With schools and healthcare facilities struggling to balance rising costs with ever-tightening budgets, energy-efficient lighting upgrades can be an easy and effective way to improve a facility’s lighting quality and performance while significantly reducing operating costs. According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), lighting consumption accounts for 30–50 percent of the electricity schools and hospitals use, and it could easily be reduced by 50 percent or more through upgrades involving cutting-edge, energy-efficient lighting technologies.


According to the Institute of Education Services, the average public school in the United States was built in the 1950s or 1960s, while the EIA reveals that 70 percent of all American hospitals were built before 1990. In their original construction, these facilities could not have taken advantage of the impressive new energy-efficient lighting technologies that have become available in the last 10 years, so these old facilities are rife with upgrade opportunities. Department of Energy studies indicate that for-­profit hospitals, medical offices and nursing homes can boost earnings per share by one penny for every 5 percent reduction in energy costs they achieve; schools can achieve similar results.


For the more than 130,000 public and private schools, 5,000 colleges and universities, and 11,000 community and American Hospital Association-registered hospitals in America, efficient lighting upgrades are a surprisingly simple and effective way to improve lighting system quality, slash energy consumption and costs, minimize maintenance expenses and concerns, and enhance sustainability in a way that’s immediately visible to the bottom line. 


Several lighting manufacturer and electrical contractor experts explored current trends in school and healthcare lighting. They offer tips to help contractors maximize their participation in these lucrative segments.


Current school of thought


Shelli Sedlak, senior lighting specialist at GE Lighting, confirmed that great opportunities exist for the nation’s schools to upgrade their lighting.


“According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are about 133,000 public and private K–12 schools, 4,500 two-year and four-year colleges, and 2,300 ‘nondegree’ schools in the U.S.,” Sedlak said. “Of these schools, two-thirds of their total floor space was built before 1980, and only 40 percent has been renovated in recent decades, presenting a large opportunity for lighting upgrades, driving better overall energy efficiency and occupant satisfaction. Schools built post-1980 can also benefit from upgraded lighting technologies.


“One of the most traditional light sources installed in school lighting applications is fluorescent technology, which is typically seen throughout large floor spaces such as classrooms, break rooms and hallways,” she said. 


Though many school buildings have been upgraded in the past decade to more-efficient T8 systems driven by electronic ballasts, some older buildings still contain T12 fluorescent lamps driven by magnetic ballasts, a configuration that is being phased out because it doesn’t meet new legislation standards that have taken effect.


“In addition, gymnasiums have generally used metal halide lighting fixtures that can vary by energy efficiency and color temperature according to a school’s preferences, and halogen fixtures are often the most common light sources in auditoriums, where a dimming control should be used to lower light levels according to use,” Sedlak said.


When it comes to determining a lighting strategy for a school, it’s important to take a step back and consider the lighting design holistically.


“For example, we begin by asking questions like ‘What’s the specific task or application in this area?’ and ‘What are its occupancy conditions?’” she said.


Previous lighting technology was primarily about lighting desktops in classrooms, but, with students increasingly using computers, tablets and other smart technologies, today’s learning environments require more uniform, controllable light. The latest lighting technologies that meet these needs include light-emitting diodes (LEDs), both inside and outside the classroom.


“LED technology is appealing because it’s easier to control and more ideal for dimming applications,” Sedlak said. “Additionally, in outdoor lighting applications previously dominated by the yellow light of high-pressure sodium, LEDs provide better uniformity, which can improve parking lot visibility for students and faculty and help security cameras achieve better focus.”


Along with LEDs, the next big wave in school lighting involves the use of lighting controls.


“With energy codes and standards continuing to become more stringent, schools are increasingly opting for lighting controls, occupancy sensors and daylight harvesting strategies, the latter of which allows for the augmentation of artificial light sources with natural daylight, as a way to further boost energy-efficiency,” Sedlak said.


McWilliams Electric Co. Inc., Schaumberg, Ill., has completed large lighting upgrade jobs at such schools as the University of Illinois at Chicago, the Illinois Institute of Technology, Loyola University, and Northwestern University. Company president and CEO Jim McGlynn Sr. said that LEDs and controls are of-the-moment technologies that offer the benefits of long life, reduced maintenance and energy and cost savings.


“In the past decade, school applications have contained a lot of electronically ballasted T8 systems, but the cost of LED fixtures has recently come down quite a bit, making it feasible for schools to consider LEDs as viable alternatives,” McGlynn said. “LEDs are pretty much taking over the industry, and we use them in school parking lots, too. We also recently upgraded the metal halide in a school gym to induction lighting, which was quieter than the HID technology and offered very long life.”


