Ways to Save: Lighting

October 13, 2021 | By: Owen Kavanagh

From the mightiest light house to the tiniest tech room, lighting is integral to the work we do. Lights provide visibility, comfort, and safety, but lighting costs can be a massive drain on building budgets. Lighting has continually developed and improved since humanity first sent electricity through filaments, but there are still ways to save.   

How Did We Get Here?  

The first electric light was developed by English chemist Humphry Davy. He created the first incandescent light in 1802, then the arc light in 1806. These arc lights were commercialized by the 1870s but were eventually replaced by incandescent bulbs in the starting in the 1880s thanks to the efforts of many scientists, inventors, and investors. One of the most successful and long lasting of these people was Thomas Edison.  

Edison began the first electric utility company, and his team developed a commercially viable incandescent bulb using carbonized bamboo filaments. This early incandescent had a lifetime of 1,200 hours, and popularized the Edison Screw, which remains the standard socket for light bulbs today. New innovations kept pushing the brightness and lifespan of light bulbs, from tungsten filaments to the use of inert gases, scientists continued improving the incandescent bulb.  

Fluorescent bulbs came about in the 1920s and 1930s and were demonstrated at the 1939 New York World’s Fair to rave reviews from the U.S. Navy. These lights stemmed from the Geissler tubes developed in 1857 by physicist and glassblower Heinrich Geissler. These tubes also led to the development of neon lights (such as in neon signs) and low-pressure sodium lamps (such as in streetlamps). These fluorescent lights were more efficient than incandescent and were adopted in industrial and commercial setting throughout the United States during World War II. Fluorescents would continue to dominate the commercial lighting market into the next century, in one form or another. 

The oil crisis of 1973 led to the development of compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs) that were the first fluorescent made for residential settings. CFLs had a rocky start. They were expensive, large, and inconsistent, but years of development improved their efficiency and lifespan significantly. An ENERGY STAR® Qualified CFL in 2021 uses 75-percent less energy than the average incandescent bulb and lasts 10,000 to 12,000 hours. CFLs stand head and shoulders above their incandescent counterparts, but the light of today and tomorrow are Solid State Lights (SSLs) like Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs).  

Lighting Today 

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) concluded its L-Prize competition, which was begun to “spur lighting manufacturers to develop high-quality, high efficiency solid-state lighting products.” The breakthroughs made in the first L-Prize competition increased efficiency and decreased the prices of LEDs from nearly $160/Kilolumen in 2008 to $40/Kilolumen in 2011. Even with the L-Prize behind them, LEDs lit only 3-percent of floorspace by 2012.  

Nearly 10 years later, LEDs make up 44-percent of commercial lighting, with the DOE projecting this to increase to 88-percent by 2030. LEDs are extremely efficient, sustainable, and are still getting better and cheaper. LEDs entered the market as an incredibly expensive product, but even when they were $60 a bulb, buildings still saved money switching. An LED retrofit may cost more upfront than a comparable fluorescent or CFL, but with their increased lifespan and energy savings, LEDs practically pay for themselves. However, the benefits of an LED retrofit are not simply monetary.   

Saving at the Socket 

“LED retrofits can help keep engineers off their ladders and free them up to do preventative maintenance for HVAC and plumbing,” Mark Gallman, SMA, SMT, LEED GA, explained. “LEDs can also drop energy costs enormously, through both energy savings and utility rebates.”  Compared to the regular bulb changes required in incandescent lights and even fluorescent, LEDs can save both money and time. Switching to LEDs can lighten the load on building engineers and free them up for building upgrades, maintenance, continuing education, and more.   ENERGY STAR® Qualified LEDs can last up 50,000 hours.

LED lighting can last 35 to 50 times longer than incandescent, and two to five times longer than fluorescents. ENERGY STAR® Qualified LED lights have three-year warranties, so even if one unexpectedly fails before the rated lifespan, it won’t come out of the building’s budget. LEDs also generate little heat, so cooling costs may decrease after switching. CFLs require time to warm up, but LEDs turn on instantly and their light output remains constant well into their lifespan (only decreasing after 35,000 hours).   

Making the Change 

Switching to LED involves a few steps. First, get a sense of your current lights. ENERGY STAR® Portfolio Manager can help with this, as this data is already an aspect of benchmarking for ENERGY STAR® Scores. Next, set up a lighting audit. This can be done by a vendor, building engineer, or any other expert. Many companies exist to assist with these sorts of audits and finding the best one local to your building will help in both a lighting audit and down the line with other sustainability initiatives.  

Third, research your rebates. Many utility companies encourage switching to LED bulbs and fixtures, and may offer mail-in rebates, buy-downs, and instant rebates. Once you have your audit, lights, and rebates sorted, set up the lighting installation. This can be done internally with your building engineers, a lighting specialist, or a qualified contractor. The scope of the project depends upon the building’s lighting fixtures and design and should be understood fully before changing the lights. Finally, enjoy watching your lighting costs decrease over time.  

An LED retrofit can save time, money, and it can help your ENERGY STAR® Score. Solid State Lighting like LEDs continue to make waves, and with the advent of the 2021 L-Prize competition, LEDs will continue to improve in lighting quality, comfort, cost, and efficiency. Even though there are breakthroughs on the horizon, competition between LED manufacturers has caused prices to drop to just over the cost of materials. Switching today will save time and money tomorrow, why wait?  

See the entire library of ENERGY STAR® videos and articles in our 2021 ENERGY STAR® Content Guide.


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Insights from Mark Gallman, SMA, SMT, LEED GA
The History of the Light Bulb | Department of Energy 

L-Prize - Bright Tomorrow Lighting Prizes (archive.org) 

Upgrade Your Lighting | ENERGY STAR Buildings and Plants | ENERGY STAR 

Why Choose ENERGY STAR Qualified LED Lighting? | Products | ENERGY STAR 

CBECS 2012: Trends in Lighting in Commercial Buildings (eia.gov) 

DOE BTO Lighting R&D Program, “2019 Lighting R&D Opportunities”