by Bobby Farris — This article originally appeared in the January/February 2019 issue of FMJ
According to the United States Energy Information Administration, a staggering 92 percent of all lit buildings in the U.S. have standard fluorescent lighting. There’s a good reason for the disproportionate use of fluorescent lighting throughout the non-residential sector — it works. Fluorescent lights provide a variety of visible light spectrum options and are inexpensive. Additionally, fluorescent lamps were the most energy-efficient choice in the past. For businesses and facilities that had to consider the budgetary impact of utility costs, fluorescent lamps had long been the best choice for keeping electrical cost under control.
A study in schools
To see the impact of fluorescent versus LED lamps, let’s look at a school district outside of San Antonio, Texas. The district has a total population of about 68,000 students and 13,500 faculty and staff spread over seven high schools, 14 middle schools and 46 elementary schools. To power the lighting in a large school district is an expensive proposition. If the district used incandescent lighting, the costs could be estimated at a staggering US$90 million or more. But by using fluorescent lighting, the approximate costs are a much more manageable US$30 million per year.
But what if they could save even more money? Technology has finally brought a viable, money-saving option for large-scale lighting customers. The light emitting diode (LED) has existed for decades, but only recently it became financially viable for widespread use. LED technology has substantially fallen in price over the last decade and design options have increased — paving the way for facilities to switch out fluorescent lamps.
The first and most attractive benefit to LED lighting is energy efficiency. Looking at the standard 32-watt fluorescent bulbs the school district uses, it is possible to swap out these lamps for an LED replacement that gives off the same amount of light (measured in lumens) while operating at 13 watts. Immediately, the district can slash their lighting costs by more than half.
Next, consider that a fluorescent bulb may last 8,000 hours. An LED equivalent is rated to last 25,000 hours, or three times as long. Although the fluorescent lamp would only cost roughly US$1.83 retail compared to the LED equivalent, costing around US $5.00, the operational lifetime of the LED is more than three times as long. Longer operating life means lower cost of maintenance.
If custodial and maintenance staff need to change lamps a third as often as they currently do, there is a direct operational savings. Plus there is the added benefit of freeing up manpower to focus on other responsibilities.
In the most rudimentary retrofit program — simply switching out fluorescent lamps for more efficient LED lamps — substantial savings can be obtained. To take this even further, companies that specialize in lighting and energy efficiency can perform large-scale energy audits and design a complete overhaul of the lighting systems in a complex environment like a school district. An efficiency specialist can analyze the technical capabilities of a facility and determine if the retrofit program should focus on lamps, fixtures, controls or a mixture of all the lighting components to achieve the desired outcome.
A clear example of energy savings through an LED retrofit is a medical center near Wichita, Kansas. By switching out fluorescent lamps for high-performance LEDs, the hospital took the annual electrical usage of 1,712,550 kilowatt-hours down to 495,278 kilowatt-hours. Obviously, the electricity cost savings will pay for the initial investment in the LED lamps, but it is also important to note that changing over to LED lighting will have a noticeable impact on the hospital’s ability to remain compliant with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Advantages of EPA compliance
Fluorescent lamps are considered universal waste by the EPA because they contain mercury. As a universal waste, spent fluorescent lamps must properly and safely stored until disposal can be facilitated. The EPA has strict rules regarding the handling of fluorescent lamp waste, and storage can be a hassle. A hospital, college or any other non-residential facility is obligated to maintain spent lamp storage, prevent accidental breakage of spent lamps and coordinate disposal with a certified hazardous waste handler. Eliminating fluorescent lighting from a facility or campus can free up storage space and lessen the amount of manpower spent on waste compliance.
Furthermore, when a lighting and efficiency specialist performs a retrofit, they can use drum-top bulb crushers to compact the fluorescent bulbs in an environmentally sound way. Bulb crushers attach to a steel drum for collection of compacted bulbs. Using a four-stage activated carbon filtration system to lock in the mercury, the system has HEPA filtration to protect the air.
By compacting, a contractor can lock and neutralize the mercury from as many as 1,350 fluorescent lamps in a single, steel drum. This helps prevent accidental contamination of a facility from lamp breakage and can be beneficial in OSHA-compliance, as well. Of course, this also cuts transportation cost for the waste and protects the environment, not to mention drastically reduces the project footprint.
There are several energy-saving technologies that can help facilities dramatically cut their utility costs. Replacing older fluorescent lighting with LED systems means facilities can take advantage of the higher flexibility of LED lamps. An energy efficiency specialist can integrate the retrofit fixtures and lamps with occupancy sensors, allowing lights in unused areas to power-down when not needed.
Lighting engineers can also utilize the relatively new science of daylight harvesting, which is the science of managing the natural light available indoors. Bringing the sun’s broad spectrum of light into an interior space not only saves electricity, but has been scientifically proven to improve mental focus and productivity.
On a recent retrofit project at a Fortune 500 company in Fort Collins, Colorado, an energy efficiency specialist removed 16,500 fluorescent lamps. The lamps varied in age, but there was an average of about six milligrams of mercury in each lamp. A quarter-pound of mercury captured may not seem like very much, but according to the provincial government of Prince Edward Island, 500 milligrams of mercury (the amount in of mercury in a household thermometer) will contaminate enough water to fill 200 Olympic swimming pools.
By using a drum-top bulb crusher on the project, a quarter-pound of mercury was safely reclaimed. If accidentally released, that would be enough mercury to poison all the water used by the entire state of Utah on any given day.
The environmental impact doesn’t end there. In the case of the Fort Collins retrofit project, reducing the energy consumption by 2.4 million kilowatt-hours a year reduces the mercury emissions related to burning coal by about 56 grams. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, burning coal for electric generation releases sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides and particulates (soot) that include lead and heavy metals into the air.
The LED conversion prevented 1,787 metric tons of CO2 greenhouse gases from being released into the atmosphere. By converting to LED lighting and high-efficiency lighting controls, the customer in Fort Collins is making a measurable difference in their community’s air quality and overall environmental health.
Change can be expensive; there is no denying this fact. To perform a major retrofit, there will have to be an up-front investment. Fortunately, there is great support for facilities that are interested in making such a change. Utility companies and several other entities are offering incentives for facilities that are making the switch to high-performance LED lighting.
In the case of the Texas school district, grants and incentives of more than US$300,000 helped fund the project. An experienced retrofit partner or energy provider will be able to help facility management find all appropriate grants, incentives and discount programs to make the initial investment more affordable. It is also important to note the price of the project is often recouped within three-to-five years. The energy savings alone is usually enough to justify the cost of the retrofit.
Whether a facility is looking to gain accreditation for energy efficiency or environmental impact reduction, or the organization is simply looking for a way to make a long-term cost reduction, a lighting retrofit program may be the answer.
U.S. Energy Information Administration: Trends in Lighting in Commercial Buildings
ASG Energy, LLC
TerraCycle Bulb Eater
Prince Edward Island Communities Land and Environment
Bobby Farris, General Manager of TerraCycle Regulated Waste, a subsidiary of international recycler TerraCycle, heads the corporate division focusing on regulated waste materials, including fluorescent light bulbs, batteries and electronics. Formed from the acquisition of Air Cycle Corporation in 2017, TerraCycle Regulated Waste is the manufacturer of the Bulb Eater® drum-top fluorescent lamp machine which crushes spent fluorescent lamps into 100 percent recyclable material while capturing released mercury vapors. Farris received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Oklahoma, a master’s degree from Florida State University and performed two years of doctoral studies at Claremont Graduate University.