Advancing lighting with a retrofit solution

Quick, cost-effective, and minimally disruptive, retrofit kits offer engineers an innovative solution to the problem of antiquated lighting systems.

By Kurt Vogel, Lithonia Lighting, Conyers, Ga. July 6, 2012

According to the U.S. Dept. of Energy’s (DOE) 2010 U.S. Lighting Market Characterization report released in January 2012, there are 2.4 billion linear fluorescent lamps installed across the country. Nearly 1 billion of these are T12 lamps. Right now, antiquated lighting systems—primarily parabolic or lensed troffers with these T12 and even some T8 lamps—are nearing the end of their natural life. 

This statistic alone proves there is tremendous opportunity for engineers to help commercial facilities install a more modern, energy-efficient lighting system. Until recently, specifiers had four basic options to consider when retrofitting lighting. All had advantages, but none offered a truly optimal solution. 

1. Relamp and reballast: Installing new, more efficient lamps and ballasts is fast and simple, and can be accomplished as routine maintenance. However, this practice does not achieve maximum energy savings, nor does it enhance the appearance of the space. A lamp and ballast change also may require replacement lenses to optimize the lighting, which can result in higher than anticipated costs. If LED “tube” lamp replacements are being considered, be aware that the installation methods and delivered light output can show significant variation depending on the retrofit application and the products selected. 

2. Delamp and reballast using a reflector kit: This retrofit option requires a relatively small increase in labor compared to a relamp and reballast option, but can still be accomplished from below the ceiling. Higher material costs—compared to a relamp and reballast—can delay payback. Also, changes in appearance and lighting quality may be unfavorable. This approach is often misapplied with existing parabolic lighting, resulting in greatly diminished light and satisfaction levels.

3. One-for-one replacement: Installing new fixtures will greatly improve the appearance of the space and the quality of lighting. It can also reduce maintenance and maximize energy savings. However, there is a high material cost associated with new fixtures. Also, labor costs can double for this solution, making the return on investment and payback challenging. Finally, this option involves entry into the ceiling plenum, which is usually disruptive and messy, and requires the contractor to bring the new installation up to code. 

4. Complete redesign: A final option is to perform a complete lighting redesign for the space. This becomes a true construction project typically requiring a permit, and it is the most expensive and disruptive to ordinary activities. On the other hand, it provides a complete renovation as well as the opportunity to use integrated controls and lighting systems to maximize energy savings.  

Now engineers can add a fifth retrofit option to their toolbox: retrofit kits. Providing a fresh solution to the problem of old, inefficient lighting, retrofit kits are available in efficient fluorescent and LED options. The kits enable installation of component parts into the housing of old fixtures while maintaining their integrity and delivering the appearance and efficiency of a modern fixture. 

In addition to better quality of light and better-looking fixtures, retrofit kits involve only minimal disruption to an organization’s productivity because they are installed from below the ceiling plane. Installation for relight kits is also cleaner and faster than replacing an entire fixture housing and wiring, offering the options to complete installation overnight and further enhance productivity. 

Additionally, this “next generation” of retrofit kits is more cost-effective than a one-for-one replacement or an entirely new lighting design. Facilities can now upgrade lighting systems to both increase energy savings and achieve the performance and appearance of entirely new fixtures. This can all be accomplished for a reasonable cost. 

An ideal solution 

In addition to simpler, better performing, and more energy and cost-efficient retrofit technology, a number of current market factors have emerged to create the ideal time for engineers to recommend and for end users to consider a lighting upgrade. These factors include a national focus on energy savings, available rebates, and the government phaseout of most T12 fluorescents. 

Factor 1: Older lighting systems are not very energy efficient at all when compared with newer options. With almost a quarter (24.8%) of a commercial building’s primary energy use comprised of lighting, installing more energy-efficient luminaires can significantly reduce energy use and therefore costs. Additionally, these older lighting systems produce more heat, increasing a facility’s HVAC costs. Retrofit technology is now so energy-efficient that an upgrade pays for itself in a very short window. 

Factor 2: Outdated lighting systems are placing strain on utility companies trying to meet rising energy demands. To combat this, many utility companies are providing substantial rebates to facilities that install energy-efficient lighting retrofits and providing another cost incentive to bring retrofits within reach for end users. 

Factor 3: The U.S. DOE has mandated that manufacturers phase out production of most T12 lamps by July 2012 to help increase energy efficiency of linear fluorescent lighting. As of July, many of these old lamps will no longer have available replacements, which will make maintaining an outdated system even more difficult. 

