sought out recommendations from trusted suppliers who were familiar with the restaurants’ needs.

[On topic: Lighting Upgrade Helps Protect a Priceless Work of Art]

“A lot of new fixtures don’t have a removable lens, but in the Southeast, bugs will get into fixtures no matter how airtight they are. We need to be able to remove lenses for cleaning,” Rogers says. “We chose to go with whole fixture replacements instead of retrofit kits due to the warranties and the price on the troffers, which were nearly equal to the kits. We also needed several different varieties of the same fixture—for example, a 2-by-4 troffer also needs to come in 1-by-4s and 2-by-2s and look the same.”

3. Customize Solutions to Every Application

Use the audit results and your assessment of your own needs to further narrow your lighting options. Rogers used footcandle measurements to select fixtures after determining that the restaurants needed 30-50 fc in the dining room and 80 over the order counter and in the kitchen area.

“The biggest challenge was figuring out what fixtures would work under awnings. We have a lot of different types of awnings, and you can’t just look at lumens per watt to be confident that a fixture will illuminate the awning from top to bottom and wash the wall – you have to actually install them to determine that,” Rogers says. “I also did a lot of testing to make sure the color temperature was right for our signs and menu boards. Depending on your color schemes, some Kelvin temperatures will wash out the colors.”

Bill Conley, an IFMA Fellow, LEED AP and facility manager whose organization is participating in the GSA’s Interior Lighting Campaign, found significant overlighting on the exterior of the three 100,000-square-foot facilities on his site. Right-sized retrofits for overlit areas can save even more energy and money than a simple like-for-like exchange could.

Lighting Challenge 1

Office Campus | Cypress, CA


Three interconnected buildings of roughly 100,000 square feet each (one of which is a ware-house), plus a large parking area.

Existing Lighting

Office areas have 1,500 troffers containing 3,000 2-by-2 fluorescent T8 lamps.

The warehouse contains 1,200 light fixtures contained in contiguous strip lighting. The parking lot and building exterior have roughly 150-160 lamps, including 20 1,000W HIDs and some 480W metal halides.


Energy and cost savings are top priorities. Overlighting presents opportunities for additional savings, especially with the exterior lighting.


The 1,000W HIDs have been changed out to 140W LEDs that provide about the same amount of light, while the 480W metal halides have been replaced with 100W LEDs. Future retrofit plans include tackling the pole-mounted lighting in the parking lot and determining whether to redesign the strip lighting in the warehouse.

To spread out the costs, the warehouse, office and exterior lighting are treated as three separate projects, a strategy that also allows the savings from the initial retrofits to help pay for later ones.

“Make sure you’re putting appropriate lighting in appropriate places,” suggests Conley. “One of the major challenges I see in the workplace, especially with retrofits, is that everything is replaced with the same intensity of light. You don’t need the same type of lamps in every area—for example, in Research & Development, we need 72 footcandles at the desktop because they do fine work, but we don’t need 72 footcandles at the floor level in the warehouse. Don’t take a cookie cutter approach. Figure out what your needs are and what lamp fits that need.”

4. Review Product Design

GSA recommends doing a mockup for all retrofit projects, especially if the replacement lamps will use the existing sockets. “For one-to-one replacements, compare light distribution to determine if the light levels will be comparable when switching from an omni-directional (fluorescent) to a directional (LED) light source,” GSA suggests. “Use the mock-up to assess the complexity of re-wiring for a retrofit lighting system.”

There are pros and cons to using the existing infrastructure, Conley notes: “If you use an existing ballast, you have ballast replacement to be concerned with, but if you go without it, you’re dealing with direct electricity because the ballast acts as a buffer,” he explains. “If you use drivers, that costs more and the drivers likely don’t have the same life that the LED lamp itself has, so you’re looking at replacement again.”

[Even more: The Impactful Benefits of this LED Lighting Retrofit]

Whether or not you choose to use existing ballasts, GSA recommends specifying products that can adequately dispose of heat because high temperatures can damage LEDs. “It’s best to ensure the installing contractor follows the manufacturer’s instructions in regards to clearances and ambient operating temperatures,” the agency adds. “Make sure to test and spot check your inventory to scan for driver issues or other non-obvious manufacturing defects.”

The products should also be properly labeled and certified, says Jody Cloud, owner and founder of YES LED Lighting and author of Say Yes to LED Lighting: Our Strategy for Excellence. A UL logo indicates that the product is at least safe, and a voluntary certification from the DesignLights Consortium (DLC) indicates that the product meets minimum performance standards in distribution efficacy, color and longevity.

