Energy-saving is no longer an "if", but a "how"

To save or not to save is no longer the question.

By Omar Rivera C.L.E.P. AEE, GE Specification Engineer

To save or not to save is no longer the question; trying to convince someone that saving energy is a good idea is no longer the challenge. What everyone wants to know is what is the best way and where to start.

Lighting is where to start because it requires a low investment cost to save energy when compared to HVAC and many other energy-saving options available within a facility. It also has a fast return on investment (ROI) and short payback period.

To understand the best way to save energy, you need to understand the options available to you depending on the status of your existing facilities. There are three main categories for formulating energy-saving strategies:

  • New construction
  • Existing facilities less than seven years old
  • Existing facilities more than seven years old

Let’s review the options and the opportunities available.

New construction

The ideal status when considering energy savings is to be doing a new construction project, where you can install the latest and most effective technologies before the building opens. So what is the catch? Identifying the latest technologies can be a challenge. So here is a major rule of thumb to make sure you are on the right track: If you have been using the same technology for a number of years, you are probably leaving energy savings on the table.

Since it is new construction, you will get the energy-saving products at wholesale prices. And they’ll be installed during construction, which is typically during normal business hours (as opposed to the higher cost of off-hours installation in a facility that’s already in use).

Of course the project will save from day one of operation, and once the building is in use, maintenance personnel are more likely to replace with the same technologies than to question what was originally specified. In addition, a maintenance budget will be set to maintain these technologies as-is. If you specify the lower-cost, less efficient version, that is what will be used and budgeted for many years to come.

Another big advantage of being in a new construction project is that you can apply the strengths of new technologies and design to the project around new concepts that reduce the amount of wattage per lighting fixture.

Another big advantage of being in a new construction project is that you can apply the strengths of new technologies and design to the project around new concepts that reduce the amount of wattage per lighting fixture. Due to the high efficiency of lamps and ballasts today, instead of using four lamps per fixture you can design around three lamps or even two lamps per fixture, depending on the foot-candles required or recommended. This could lead to substantial savings that will be permanent within the facilities, avoiding future value engineering to less efficient products that cost less but consume much more. See Figure 1 for data.

Existing facilities less than seven years in operation

Many times the owners or managers find themselves with very high-cost lighting systems and cannot understand why, since the facility was recently built. Well, the answer may be twofold. The cost of electricity has gone up, and those who specified the lighting systems may have been using the same spec for many years — a spec that at one time was efficient when the cost of electricity was 20%-30% less. In addition, as long as the design looks good, in many cases no one may think to question energy consumption. Unfortunately, this leaves thousands of dollars of potential energy savings on the table and a long-term problem for the owners.

Here is the big problem and dilemma: You have a perfectly good lighting system that is relatively new, but it’s killing you with high electrical bills. You must make a choice to make an investment to change the system all at once or do it piecemeal.  

If the building is closer to five to seven years old, this will be less painful because it may be close to a major relamping anyway, and since you have to do that, you could take a more aggressive path of changing out ballasts or the entire fixtures.

Existing facilities seven or more years in operation

Many of the statements mentioned above apply to facilities that have been in use for more than seven years, with the exception that older buildings have the largest potential to save energy. This is evident because several generations of better technologies have passed since the buildings have been in existence. Another reason that these facilities are the low-hanging fruit for energy conservation is because there is a large wattage gap between what was installed and what is available today. This produces a higher Return on Investment (ROI), making the proposal to change or retrofit existing lighting more attractive. Finally, in many cases the lighting systems themselves have been written off the books and no longer serve as depreciation against taxes.

To save or not to save is no longer the question; trying to convince someone that saving energy is a good idea is no longer the challenge. What everyone wants to know is what is the best way and where to start.

– Omar Rivera C.L.E.P. AEE, GE Specification Engineer

That being said, there is some limitation to saving energy with existing lighting systems if you plan to keep the existing lighting fixtures that were installed many years ago. Finding the right balance between saving energy and keeping people happy is instrumental and, some would say, an art. Here are some tips and strategies in finding that balance.

There is a general rule of energy savings in existing facilities: Almost every lamp and ballast in the marketplace today has an energy-saving replacement. Finding the threshold for allowable change and budget is key before recommending an energy-saving system. Remember, you may have half a dozen to a dozen contractors working in your facility at night and on the weekends to make these changes. Understanding what you and they are really willing to put up with means understanding the needs of their staff as well.

Retrofits

Some existing facilities are perfect for what is called a “retrofit,” which means that you can use the existing housing of the current lighting system. This is a lower-cost method of getting substantial energy savings. Some retrofits are as easy as changing a light bulb. The more sophisticated versions can also entail the changing of the ballast within the fixture, which may involve hiring contractors who can do it after-hours with the least interference in the day-to-day business.

“Swap out”

In some cases it makes more sense to change technologies all together, meaning to take down the entire fixture and install a new updated fixture. This could be an easy process if you have a qualified electrician who can advise you of the additional cost of the electrical connection involved in changing from one fixture to another. The cost of doing this will initially be higher than the cost of a retrofit, due to the added cost of the new fixture and the substantially higher cost of labor. On the upside you can go ahead and install the most advanced technologies in lighting and benefit from other aspects of that system such as non-glare indirect lighting.

For more energy savings strategies make sure you consider Light Levels and CRI (color rendering index) having the right light levels especially to meet code is very important.

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