After fully understanding a school’s upgrade needs, contractors should know what they’re specifying in a new lighting design or retrofit. If they don’t understand the complexity of the lighting, they should either stick with a specification already created by a lighting engineer for that school or work with qualified distributors, lighting reps and manufacturers for help. 


“Stay ahead of the curve by taking advantage of lighting education opportunities offered by manufacturers,” Sedlak said.


McGlynn also encourages contractors to keep an open mind when it comes to newer technologies.


“For example, contractors haven’t always considered the use of induction lighting, but it’s a viable alternative in many high-bay lighting situations,” he said, adding that high-quality, financially attractive proposals often win the day. “If you can prove a payback in under 2 or 2½ years, you can sell a lighting upgrade job.”


Clean bill of health


Among the nation’s thousands of healthcare facilities, many are struggling to remain solvent amid the realities of mounting overcapacity and financial pressures brought on by the Affordable Care Act.


“The biggest drivers are still energy savings and ROI,” said Steve Ferrara, Philips Lighting’s category product manager for Healthcare Lighting. “Healthcare facilities are under increasing pressure to get more from every dollar, and lighting quality and environmental factors, while more important to some users than others, still often take a back seat to energy savings and ROI.


“Recessed fluorescent troffers, as well as downlights utilizing CFL, halogen and HID technology, are high-volume luminaires in most healthcare facilities,” he said. “Many other form factors are applied at the discretion of the designer, but these are the most prevalent sources and also present the most obvious opportunities for upgrade. Patient rooms traditionally utilize fluorescent sources for ambient and exam lighting, both in the form of downlights, multifunction recessed bed lights, and wall-mounted bed lights, while operating rooms are typically dominated by fluorescent surgical troffers to provide supplemental illumination for procedures, prep and cleanup.”


LED technology has been rapidly infiltrating most of these applications as the cost of these systems continues to decline.


“And while we still see a high level of fluorescent technology being applied, the way it’s being applied has and will continue to change,” Ferrara said. “For example, patient rooms have been undergoing a significant transformation toward environments that promote well-being as opposed to settings that simply house the sick. Patient rooms are taking on more of a home-like and hospitality feel, and lighting plays a significant role in that. The use of more decorative-looking fixture types, wall sconces and lighting controls all working together give the patient and family members a sense of control and empowerment they never had. Overall, the healthcare segment offers great opportunities for lighting upgrades, and we haven’t even seen the beginning of where [solid-state lighting] technology will take these spaces.”


Don Jhonson, owner of Interior Electric, Pembroke Pines, Fla., and a consultant to Tri-City Electric Co. Inc. in Miami, has extensive experience managing the complete electrical and lighting installation for new healthcare facilities, such as Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital in Hollywood, Fla. He agreed that opportunities abound in the healthcare segment.


“It’s an active time for lighting upgrades in healthcare because of skyrocketing costs, the proven ability of energy-saving designs to lower expenses and an increasing acceptance of LED technology by healthcare management,” he said. “In the past, healthcare facilities contained a lot of incandescent/halogen sources, PAR downlighting, metal halide in large common spaces, and mercury vapor or low-pressure sodium in storage/parking and other back-of-the-house areas. Back then, these approaches were cutting-edge in terms of savings and light output. More recently, T8 fluorescent systems have been used in troffers to light patient rooms, corridors and public areas. 


“LEDs and T5s are now lighting more and more spaces based on their strong light output and long life, and I’ve recently been hearing about the possibility of a 60,000-hour fluorescent lamp, which may drive a battle between LEDs and these types of long-life fluorescents,” Jhonson said. “I’ve also seen induction lighting used very successfully in health facility parking lots and other outdoor applications.”


Based on his several decades in the field, his numerous positions working on the development of the National Electrical Code with the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), and his understanding of local and state regulations, Jhonson warned that, while opportunities abound in healthcare lighting, “New construction and retrofit of hospitals must meet exacting codes specifically designed for healthcare facilities, so you need to be very aware of these if you want to break into this market. You can’t approach this like commercial work. Even for retrofits, you need filtration systems in place to remove ceiling tiles and have to be concerned with infectious control and other issues related to patient exposure.


“NFPA 99 was totally revised on the electrical side in 2012, and a lot of new terminology and definitions have been added. Even for people experienced in healthcare lighting, it bears review,” he said.


If planning to work in this specialized area, Jhonson recommends that contractors understand NFPA 99, state and local regulations, the details of the specifications, CAD coordination requirements, mock-ups, commissioning, testing and certifications before stepping in and testing the market.