“If you’re going to spend half a million dollars renovating a couple of office buildings, you want to make sure that those products are going to be around long enough for you to get a good return on investment,” Cloud explains. “Authenticate everything.”

Lighting Challenge 2

CKE Restaurants Holdings, Inc. | Nationwide


204 corporate-owned Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. restaurants

Existing Lighting

Each of the 105 Carl’s Jr. and 89 Hardee’s locations has about 35 troffers in either 1-by-4 or 2-by-4 configurations. Menu boards and outdoor signage are also lit.


The potential energy cost savings were top of mind for CKE, according to the GSA’s Interior Lighting Campaign, which counts CKE as one of its initial participants. The retrofits are also helping the company achieve its long-term sustainability goals and customer feedback has indicated that the lighting quality has improved as well.


All of the 6,800 troffers were replaced with one-to-one LED versions, as were the under-awning lights and soffit lighting outside. The signage was retrofitted with a daisy-chain type of LED. Parking lot retrofits are generally one-for-one replacements with a target foot-candle range of 3-5 at the ground.

The company now plans to demonstrate the potential savings from a retrofit to franchisees, who will be able to take advantage of the incentives and aggressive warranty that were negotiated with the lighting manufacturer during the corporate retrofit.

5. Optimize Lighting Controls

Lighting control systems can further drive down your space’s lighting power density and help you derive maximum value from your new LED lighting, GSA notes. Some can dim your LEDs initially and increase light output over time to counteract the gradual degradation, while others have additional features such as zoned control and occupancy detection.

“Review the capabilities and compatibility of the drivers with the proposed control solutions, both hardware and software. If the controls are not integrated into the lighting fixture, it’s best to get the controls representative together with the fixture manufacturer to verify compatibility,” GSA recommends. “Test communication strength for wireless control systems, especially in buildings with heavy masonry.”

If your control system is wireless, ensure that the communications protocol that the lighting controls use doesn’t interfere with other wireless systems in the building, says Sachin Andhare, director, Vertical Markets, Commercial Office for Acuity Brands: “Many systems have built-in channel hopping to avoid interference.”

6. Coordinate Carefully

A retrofit covering multiple sites requires extra attention upfront. Rogers recommends using the same company that conducts your audit to handle the ordering and installation—fewer handoffs between vendors means fewer opportunities for miscommunication. If you have a large portfolio, consider having the manufacturer ship supplies to every building ahead of time to eliminate potential ordering hiccups.

“If you’re rolling out a lot of restaurants, for example, one little hitch like a backorder on something means you have to hold off on that store and it throws your whole schedule off,” Rogers explains. “If there’s time before the rollout, either bulk order products and stage them at every store or have your manufacturer stage them, package things together, and ship them palletized and marked for the individual stores.”

7. Keep Up with Cleanings

LEDs have a fairly long service life compared to other lamp types, so as long as you purchased quality products, the installation went smoothly, and the new lighting system is operated within the parameters specified by the manufacturer, your lighting system should remain hands-off for years. However, GSA recommends that you continue the regular cleaning you’re already doing on your existing lighting.

Lighting Challenge 3

Waukesha School District Natatorium | Waukesha, WI

(Photo: Waukesha School District Natatorium, Waukesha, WI Credit: Optec)


A state-of-the-art pool with spectator seating that hosts swim meets, lessons and other events. Constructed roughly 10 years ago.

Existing Lighting

42 1,000W metal halide fixtures


The metal halides were encased in tempered glass that could break thanks to the heat generated by the 1,000W fixtures. If glass fell into the pool, all 480,000 gallons would have to be drained and refilled, which was extremely expensive and time-consuming. Dark spots from failing lamps also presented safety issues.


All 42 metal halides were replaced one-for-one with 240W LED high bays, resulting in an energy savings of roughly 70 percent. Future maintenance is simplified thanks to an easy-to-maintain design.

“All light fixtures get dirty, and cleaning a fixture can improve light output by 10 percent,” the agency notes. “It is recommended that you clean your lights—whether LED or fluorescent—on at least a biannual basis.”

Article was updated in March 2019, but originally posted in 2016.

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About the Author

Janelle Penny | Editor-in-Chief at BUILDINGS

Janelle Penny has more than a decade of experience in journalism, with a special emphasis on covering facilities management. She aims to deliver practical, actionable content for facilities professionals.

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