Lighting: The Clean Factor

Jan. 1, 2009
Thorough lighting maintenance will cut energy consumption and make lamps last longer

By Leah B. Garris 

Cleaning is a part of every facility's maintenance routine - not only to keep the building looking good, but also to keep building systems functioning well.

When it comes to keeping things tidy, don't forget to look up (way up). Your lighting system is an important piece of the maintenance puzzle, and the payoffs for cleaning it are huge. In exchange for the time it takes to complete this task once per year, you could slash energy bills, make lamps last longer, and require fewer fixtures when it's time for a retrofit.

Cleaning fixtures and lamps hasn't always been as top of mind as it is now. As Norma Frank, chairperson for the New York City-based Illuminating Engineering Society's Maintenance Committee, explains, prior building designs sometimes had "formulas of no maintenance" because energy was less expensive - it simply wasn't important to save it. "Now, as we approach rising energy rates with no end in sight, we must recognize and utilize everything we can conserve," she emphasizes.

"I've seen newly retrofitted fixtures so dirty [that] the fixture reflector was black instead of white," says Frank, who points out that energy savings can be greater if fixtures and lamps work at the capacity for which they were designed. Even if you've installed new fixtures to save energy, you won't see the savings if the fixtures and lamps are covered in grime. "If lighting systems were properly maintained throughout their lifetimes, 10-percent fewer fixtures could be installed in a building," explains Frank. "This strategy, if utilized across the United States, could cut energy costs by up to $3.6 billion. An added dollar benefit is the material cost savings for [fewer] fixtures."

According to William Griffin, president at Seattle-based Cleaning Consultant Services Inc., lamps and fixtures gather dust quickly due to heat and static charge. When this happens, the amount of light reflected on these surfaces lessens. "The dirtier the fixture and bulb, the less lighting output provided," says Griffin. "Soiling also causes bulbs to operate at higher temperatures, which shortens their expected useful life." He also points out that dirty fixtures and lamps can be fire hazards.

Frank notes that light output from a fixture can be reduced by 50 percent or more if it isn't clean. Just think about what could happen to your operating costs if you eliminated that 50-percent reduction in light output throughout your facilities.

Although cleaning lamps and fixtures is a practice based on fixture type, the lighting system's hours of operation, and the indoor environment, Griffin offers these steps for cleaning lighting systems annually or every other year (or whenever soil build-up is evident):

  1. Gather tools/equipment (ladders, hand tools, bulbs, etc.), safety gear (gloves, goggles, dust respirators, etc.), and cleaning supplies (sponges, white scrubbing pads, cloths, degreaser, general-purpose detergent, heavy-duty cleaner, and furniture and metal polish). Griffin notes that commercial glass cleaner works well at cutting grease and dirt.
  2. Clear and secure an 8-foot work area underneath fixture in case of falling debris.
  3. Turn off power to the fixture and open the fixture (if it's enclosed).
  4. Remove dust with a vacuum or duster.
  5. Remove bulbs and store them securely.
  6. Apply cleaning solution to the fixture with a sponge, spray bottle, cloth, or soft brush; let it sit for 2 to 3 minutes (don't allow it to dry). Agitate with a cloth, brush, or scrubbing pad, and wipe clean. Use a soft scrubbing pad to remove stubborn soil.
  7. Continue the process with the diffuser and other fixture parts, including bulbs, unless the manufacturer's instructions ban wet cleaning or call for special handling.
  8. Inspect; repeat the process, if necessary.
  9. Reassemble the fixture and replace blinking or burned-out bulbs.
  10. Turn on the power and test for proper operation.

Griffin also notes that you should avoid overwetting or spraying directly onto electrical contact points, and that you should work to the side vs. below the fixture in case a bulb breaks. If a bulb does break, don't breathe the dust or use your hands to pick up the glass particles - use a broom.

Although it might take a little bit of time to correctly clean your lighting systems every year, remember this: "Thoroughness in the maintenance cycle can pay for itself many times over," says Frank.

Leah B. Garris ([email protected]) is managing editor at Buildings magazine.

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