How Much is Your Lighting Retrofit Worth?

Feb. 21, 2013
Dig down to your project’s benefits.

A perfect storm of lighting issues led to a 16-floor retrofit for Ohio's largest and oldest health insurer.

The 1,000-plus employees of Medical Mutual of Ohio (MMO), which maintains its corporate headquarters in the Rose Building – a downtown Cleveland landmark – were tired of the dated appearance created by the existing three-lamp T12 lighting.

At the same time, Don Green, MMO's director of building and general services, had been eyeing the phase-out of T12 lamps since that news was announced in 2010. It was time for a change.

Why Retrofit?
The inefficient older fluorescents lighting the 10-story office tower and its six-story annex were projected to consume more than 19 million kWh over an assumed 10-year lifetime, a sum that would eat up roughly $894,617 in energy costs alone, according to Eco Engineering. The high cost coupled with the motivation to improve the building's visual quality led the MMO team to bring in Matt Minard, a lighting engineer at Eco Engineering, to assess the feasibility of a retrofit.

"They wanted to get rid of the deep-cell parabolics and take advantage of a retrofit that would enhance the visual space with more distributed light," Minard explains. "Right before we did the install, a lot of the fixtures were either inoperable or hadn't been maintained properly. Typically, they were three- to four-lamp fixtures, but some of them had one or two lamps in them scattered throughout all of the floors."

The retrofit entailed removing all 2,826 T12 luminaires and replacing them with T8 versions featuring step dimming ballasts and switching controls. The new lamps cost nearly $1 more each ($2.20 per lamp instead of $1.50), but used less energy (28W instead of 34) and came with a lifetime of 30,000 hours – 50% more than the old T12s.

"There were some glare and dimming issues in certain spots," Green explains. "The retrofit kit we chose was the best solution for a number of reasons: we were looking at the phase-out, plus we also wanted to reduce our energy consumption to impact our bottom line and do the right thing from an environmental standpoint." PageBreak

Cost vs. Benefits
Like many lighting retrofits, the availability of financial incentives helped justify the project, but also imposed a few challenges. The tax deduction provided under the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPAct) requires packages to have at least two levels of light (not counting off) to qualify, so Eco Engineering installed 5,652 bi-level switching controls that reduced kWh usage by 20%.

This requirement also led to an unexpected opportunity, Minard notes.

"We're actually doing some load shedding with high-end control dimming for the ballasts," Minard explains. "The existing control system in the building sends a signal to a certain area to tune down the lighting from 100% to 75 or 85% of the output. We were dialing it down to a comfortable light level for each space, reducing the load a little. Later we went back and found that on some circuits, there might be an additional 10 to 15% we couldn't measure because we weren't exactly sure what a comfortable light level would be."

Like the phase-out that concerned Green's team, the longer you wait to update, the more you risk missing out on financial help. While federal incentives like EPAct are still available now, some state-level programs are already disappearing, notes Mark Havira, senior consultant for Efficient Lighting Consultants.

"Any T12s on the shelves are only going to get more expensive, and you'll have to upgrade anyway, it's just a matter of when," Havira says. "Right now, there are still incentives – but Pennsylvania, for example, stopped giving incentives to replace T12s because that train left. There should be money out there, so take advantage of it." PageBreak

Start Your Project Right

How Much Will Your Retrofit Save?

Armed with just a calculator and a few figures from your utility and chosen vendor, you can easily determine how much money and energy you'll save by implementing any retrofit proposal. Use these equations to determine which projects are cost-effective.

kW Demand Reduction =
(Quantity of existing fixtures × wattage of existing fixtures) / 1000

Annual kWh Savings =
(Quantity of existing fixtures × wattage of existing fixtures × annual hours of use) / 1000
(Quantity of proposed fixtures × wattage of proposed fixtures × annual hours of use) / 1000

Annual Dollar Savings =
Annual savings × charge per kWh from utility

Net Payback Period =
(Cost of installation – incentives) / annual dollar savings


Facilities with a significant number of T12 or high-output fluorescent lamps are obvious candidates for retrofits, Havira notes, but so are three-lamp and four-lamp T8 fixtures, as well as older technologies like metal halide, pulse start, and HID.

You don't have to know exactly what you want, Havira notes: "It's very rare that someone will say to me, 'Mark, give me a 94W Lithonia 2-by-4 troffer.'"

However, researching your options will certainly pay off sooner rather than later. At minimum, learn enough about current lighting prices and incentives to make sure your expectations are realistic.

"Get with your contractor and make sure you explore all of the options available to find the right retrofit for your particular building," Green recommends. "How will the project be completed to minimize work disruption? That's one of the reasons why this retrofit met our needs – it was a turnkey project where work was done during off-hours, so we had little to no disruption in our normal business activities without additional expense. Make sure you've got the right kit, the right application, and the right timing."

Also make sure you're retrofitting for the right reasons, Minard adds. You may have a narrow payback period and a limited budget, but don't settle for new lighting that's just as dissatisfying as your old system – it won't take long to regret that decision.

"Make sure you're enhancing the visual environment with the new lighting system," Minard says. "If you want to retrofit and you have an old-style reflector parabolic that traps light but you just change out your lamps and ballasts and go forward, you're not doing yourself any favors. You'll have energy savings, but your light levels will still be subpar. Take advantage of improving the visual environment while you can."

Janelle Penny [email protected] is associate editor of BUILDINGS.

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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