With an estimated 1–2 billion fluorescent sockets installed in commercial, industrial, institutional and retail applications across North America, the market for T8 technology remains strong, though new LED T8 replacements are giving traditional fluorescent technology a run for the money. Still, whether you take the proven path of trusted fluorescent T8 lamps or opt for the ultra-high-efficiency, low-maintenance approach that newer LED T8 solutions represent, industry experts agree that—depending on the application—both of these options can serve their users well.
Fluorescent T8 technology: a proven workhorse
“Fluorescent T8 solutions will continue to be great options for contractors, especially when you consider their long life, proven performance and low upfront costs,” said Jennifer Habel, product manager for T8 and T12 technology at Osram Sylvania in Danvers, Mass. “Performance is better than ever with fluorescent lighting, with life rates ranging from 24,000 to up to 84,000 hours, and there are a variety of warranties that are comparable with LED life ratings. In areas with low energy rates and limited availability of utility rebates, the low upfront cost of fluorescents is very attractive, and even many areas with utility rebates offer fluorescent rebate programs.”
With or without a rebate, fluorescent T8 upgrades still make economic sense, Habel said.
“For example, there’s still a large portion of the T8 market purchasing 32-watt [W] full wattage T8 lamps that could easily upgrade to a reduced-wattage T8, 28W or 25W model to capture great energy saving and a quick payback for very little incremental cost,” she said.
Jim Brodrick, lighting program manager for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Building Technologies Office, agreed that fluorescents offer a strong value proposition.
“T8 fluorescent technology is ultra-mature, and its performance is a standard against which LED lighting is measured because T8 fluorescent lighting is highly efficacious [100 lumens per watt is available], provides color that ranges from good to very good, sustains its light output over time, is very reliable, is available with lifetimes that exceed 60,000 hours, doesn’t flicker because of its electronic ballast circuitry, and is inexpensive,” he said. “T8 fluorescent lighting has proven to be suitable for offices, retail settings, classrooms, industrial applications, cove lighting, and general lighting and is also dimmable with the right ballasts, although this can add significant cost to the system and usually requires additional control wires.”
LED T8 technology: gaining ground
Based on extensive industry investment, experts agree that the outlook for T8 LED replacements is positive.
“Initially, the biggest challenges for T8 LEDs being able to compete with T8 fluorescents were the ability to deliver equal or better light output while keeping the initial costs down,” Brodrick said. “We’re now seeing high-lumen output from LED replacement lamps and a wider light distribution [180 degrees of light emission], which makes them realistically more comparable to the T8 fluorescents they’re replacing. At the same time, the cost of LED products has decreased dramatically, and the future path suggests even higher efficacy at still lower costs.”
Fernando Ulloa, product marketing manager at Osram Sylvania, said fluorescent T8 applications that were once considered the Holy Grail for LED technology are now seeing increasing penetration by LEDs thanks to successful research and development initiatives.
“Previously, matching efficacy levels to those of fluorescents had been a challenge for LEDs, but today’s best LED linear replacement lamp offerings are now approaching or exceeding light output levels and life ratings of conventional counterparts inside luminaires while delivering attractive energy savings,” he said. “LED lamps are also available with more choices of color temperatures and high CRI [color-rendering index], costs are coming down to a comfortable price, and the technology is well suited to supporting lighting controls currently being developed, making them an appealing alternative.”
As a result, the market is just taking off for LED linear replacement lamps, and options abound because the industry offers three types of LED linear replacements for conventional fluorescent T8 technology, Ulloa said.
“These include LED T8 lamps with an internal driver, which deliver great energy savings and low maintenance but can present shock hazards in certain circumstances; LED T8 lamps with an external driver, which offer longer life but may involve higher initial labor costs; and fluorescent ballast-compatible LED T8 lamps, which minimize labor costs during installation but require verification of ballast compatibility for optimum performance,” he said.
Like any new technology, however, “T8 LED lighting is still in the ‘adolescent’ stage of maturity,” and is a light source that continues to evolve and steady itself, Brodrick said.
For instance, “There are several different wiring configurations for T8 LED lamps with no standardization yet on the electrical characteristics, and their efficacy can exceed that of the best T8 fluorescent systems; though, at this point, it’s difficult to know whether that efficacy will be maintained over time,” he said. “Some systems are dimmable, although the effective dimming range varies among different products, and the lamp color ranges are similar to those of fluorescent T8s in terms of CCT [correlated color temperature] but vary more widely in terms of CRI, which can be as low as 70 [below T8 fluorescent] and as high as the 90s [higher than T8 fluorescent]. In addition, a minority of T8 LEDs flicker in output, especially when dimmed.”
T8 lamps are the most commonly used fluorescent lamp in the market, and with T8 LEDs adapting and continuously improving, the market is ripe for this technology to see tremendous penetration over the next five years.
—Ken Hurd, PowerSecure Lighting
However, experts generally assert that the unique properties of LED lighting and its potential outweigh any temporary technical setbacks it is currently experiencing.
