A Worthy Investment

Lighting is critical on school and university campuses — it affects the learning environment, dining facilities and public spaces — and it certainly affects the budget. If it is not properly managed, lighting can become a maintenance headache.

Few facilities managers have the opportunity to specify and design lighting from the start. So, they must cope with lighting systems that may be outdated or poorly designed. Also, unlike commercial buildings, which are homogeneous and generally built at one time, school campuses tend to evolve. A campus may include new buildings with the latest lighting systems, as well as buildings that were literally built in the gaslight era.

Many schools and universities address lighting as a maintenance function and mix it in with other ongoing tasks. Essentially, their efforts are geared toward saving money by controlling the most obvious and easiest-to-manage variables — supplies and labor. They concentrate on buying replacement bulbs and ballasts at the best price. Then they address the bigger problems as they arise.

As a result, education institutions generally have a contract with a regular lamp and ballast supplier that meets their requirements on an as-needed basis. When someone notices that a lamp is not working, replacement parts are brought from stock and installed by a maintenance person. Hard-to-reach fixtures that require a special service call often are ignored until enough units have malfunctioned to warrant the expense of hiring a contractor with special equipment. Schools that use this approach can be saddled with a lighting system that is always sub-par.

Many administrators are taking a new approach by looking at lighting as its own maintenance category, and developing defined preventive and predictive programs for lighting. Just as with heating systems, elevators and other major capital systems, lighting is relatively easy to isolate from other maintenance tasks. In addition, lighting often requires a level of expertise that is not found on typical maintenance staffs. For these reasons, some schools are removing lighting maintenance from general maintenance and custodial functions, and outsource their lighting maintenance. Outside companies can handle planning, design and maintenance, as well as offer buying discounts and inventory control.

The cost factor

To put costs in perspective, it makes sense to look at the cost breakdowns for lighting. Most facilities administrators, not just those in educational institutions, are not fully aware of the true “cost of light” and the factors that affect getting full value for their lighting dollar.

First, it's important to understand the components of the “cost of light.” Typically, lamps and ballasts, the costs that managers concentrate on the most, represent only 4 to 6 percent of the annual cost of operating a lighting system. Managers spend most of their time and effort trying to get the best deal on these supplies and then store them until they are needed.

The next major controllable cost is the labor to clean and change lamps and ballasts. Yet, this component usually represents only from 8 to 12 percent of annual lighting costs — more than the lights themselves, but still a relatively low percentage.

This means that the lion's share of the “cost of light” — usually 82 to 88 percent of annual costs — is electricity. Yet, most facilities managers see that area as a fixed cost. Short of turning off lights, there doesn't seem to be much they can do to change the equation.

But, by taking a capital- management approach to lighting, facilities managers recognize the true “cost of light” and realize that updating the light system may be the way to go. Many school administrators may be surprised to learn the impact of new lighting technologies. Retrofitted fixtures may cut energy usage by as much as 45 to 50 percent. Working with a specialist, school officials can review an entire system and perform a cost-benefit analysis.

Retrofitting means replacing the fixtures with new, more efficient equipment with better light quality. For most schools, the biggest benefit can come from replacing electromagnetic ballast T-12 fluorescent lighting with T-8 electronic ignition systems. The upgrade will substantially reduce operating costs and improve the quality of illumination with more constant, higher-frequency lighting that reduces flickering.

Schools can retrofit on a building-by-building basis or across an entire campus. The payback generally is three to three-and-a-half years. In one example, a university embarked on a building-by-building retrofit of 110 buildings. Most of the work consisted of replacing classroom T-12 fixtures with T-8 fixtures. Administrators also examined each building and, for most older buildings, specified different types of fixtures or new fixture locations to improve the quality of light.

Another approach is to retrofit a few buildings each year. This more gradual investment obviously has a longer payback. Yet, both approaches are a better investment than doing nothing.

Improving quality

Whether or not you retrofit, a regular maintenance program can significantly improve the quality of light and the lighting efficiency for any space. Fluorescent and high-intensity discharge lamp and ballast systems need constant attention to operate at top efficiency. Their efficiency normally and inevitably decreases as systems get older. Typical maintenance issues with these products revolve around:

  • Lamps losing delivered light as they get old, as much as 25 to 40 percent (lumen depreciation).

  • Fixtures getting dirty, resulting in as much as 40 to 50 percent loss (luminaire dirt depreciation).

  • Electrical problems (hard-starting lamps, low- ballast secondary voltage, socket and capacitor problems).

Regular maintenance can substantially improve the quality of the light throughout a facility, cut down on unscheduled maintenance calls and cut electricity costs by migrating to more efficient components.

A maintenance program often starts with a mass relamp program, in which all of the lamps and ballasts in a building or the entire campus are replaced at once. This accomplishes three objectives:

  • The quality of light is improved immediately.

  • The electrical operating costs are reduced by migrating to more efficient components.

  • All of the components have an expected operating life, so failures — and the maintenance costs associated with those failures — can be all but eliminated.

This third point is extremely important. By establishing a base installation, lighting contractors can predict component failure and perform predictive maintenance to mass-replace the lamps and ballasts before they fail.

Contracting issues

Schools looking to outsource should consider selecting a lighting contractor that will provide turnkey service, starting with a comprehensive lighting system analysis that generates written proposals for lighting — indoor, emergency, area, outdoor, as well as special spaces, such as laboratories, dining rooms, museums and entertainment rooms.

The plan should spell out planned group relamping and fixture-cleaning programs, as well as on-call or emergency services and response commitments. Beyond maintenance, the lighting contractor can become a partner by offering ongoing consultation that improves the overall lighting quality while driving down costs.

King is national account manager for UNICCO Service Company, Toronto, and specializes in lighting systems for educational and retail facilities.

Quick notes

⁁ 25 TO 40

Percentage of lumen depreciation that lamps lose as they get older.

⁁ 40 TO 50

Percentage of luminaire dirt depreciation that results from fixtures getting dirty.

⁁ 82 TO 88

Percentage of annual costs for electricity in the overall “cost of light.”

⁁ 8 TO 12

Percentage of annual lighting costs for the labor to clean and change lamps and ballasts.

See the light

Some potential benefits of outsourcing lighting maintenance:

  • Save significant operating costs.

  • Receive lighting expertise.

  • Free up personnel to perform other facilities tasks.

  • Reduce your relamping costs through volume buying and more efficient inventory management.

  • Prevent most unexpected outages and, through the planned maintenance programs, reduce the high costs of emergency service.

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