By Carl M. Watson
For Main Line Media News
A popular song lyric from the 1960s proclaims, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” That situation could indeed be the case for many owners of obsolete but still widely used T12 fluorescent lighting systems. As part of its ongoing quest to improve energy efficiency in the United States, the Department of Energy’s rulemaking of 2009 will eliminate most of the remaining commonly used types of T12 linear fluorescent lamps by July 14, 2012. The reason is those lamps’ relative inefficiency compared to their more energy-efficient alternatives. Recognize that the magnetic ballasts that are required to operate those T12 lamps were already phased out in October 2010. This major change will directly affect many commercial, retail and institutional businesses; it will even affect some residences. That means you have about 10 months from now (September 2011 through June 2012) to take action to become prepared for the consequences of this change that could directly affect your business.
Most information about what a T12 fluorescent lamp (or bulb) is should prove helpful. Fluorescent lamps are partially described by the diameter of their tubular glass envelope, measured in eighths of an inch; hence, a T12 is 12/8ths of an inch, or one and one half inches wide. The specific lengths of T12 lamps affected by this law are four-foot (48-inch) lamps with a bi-pin base, two-foot (24-inch) U-shaped lamps with a bi-pin base, and eight-foot (96-inch) lamps with either a single-pin base or a recessed double contact (RDC) base. There are two key electrical components in a fluorescent light fixture in addition to the lamp holders. The first is the one to four lamps that actually produce the light. The second is the one or two ballasts (think of them as the engines of the light fixture), which are necessary to regulate the operation of the lamps.
To put this in perspective, you need to understand that over a period of more than 20 years, legislation has become law that has continued to phase out the availability of the most inefficient lighting-system components (lamps and ballasts). While there are numerous examples of the impact of these regulations, one example that ordinary consumers might be aware of is the elimination of the familiar 100-watt incandescent lamp in January 2012. This will be followed by the phase-out of the 75-watt incandescent lamp in January 2013, and the 60-watt and the 40-watt lamps in January 2014. For the 100-watt lamp, the alternatives include an already available 72-watt halogen lamp, which has very similar light output and performance, a 23- to 26-watt compact fluorescent lamp (CFL), which may or may not work with a dimmer, and a “next generation” light-emitting diode (LED) lamp, which will become available in early 2012 and is not yet cost-effective.
There are several alternative paths to address the issue of the pending unavailability of T12 fluorescent lamps. In the short term, having an adequate supply of new spare lamps on hand provides you with the ability to “keep the lights on” until a long-term approach is selected. Here you need to be mindful that this is, at best, only a temporary measure, since when the existing magnetic T12 ballast expires, it is essentially “game over.” Be aware that ballast failure can be accelerated by not replacing spent, worn-out fluorescent lamps promptly (usually in pairs) when they fail to light (when they go out). While electronic T12 ballasts will still be available until 2014, installing them would be like putting alloy wheels on an old car, for which you will soon be unable to get tires. Note that a few T12 lamps with a Color Rendering Index (CRI) of 87 or greater, which offer less than full light output, will continue to exist. In addition, some T12 lamps containing only full (pure) “rare-earth” phosphors will meet these new efficiency standards, albeit at a high price.
For the longer term, there are multiple approaches. One is to retrofit each existing light fixture with an electronic ballast and T8 lamps (which are an inch wide). This may also require replacement of the lamp-holders in the light fixture. A second approach is to replace each existing light fixture with a new fixture containing those more energy-efficient components (ballast and lamps). A third approach is to redesign the lighting system(s) in the space to perform the required lighting tasks more efficiently and effectively. This last alternative might appear more complicated but it gives you the opportunity for a more tailored lighting solution, which, if done well, can produce advantageous and beneficial outcomes as well as lowering operating expenses.
With any of these alternatives, one should expect an economic benefit of a reduction of between 25 and 40 percent in that portion of the electricity cost that is attributable to lighting. Understand that in commercial retail applications that lighting portion can typically vary between 30 and 45 percent of the total electricity expense. The wide range of potential savings is determined by a number of variables, including the hours of operation and the lighting levels necessary for your type of business. Evaluating each of the variables associated with the existing lighting equipment and its application should be done thoughtfully prior to choosing a course of action in order to get the best results. How quickly this new lighting pays for itself will be determined by your individual situation; however, it will do so, usually within two to five years.
In selecting among these alternatives, there are a series of decisions to be made. These decisions include: budget and time schedule, quantity and quality of light needed for the unique type of business and merchandise (the light source’s color appearance [warmth or coolness of the light] and its ability to render colors accurately), distribution of light (in order to maximize sales), ability to have multiple levels of light (for when the store is closed), nighttime security lighting (if needed), code-required life-safety lighting (exit signs and emergency lights) and State Energy Code compliance review by the township’s Building Regulations Department. This last item is now mandatory for both new and existing facilities, as part of Pennsylvania’s recently adopted, statewide Uniform Construction Code (UCC), which became state law in 2004.
In the swiftly changing waters of this new environment, each of us will have to navigate the opportunities and challenges ahead as we move down the river of our businesses. However, if running these particular white-water rapids alone seems too difficult or challenging, you might want to be guided by enlisting the services of a skilled lighting-design professional. Your guide could be a lighting designer, an electrical engineer or other design professional who specializes in lighting. Look for someone who has a professional license or registration, or has at least one certification involving lighting. That person will work with you to develop a lighting-design solution that is appropriate for your needs and will prepare written specifications. Using these, you can then solicit competitive bids from local electrical contractors. They will get the lighting equipment from a local electrical distributor and install it. Know that as part of choosing an electrical contractor, there are more considerations that must be addressed, including getting an electrical permit, an electrical inspection (by an independent third-party inspection agency), proper disposal of the old lights (both lamp and ballast recycling), and qualifying for and getting any available grants and/or utility rebates.
In summary, the bad news is, based on this change, you might have to do something soon. The good news is there are multiple ways to achieve a positive, “green” outcome, which can reduce significantly your operating costs, enhance the appearance of your business and its merchandise, and potentially increase your sales. The net result is an improved bottom line. Finally, with advice from an experienced lighting-design professional, you do not have to go it alone.
Carl M. Watson, PE, MBA, is also LC (Lighting Certified, a professional designation of the National Council on the Qualifications for the Lighting Professions).