Additionally, new technology is making LED lighting solutions available for retrofit projects. Again, this offers an alternative for end users who cannot afford the cost and disruption of a major construction project, but still want to reap the aesthetic and efficiency rewards of modern LED lighting.

LED lighting retrofit fixture assemblies have recently emerged as a viable retrofit option for general ambient lighting and are considered the future of retrofit technology. LED relight kits are even simpler and faster to install, provide greater energy savings, reduce maintenance to virtually nothing, and yet can still provide the appearance and performance of a brand-new lighting fixture when designed and installed properly. Also, you can achieve a one-for-one replacement with efficiencies now approaching 100 delivered lumens per watt for tremendous energy savings. 

LEDs are also much easier to control and dim. When paired with daylight and occupancy sensors, LED retrofit kits can greatly reduce payback time. The materials cost is relatively inexpensive and the controls enhance energy-efficiency and longevity of the system. Retrofit products can also take advantage of existing inboard/outboard wiring for the old fluorescent system to incorporate bi-level dimming capabilities with no additional wiring required. These controls connect to the existing wiring and require minimal labor, making them an ideal solution because they can be installed from below the ceiling. 

Achieving maximum return on investment

Even with all advantages of lighting retrofits—energy-efficiency, superior light quality, a more aesthetically appealing luminaire, and a minimally invasive installation process paired with excellent timing for facilities—it is important to consider the following to achieve a maximum return on investment, according to Lithonia Lighting. 

1. Ideally, project payback should occur within 2 to 3 years of the installation. 

2. Business disruption should be minimal. Look for retrofit kit products that can be installed quickly from below the ceiling plane, without having to disturb existing ceiling tiles or enter the plenum space. Retrofit materials should be packaged and delivered in a way that minimizes mess and waste disposal and/or is recyclable.

3. The new lighting should enhance the look and feel of the space. Older parabolics and lensed troffers can be upgraded to newer “volumetric” performance that improves vertical lighting distribution, reduces glare and contrast, and makes the space feel brighter and more pleasant. 

4. A good retrofit lighting assembly should be designed to be as universal as possible, working seamlessly within the framework of many existing fixtures. This makes current and future jobs easier for the contractor and the facility. Many facilities have existing fixtures that were installed over time and may be different models from different manufacturers. The retrofit solution should be as universal as possible.

5. Ensure the selected retrofit products will fit within the current ceiling system. It is critical to assess in advance whether the facility is metric or standard and, if necessary, ensure the lighting retrofit manufacturer offers custom solutions to fit within the metric grid. 

6. Ensure the chosen retrofit solution is UL Classified in order to avoid issues with inspectors or insurance adjusters. When using a retrofit kit option, ensure the entire kit—not just its components—is UL Classified. 

7. Many existing, older lighting fixtures are being used in some air-handling capacity such as air supply or heat removal. When using a retrofit kit option, ensure the product is compatible with these air-handling applications and is UL Classified for that use. 

8. A high-quality lighting retrofit solution that is packaged effectively should allow the electrical contractor to achieve better profits by saving time and labor, and supporting supply chain efficiencies. Retrofit lighting should be packaged with the installer in mind, arriving on as few pallets as possible with all components necessary for installation in one place. Consider specifying that pallets used are of a size that will fit through doorways and on standard elevators. This minimizes time spent searching for components and eliminates energy wasted on moving heavy parts and maneuvering existing furniture. 

Modern retrofit for historic building

Health insurance leader Medical Mutual of Ohio’s recent lighting upgrade is an excellent example of how a retrofit can enhance light quality, improve employee satisfaction, reduce energy use, reduce maintenance, and help achieve sustainability goals without the disruption and cost of a major renovation. 

Medical Mutual is headquartered in the historic Rose Building in Cleveland, one of the city’s premier steel-frame buildings. Built in 1900, it has served as the headquarters for Medical Mutual of Ohio since 1948. While the building is honorably listed on the National Register of Historic Places, its old lighting system was not delivering ideal light quality or energy efficiency. 

In late 2011, Medical Mutual began to explore a more energy-efficient lighting solution. 

“We had been looking into a lighting upgrade for some time,” said Don Green, Medical Mutual of Ohio director of building and general services. “We recognized the impending phaseout of T12 lamps provided an opportunity to choose a more energy-efficient lamp and ballast, reducing our energy-consumption and utility costs.” 

