Sustainability has grown to be a major focus within the lighting industry, which influences the mission statements and purchasing decisions of many businesses. Kurt Vogel, Director of Relight at Acuity Brands®, joins the Bright Ideas series this week and next to discuss some of the factors that not all buyers recognize when they decide to pursue sustainability in lighting renovations.
ISN’T LED LIGHTING THE MOST ECO-FRIENDLY OPTION AVAILABLE?
There have been countless articles written about the savings, long life, and eco-friendliness of LED light fixtures. They typically reduce electricity usage by 70% versus the fluorescent fixtures they are replacing. Switching to LED typically also eliminates the presence of mercury altogether along with the need to periodically replace lamps.
So in new buildings, LEDs are the most beneficial choice. They lead to great energy savings, and their quality of light is outstanding.
Furthermore, because LEDs run much cooler than fluorescent fixtures, converting to LED also reduces a lot of heat in a space. This means a building’s HVAC system won’t have to work as hard to keep the interior cool. A cooler environment will not only help extend the life of the fixture, but it will also reduce the load on the air conditioning unit during the summertime (which is important, since it costs a lot more to cool a building than it does to heat it).
However, it is only after LEDs are installed that they’ll have that positive impact. The process of getting them into place and installed in the first place on the other hand, can often have a negative effect on the overall environmental impact of the project. That’s why when it comes to lighting renovations there are more concerns to take into account than just the savings after installation.
Many commercial buildings currently ripe for renovation were built with fluorescent fixtures during a major construction boom in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and the typical lifespan of a fluorescent light fixture is somewhere between 11 and 30 years. So even though some buildings may have gotten a lamp and ballast or reflector kit retrofit at some point over the years, their quality of light and the appearance of the light fixture is likely pretty poor by now. The combination of poor energy efficiency, ongoing maintenance expense, and poor quality of light puts a large number of businesses very much able to take advantage of the benefits of an upgrade to higher performance LED.
The challenge is that these buildings are still occupied working spaces, so the companies need to minimize disruption in the space. It might be expensive or even financially impossible for them to move employees and customers out of areas for a full-blown renovation, so any renovation or retrofit work must be completed quickly and with an absolute minimum amount of labor, mess, and disruption.
The real trick then is to answer these three questions:
- What’s the quickest and simplest way I can get the appearance, lighting performance, and energy savings of an all-new LED fixture?
- How can I do it quickly with the least amount of labor, mess, and disruption?
- How can I minimize the overall environmental impact of the project that goes beyond just energy savings?
The first two questions can be answered in our conversations around specific retrofit solutions addressed separately), but it’s really the third question about environmental impact and sustainability that is the one that most people don’t think about.
HOW CAN AN LED INSTALLATION LEAVE A NEGATIVE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT?
When evaluating LED upgrades, building owners and many contractors often believe it’s more cost-effective simply to purchase new LED fixtures and replace their old fluorescent fixtures. Unfortunately this can be a very costly misconception, especially in older buildings. Removal of a light fixture that has been in place for ten, twenty, or thirty years is a terribly messy process. Years and years of accumulated dust, bugs, and building materials come down into the working space along with the old fixture. This means that significant additional labor is required before installation even begins in a working space to cover and protect desks, furniture, and carpets. It also means significant additional labor for cleanup after the installation is complete. This labor expense adds up rapidly and is often underestimated in installation cost estimates.
All of those old light fixtures also have to go somewhere after they’re taken out of the ceiling. This means additional expense for rollaway waste dumpsters, etc., and ultimately trucks and fuel to get all of those fixtures to a scrapyard or hopefully a recycling center. A typical fluorescent light fixture has up to fourteen pounds of steel along with assorted other materials (not all recyclable), so even in a relatively small commercial building that adds up quickly to some very large tonnage being transported and scrapped. This adds immensely to the company’s waste stream/carbon footprint and ultimately cancels out the first couple of years’ worth of anticipated net positive environmental impact.