Because LED technology is directional and works extremely well with integrated building control systems, allowing light to be used exactly when and where it’s necessary, “LED T8 lighting can benefit an electrical contractor’s customers by helping them achieve energy-efficiency credits on buildings through high-performance green building rating systems like LEED,” Ulloa said. He also said that commercial buildings can leverage their use of LED lighting as both a selling point to new tenants and a means of increasing valuation of the building asset.
“T8 lamps are the most commonly used fluorescent lamp in the market, and, with T8 LEDs adapting and continuously improving, the market is ripe for this technology to see tremendous penetration over the next five years,” said Ken Hurd, senior vice president of supermarket sales for PowerSecure Lighting in Stamford, Conn. “T8 LED lamp technology has seen vast improvements in recent years, including dramatically increased efficacy, color quality, and aesthetics with less glare and enhanced performance. And, fluorescent lamps will see pressure not only from T8 LEDs, but also from new LED replacement fixtures.”
Our experts offered the following tips to help contractors select between fluorescent and LED T8 technology on the job and troubleshoot both options:
Consider compatibility: “Considering the wide variety of ballasts installed in the market today, compatibility can be an issue for LEDs if you don’t want to replace the ballast,” Habel said.
“Some T8 LED lamps operate on existing fluorescent ballasts, making them very easy to retrofit, although there are concerns about early ballast failures as a consequence,” he said.
Avoid shock: “A potential pitfall in selecting LED linear replacement lamps is that some options with internal drivers require line voltage to be connected to the lamp holders,” Ulloa said. “This creates the potential for an electrical shock hazard because, after the fluorescent ballast wiring is cut and the ballast is removed, AC [alternating current] mains are directly wired to lamp holders, leaving 120–277V wired directly to sockets. Contractors can avoid these problems by using either fluorescent ballast-compatible LEDs or LED T8 lamps with an external driver.”
Fluorescent best bets: “If you have a traditional lighting application with frequent switching on or off, such as on occupancy sensors, use a programmed rapid-start ballast with a nonshunted lamp holder to protect the lamp and benefit from the lamp’s designed longevity,” Habel said. “Also, if deciding between reduced-wattage, 28W, or 25W T8 fluorescent lamps, reference application notes on cold temperature, starting and ballast wiring to guide you through a successful installation.”
Reach for a rebate: “Utilizing a DLC-certified T8 LED lamp will allow for the possibility of obtaining a utility incentive where available,” Hurd said.
Leendert Enthoven, president of BriteSwitch, a New Jersey-based company that specializes in managing and securing rebates, tax incentives and other financial rewards (primarily in the lighting arena) for commercial properties nationwide, said that T8 LED rebates are increasing in prevalence.
“Currently, 761 utilities nationwide offer rebates for fluorescent T8 technology, while 409 utilities currently offer rebates for T8 LED tubes, a number which has tripled in the last year,” Enthoven said. “Within the next few years, rebates for fluorescent T8 solutions will likely continue to be phased out as LED products increase in efficiency. As we saw with LED screw-in lamps a few years ago, we expect the number of rebates for LED solutions to continue to increase over the next few years, though rebate amounts may decrease as product price points go down.”
Seeing is believing: Brodrick said that the appearance and light distribution of T8 LED lamps are quite different from those of T8 fluorescent lamps, since some LED lamps have arrays of bright LEDs visible behind clear plastic covers, which can dramatically affect both the light distribution and the glare potential in some luminaire types.
“Also, the light distribution is usually narrower than that produced by a fluorescent lamp, and this also changes the luminaire’s appearance and light performance,” he said. “Sometimes the change is an improvement, but sometimes it isn’t, which is why it’s important to mock up a proposed tube change before committing to a large order.”
Know your luminaire: “Some fluorescent luminaires remain efficient and attractive when relamped with good-quality LED T8 lamps, but others don’t,” Brodrick said. He encourages contractors to consult the DOE publication available at http://apps1.eere.energy.gov/buildings/publications/pdfs/ssl/led_troffer-upgrades_fs.pdf to assist with that assessment.
Look ahead: “If you’re looking for a simple lamp replacement without adding improved control or dimming capabilities, relamping with premium energy-efficient, low-wattage T8 fluorescent lamps is a viable option,” Brodrick said. “I’d suggest looking to the future, not just the near term. Instead of simply replacing your tubes, consider retrofitting the luminaire with an LED kit that offers a wider range of dimming and networking abilities as well as higher efficacy and better color; it may also offer a new appearance to an older, yellowed, damaged luminaire. There are also new LED luminaires with dimming and networking abilities, superior optical characteristics, excellent color, and even white-tuning options. Sometimes replacing your old fluorescent luminaires with brand-new LED fixtures is the most cost-effective solution.”
Use trusted sources: “The best advice for contractors is to work with a manufacturer that has a solid history of lighting expertise across technologies and a proven record of stability and contractor support,” Habel said. “That way, regardless of whether you go with LED or fluorescent technology, you know you’re delivering a quality product that’s going to make your customer happy.”