LED Lighting Upgrades, Retrofit or Replace?

By Jonathan Susser | April 13, 2021

This article was written by Charlie Martin, one of our senior energy engineers. If you have questions or would like information on Advanced Energy’s services, please contact Charlie at 919-857-9021 or fill out our contact form.

Light-emitting diode (LED) light sources are fast becoming the primary means of illuminating commercial and industrial buildings. Unlike traditional light sources, LEDs are semiconductor devices that produce visible light when an electrical current passes through them. Per Statista, a leading provider of market and consumer data, LEDs made up almost half of all light sources in 2019, and their market share is projected to reach 87 percent by 2030. All new commercial and industrial facilities employ LEDs, and many built prior to 2010 have already upgraded their lighting systems to the technology.

This recent surge is due to government sustainability mandates plus falling prices of LED components. Today, the costs of LED fixtures and retrofit lamps compete favorably with traditional light sources, though these costs are not the primary benefit of LEDs.

One key advantage is their very high luminous efficacy, which is a measure of lumens of light output compared to power in watts input. LED fixtures have efficacies up to 140 lumens per watt and can have operating costs 50 percent lower than fluorescent fixtures.

A second advantage is their extremely long lives: LEDs have rated lifespans of 25,000 to 100,000 hours, which means reduced maintenance expenses.

Third, they provide better light quality than more conventional light sources and produce fewer shadows. Therefore, replacement LEDs can use lower lumen output to achieve similar workspace illumination as existing fixtures, especially in outdoor security lighting applications.

So, when faced with replacing a lighting system, what is the best solution: replace with new LED fixtures or retrofit the fixtures with LED lamps or tubes? The answer, like the devil, is in the details. In planning for an LED upgrade, we must weigh the factors involved and ask the following questions:

  • Is appearance of fixtures important?
  • What system are we replacing?
  • How old is the system?
  • What are my facility’s electric costs?
  • What are the annual operating hours?
  • What is the required return on investment for projects?

If appearance is important, the system is over 15 years old, operating hours are significant, electric costs are high, and/or a high return on investment is not critical, LED re-fixturing is typically preferred.

However, if re-fixturing is not considered cost-effective and/or the existing candidates are T8 or T5 fluorescent, open incandescent or high intensity discharge fixtures, retrofitting with LED tubes or lamps may be the favored option.

Figure 1. Hybrid Retrofit LED Tube

Retrofitting T8 and T5 fluorescent fixtures can be cost-effective and easy using hybrid retrofit LED tubes (Figure 1). These are essentially “plug and play,” as the existing lamp can be removed and the LED tube installed. Unlike older LED bypass retrofit tubes, they can operate with or without the fluorescent fixtures’ electronic ballast. So, they may be directly installed in the fixtures’ lamp holders without removing the ballast; however, because the ballast remains in the circuit, it will still consume a small amount of power and is subject to failure. Upon failure, the ballast will need to be removed from the circuit and the hybrid tube reinstalled.

Remember to explore potential utility incentives that can help with the cost of lighting upgrades. Many utilities offer incentives for both new LED fixtures and retrofit lamps and tubes. These can reduce installation costs and improve your return on investment.