Remember also that all of this is going on in an occupied, working building (usually being done at night after employees have left for the day). This ongoing mess and disruption is likely to have a negative effect on employee productivity that is seldom captured as a project cost.
Meanwhile brand-new LED fixtures are unboxed and installed with their own new steel housings that require additional material, packaging, fuel, and staging labor to get into the same building. All of this costs fuel and human labor, and produces a large amount of waste. It creates a far larger carbon footprint than many buyers may anticipate or would like to consider.
COULD JUST INSTALLING LED BULBS REDUCE THE NEGATIVE IMPACT?
Avoiding the cost and disruption of fixture replacement by replacing just the fluorescent lamps with LED tubes is a common response. Owners are initially able to achieve the energy savings they were looking for and a rapid “payback” without having to disrupt their operations.
However, this solution can still be problematic. Putting an LED inside a plastic tube means heat– and LEDs don’t like heat. As a result, some customers are finding that their new LED tubes aren’t lasting any longer than the fluorescents they replaced. Most of these tubes can also lose 20% of their already lower light output just in the first couple of years, which is a loss employees are likely to notice.
Even worse, those tubes are almost always polymer/plastic material with embedded electronics. They’re put together in such a way that, at the moment, they really can’t be recycled when they reach their end of life. Many LED buyers do not take their maintenance and disposal cost into account when replacing fluorescents with TLED – and those costs are seldom considered in ROI calculations. Most estimates show that an owner will have to replace LED tubes at least twice before a well-designed integrated LED retrofit kit would approach a point of failure.
IS THERE ANY WAY TO ACHIEVE TRUE SUSTAINABILITY IN LIGHTING RENOVATIONS?
Thankfully, the choice of lighting conversions does not end at just fixture replacements or lamp replacement. Lithonia Lighting® has a highly-proven solution called Relight. These integrated retrofit assemblies provide customers with all of the updated appearance, lighting performance, and energy savings of a brand-new LED fixture. They do so however with a clever design that installs directly into the existing fluorescent fixture from below, “repurposing” that old steel housing without requiring removal.
Because the existing housing is never disturbed, all of the mess and the majority of cleanup and disposal goes away (along with those expenses). Repurposing the old steel housing keeps it out of the scrapyard and eliminates production of a new housing, along with reducing packaging and fuel waste.
Relight can also implement all the same control strategies as a new fixture: anything from a basic embedded occupancy sensor all the way up to a whole-building HVAC-integrated smart system that can then become a node for doing occupancy sensing, heat mapping of building space usage, conference room availability, and more.
Lithonia Lighting manufactures Relight in North America, so their supply chain is shorter and faster to reduce wait time as well as carbon emissions. The kits are packaged in a way that minimizes corrugated material so the makers can fit up to twice as many units on a typical truck. This means half as many trucks consuming fuel.
In fact, Relight has already [re]illuminated over a billion square feet in the US.
Conservatively, Lithonia Lighting is estimated to have eliminated the scrap of at least 55,000 tons of steel from old fluorescent housings that would’ve gotten pulled out and sent to scrap yards. And because the Relight Kits use all of the same electronics as a brand-new LED fixture, they’re also reducing electricity usage of the owners by 70%.
From a cost perspective, according to Vogel, that amounts to existing customers saving approximately half a billion dollars every year.
And the environmental impact is equally bright. Altogether, these kits help save over 4 billion kilowatt-hours per year– the same amount that it costs to light every home in the San Francisco area for a year. For context, 4 billion kilowatt-hours a year is like bringing 600 wind turbines online: or eliminating about a million and a half tons of coal burned in power plants.
Best of all, those numbers go up every day as more and more Relight installations take place– not including the cost savings from HVAC systems no longer fighting to cool a building filled with hot fluorescents.
Lastly, one of the other dramatic changes provided by LED is the impact that it can have on the quality of the working environment, productivity, and the morale of employees. The improvement from a Relight kit can make an office more comfortable, safer, and more productive.
Next week, Kurt will further break down how Relight can eliminate hidden costs within a typical project. More information can also be found at lithonia.com/relight.
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