Medical Mutual contacted ECO Engineering in Cincinnati to review and assess its headquarters lighting. After conducting a lighting audit, ECO Engineering confirmed that Medical Mutual would greatly benefit from a lighting retrofit in the Rose Building. The size of the company’s headquarters—16 floors (including an annex) and 381,000 sq ft—and a very outdated lighting system of nearly 3,000 T12 deep cell parabolic fixtures provided the right opportunity to make a big impact. 

However, there were still a number of challenges. “The first challenge was determining how to maintain a light level that everyone would accept,” said ECO Engineering’s Matt Minard, who led the investigation and managed the project. “With the deep cell parabolics previously in place, employees were actually taking lamps out of fixtures. The lamps over their desks were too bright; they only needed one bulb. In response, other employees complained it was too dark when bulbs were reduced.” 

The second challenge was increasing the light efficiency in the entire space while achieving better light quality, reducing the cave effect and saving energy. 

The third challenge was reducing maintenance. Medical Mutual faces long hours of operation, with some floors in full operation 10-13 hours a day. With outdated T12 lamps, maintenance needed to replace the lamps rather often, taking their time away from more important building operation responsibilities. 

Finally, the ECO Engineering team had to find a way to install the new lighting system without disrupting daily business.

Medical Mutual initially anticipated that new fixtures were required to achieve the desired energy efficiency. However, ECO Engineering developed a lighting retrofit solution utilizing advanced technology that would achieve superior cost and energy savings, plus the look of a modern fixture. It recommended a lighting retrofit using relight kits to address all the project’s challenges and deliver a revitalized appearance. 

 “On this scale, it was important to do something visually so people could see the difference,” Minard explained. “We wanted to remove the old fixtures and install something new to enhance the light and save energy.” 

ECO Engineering specified more than 2,600 Lithonia Lighting 2RT8R Relight Kits to renovate Medical Mutual’s headquarters in the historic Rose Building. 

Green was confident in the solution to use a retrofit kit from the start as well. “Early on, we decided to use the retrofit kit. It fit our needs because it is truly a turnkey approach. We were able to maintain the integrity of the current fixtures without any major construction. Yet we still achieved the efficiency of new ballasts and T8 lamps. 

“The fast installation process also met our needs for minimal disruption to daily operations,” said Green. “Employees would leave work for the day and would come in the next morning to a newly installed lighting solution.” 

The retrofit kit was truly the perfect lighting solution to meet all of the project’s challenges. Each new fixture saves 61 W compared to the previous fixtures, reducing energy use. Additionally, Medical Mutual was able to maintain the integrity of the old fixtures. Finally, the retrofit kit components have a much longer life expectancy than the outdated T12 lamps, which will result in maintenance savings. 

To further enhance energy savings, ECO Engineering identified and took advantage of an existing lighting control system in the Rose Building, providing a custom component to the lighting retrofit. 

“The existing Lighting Control and Design system in the building allows the facility team to tune the wattage of the lighting floor-by-floor,” Minard explained. “So, the fixtures we specified included a step dimming ballast. Coordinating with the existing lighting controls, the step dimming ballasts allow each floor to have unique light levels." 

The step dimming ballast solution allows for better light and increased footcandles, but just at the required levels. Wasted energy is eliminated because the exact amount of power is supplied to achieve the desired light levels on each floor. 

“What was great for Medical Mutual is this solution delivered yet another level of energy savings on top of existing efficiencies,” said Minard. “We achieved another 6%-8% in energy savings for the building as a whole because of the controls.” 

Initiated in October 2011, Medical Mutual’s lighting retrofit was completed in March 2012. 

The use of retrofit kits resulted in significant energy-savings. ECO Engineering calculated previous fixtures used 1.9 million kWh, while the new retrofit kit fixtures use only 906,000 kWh annually. Furthermore, because of related energy savings and a reduced air conditioning load from cooler lighting, ECO Engineering projects the Rose Building’s total annual energy use will decrease from 2.5 million kWh to 1.2 million kWh. 

Minard says the visual impact is just as stunning. “It was great to see the satisfaction from people that work in the building and from people involved in the project like Don. He was ecstatic about how it looked and the expected savings.” 

Vogel is director of product development—Relight and has more than 22 years of experience in the lighting industry. Most recently he drove the development of Lithonia Lighting’s first indoor, ambient LED relight product, RT Relight Series. For the past four years, he has been helping commercial building owners, engineers, lighting designers, architects, and other industry influential realize the benefits of conventional and LED retrofit lighting.