10 Most Common Lighting Project Mistakes

When an LED lighting retrofit is done right, you’ll see dramatic savings, quick payback, enhanced lighting quality and visual comfort, reduced maintenance expenses, etc. – as long as you don’t make these 10 common mistakes.

A well-designed lighting project should result in an even spread of light, like in this photograph, rather than light and dark areas.

June 2020

Energy-efficient lighting retrofits offer an extraordinary opportunity to cut operating costs and improve lighting quality. But, along with the opportunity for improvement comes the opportunity for mistakes.

Not all LED upgrades are created equal. We’ve always said: if you’re going to do an energy efficiency project, do it right. Don’t cut corners and don’t take shortcuts. If you follow the guidelines here and avoid these 10 slip-ups, you’ll be pleased with your lighting retrofit project for many, many years.

1. Choosing The Wrong Installation Partner

Choosing the correct company to design and install your LED lighting project is by far the most important guideline. Evaluating LED lighting and selecting the optimal solution for your facility can be confusing and daunting. A good partner is just as much a consultant as a provider of equipment and installation services. These projects require expertise in both lighting and energy, so selecting a company that has expertise in both is critical.

Beware of electrical contractors. They may know electrical work but, in general, they DO NOT know energy efficient lighting design and are NOT focused on maximizing your long-term energy savings.

If you choose a quality partner, you’ll go a long way toward avoiding the 9 other costly mistakes.

2. Buying Decisions Based On Upfront Cost Are Almost Always A Mistake With LED Lighting

That’s because, in addition to upfront cost, there are two other financial components in a lighting project that must be considered:

(1) The cost of energy used by the new lighting over its lifetime; and
(2) Decreased maintenance costs.

Focusing only on upfront cost will inevitably result in choosing a poorly engineered product with entry level components that uses more energy than needed and will fail quickly. If you take nothing else from this paper, always remember that NOT ALL LED FIXTURES ARE CREATED EQUAL. Just like not all refrigerators or cars are created equal. There are reasons why things don’t cost the same. Selecting high quality LED solutions from best-in-class install partners and manufacturers will maximize the energy savings and minimize the maintenance costs OVER THE LIFETIME of the LED solution.

These two factors are why you’re considering a project in the first place and should be the focus, even if they cost a little more upfront. If the final decision is made solely on upfront cost by the purchasing department without an understanding of your objectives, the system you want (an evenly and well-lit space, with maximum energy savings and minimal maintenance costs over time) won’t be the system you’ll get (cheap contractor grade LED products that won’t light your space well, use too much energy, and that will fail prematurely).

3. Failing To Establish A Way To Compare “Apples To Apples”

If you don’t establish your expectations and clearly communicate them to vendors, there’s virtually no chance your expectation will be met. The fail-proof way to ensure your expectations are met is to develop specifications for your project. This applies not only to the performance of the lighting system, but also to establish the level of services and performance expected from the company you choose as your lighting partner.
Again, the LED lighting world is confusing. It’s often difficult to compare one bid to another, with both bidders talking up their proposal and talking down the competitor’s proposal. Being able to compare “apples-to-apples” is critical in avoiding a costly mistake. A true lighting consultant will work with you to navigate through all the “noise” and to help you develop lighting specifications for your project.

Clear specifications do three things:
(1) they will allow you to be able to compare bids on a meaningful basis since the bids must meet the specifications; and
(2) they ensure that the solution you ultimately select will be a high-quality lighting system; and
(3) they ensure that the lighting partner you choose can provide the extra services you expect: investigating and obtaining utility company rebates on your behalf, providing a dedicated project manager for your project, measurement and verification of your new system, and providing post-project support, such as managing the lighting manufacturers’ warranties on your behalf.

4. Delaying Too Long

There are two main reasons why companies hold back. One is corporate inertia. After all, the building is usually comfortable, and the lights still work. No one is complaining. With constant on-the-job pressures, who has the time for anything but today’s most urgent crisis? The other reason for delay is to wait for a new rate schedule, a better rebate, or more efficient technology.

But the truth is, the savings you gain from a properly planned lighting retrofit outweigh other considerations. Take advantage of energy savings now. Delaying a decision in anticipation of any future possibility means you’ll miss out on immediate savings. You’ll never get those lost savings back.

It’s important to know that LED efficiency and LED costs have levelled off. Any potential future efficiency improvements and cost decreases will be minimal and will be greatly outweighed by the amount of savings lost due to delaying. Also, rebates offered by utility companies have been decreasing, and in some cases disappearing, so delaying only increases the risk that this source of free money will not be available.

5. Believing That You Can’t Afford An LED Lighting Project

Unlike other investments in your building, LED projects provide a return on your investment. Therefore, LED projects should not be evaluated like other upgrades. A paradigm shift in how these projects are viewed will reveal (perhaps surprisingly) that you’ve already budgeted for the project and in fact are paying for it, even if you don’t do the project. This is because your utility bill comes every month, and you’ve budgeted to pay those bills every month. Embedded in those bills is the high cost of running your old, inefficient lighting system. LED fixtures will lower your lighting-related costs by 50-75%.

Therefore, even if you don’t do your project, you’ll still pay for the project over time every time you pay your utility bills.

LED projects pay for themselves through the energy savings, and will allow you to re-allocate the free cash flow they generate to your bottom line.

Energy Use in Commercial Buildings: End-Use Breakdown
If you know how energy use breaks out, you will be able to identify opportunities to save energy in your buildings.

6. Failing To Test Solutions Before Purchasing

Words and numbers on paper are just that: word and numbers on paper. They may or may not be correct. More importantly, the customer shouldn’t take the risk that they are incorrect (either intentionally or unintentionally). Reputable LED consultants should be willing, and in fact should be suggesting, that a few of the recommended LED solutions be installed in your environment so that measurement and verification can be done. Are they providing enough light? Too much light? Are they using the amount of energy they were expected to be using? Do they spread the light adequately, so you don’t end up with dark areas in between fixtures?

Beware of vendors that balk at your request to install test fixtures, or request that you pay for the test installation up front.

7. Failing To Perform A Detailed Lighting Audit

Experienced lighting partners will perform a detailed lighting audit of your facility. The audit provides a roadmap for the entire process. The data they gather includes an inventory of your existing lighting system, the hours your lighting is on, the amount of energy your current system uses, the amount of light your current system provides, the layout of the current system, building dimensions, and inspection of your electrical panels and system.

Only after this data is gathered can a recommended solution be designed. Beware of vendors who say an audit is not necessary or who spend minimal time in your facility. Be prepared to face a wave of change orders from such a vendor as they encounter issues during the project that should have been discovered during the audit.

An often under-appreciated measure of the quality of an LED lighting design is how evenly the light is distributed. This is called the max/min ratio and it should be as low as possible. Lighting experts use software called photometrics to help determine the optimal placement and light output of light fixtures to avoid dark areas and meet your minimum lighting specifications

8. Using Incorrect Electricity Rates And Run Hours To Calculate Savings

Two key variables in assessing the financial metrics of your lighting project is how much you pay for your electricity (your “kWh” rate) and the number of hours your lights are on (your “run hours”). Therefore, using the correct kWh rate and run hours in the analysis is critical. For the kWh rate, a full 12 months of bills should be analyzed, so that a valid “blended” kWh rate can be calculated.

It’s a mistake to use average kWh rates in your proposal. A trusted LED lighting partner will request copies of 12 months of your bills and can quickly calculate your blended kWh rate.

Be cautious of vendors that suggest using an “average” or “stipulated” kWh rate or run hours. They’ll often suggest a kWh rate and run hours that are higher than your actual numbers, which causes the simple payback and other project metrics to be overstated.

9. Neglecting Frontline People

Designing an LED lighting project should consider everyone that will be impacted by the project. Of course, management, including the CFO, should be involved since such projects are investments that provide a return to your company. But additional stakeholders include the plant manager, project engineer, safety liaison, maintenance personnel, and the people who will actually be working in the environment.

Sure, savings are important, but your employees will be working in the new environment for years to come. If they don’t like it, someone’s going to hear about it. The best way to avoid complaints is to involve everyone from the start. Following tips 3 and 6 (developing performance specifications and installing test fixtures) will go a long way to ensuring everyone has ownership of and buy-in on the solution selected.

10. Undertaking An LED Upgrade On Your Own

This point ties into the first point. In the last 10 years, the LED marketplace has been flooded with fly-by-night products and self-declared lighting experts, hawking inexpensive and unreliable products. Unless you live and breathe LED lighting, it will be virtually impossible to navigate through the volume of information, not to mention false claims, that are at your fingertips on the internet.

An LED lighting project is too big and too important, and the risks from a bad decision are too dire, to undertake on your own. A project can deliver massive returns on your investment, but only if expertise is applied to the fixtures selected, lighting design, control strategies, measurement and verification, savings calculations, and investigation and management of available rebates from your utility.