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Let There Be (Energy-Saving) Light

To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, 26.5 cents/Kilowatt hours saved is a hundred dollars earned. Franklin, of course, didn’t know an incandescent bulb from a sports car, but he did know a good deal when he saw one – and would probably have approved of a new energy-efficient lighting system that most users are finding is saving electrical power – and money.

We’re talking about switching your building to compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFL). Yes, fluorescent bulbs have a bad rep, known for flickering, buzzing, and creating a garish-looking pallor. Now, however, those flaws have been corrected. But, more importantly, CFLs can create savings. Big time.

Don’t believe it? At midsummer, the total residential electric cost for customers of Con Ed in Manhattan, including taxes, fees, and service charges, was 26.5 cts/KwH. From there, the arithmetic is simple, says Fred Davis, president of the energy-efficient lighting supply company, Fred Davis Corp.

A 15-watt CFL replaces a 60-watt incandescent bulb, for a savings of 45 watts. At 0.0256 cts/KwH, 45-watt savings for 8,760 hours in a year gives total savings of $104.46. Even allowing for the higher cost of the CFL over an incandescent bulb, the calculation still yields savings of $100. “That is $100 for one socket for one year,” says Davis. “How many sockets do you have in the building?”

Incandescent bulbs create light by passing current through a filament that is a poor conductor of electricity. Like a stove element, the filament glows with heat, in this case bright white. Fluorescents create light by energizing a mixture of gases inside the tube. Current goes through a ballast and then into the gas. In most cases, the ballast is an integral part of the bulb. In CFLs, which are designed to replace standard incandescents, the ballast is the heavy base above the screw thread from which the coiled light tube rises. In straight-tube fluorescents, the ballasts are the heavy, dark ends. Older straight-tube fluorescents – called T-12s because they are twelve-eighths of an inch in diameter – have magnetic ballasts.

The price of the metals in those components has been rising, making T-12s more expensive than newer T-8s, which are eight-eighths, or one inch, in diameter. T-8s have electronic ballasts using much less material. They are also more reliable and light faster than T-12s. According to the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), T-8 bulbs can physically be plugged into older T-12 sockets, but the full energy savings are only realized with fixtures designed for T-8 bulbs.

Science-teacher-turned-lighting-supplier Searle Selmon, founder of S. Searle Corp. of Staten Island, notes that beyond the electrical use, incandescents can affect cooling. “Incandescents create light by heating the filament white hot. About 90 percent of the watts that go into an incandescent comes out as heat. In computing the cost of lighting a building, you must also include the cost of removing that heat. The Association of Heating and Refrigeration Engineers says it takes one watt of air conditioning to remove every three watts of lighting heat. In total, your cost to [operate and] maintain one 100-watt incandescent bulb is more than $205 a year,” says Selman. “A 25-watt fluorescent will cost $51 a year to operate.”

At first blush, it might seem that suppliers are pushing CFLs because they cost about five times as much as incandescent bulbs, although that premium has declined by about half just in the past few years, and by about 90 percent since CFLs became widely available. However, most have a lifetime of ten thousand hours, versus one thousand hours for standard incandescents. So, even at five times the cost for one bulb, CFLs are half the total replacement cost over their lifetime. For many buildings, there is also the cost to stock a large number of replacements (not to mention the maintenance time and expense to replace them as often as once a month).

If simply screwing in a CFL is the quickest way to gather the easiest money, the serious savings – into the thousands of dollars – come from complete retrofits. For boards with the vision and wherewithal to support such a project, the payback can be compelling. The Albanese Organization recently completed just such a retrofit at its six-year-old, 300-unit Vanguard Chelsea rental building in Manhattan.

Beyond the operational savings, there is incentive money available. The project cost $13,200, of which $2,800 was offset by a grant from NYSERDA, the primary source of grants and offset funds. Operating savings will pay back the rest of the cost in four and a half years, says Michael W. Gubbins, vice president and director of residential management at Albanese.

“We retrofitted all the light fixtures in the common areas, 29 floors, and two stair cases,” says Gubbins. “It is really a matter of integrating a bunch of simple steps. And the entire retrofit was done by our staff – we did not have to hire a contractor. We are going to convert all our buildings.”

The heart of the Vanguard retrofit was a collection of bi-level fixtures that contain motion sensors in the halls and stairs that dim or turn off the lights when no one is present. “Those fixtures are a little more expensive, but that was offset by the NYSERDA grant,” notes Gubbins.

He adds that some buildings have seen “major savings” from power conditioning (which brings down 120-volt current to 90 volts) and by installing sensors in the lobbies to favor daylight over electric light.

Costs and savings were comparable at the Michelangelo, a 90-unit co-op in Yonkers, according to Ryan Moore, program manager at NYSERDA. Moore adds that the authority is consolidating its range of incentive programs under one aegis: the Multi-Family Building Performance Program.

The Michelangelo spent $11,000 in 2003 on a complete lighting retrofit, including updating straight-tube fluorescent fixtures, replacing all incandescent bulbs with CFLs, and installing bi-level controls. The saving realized was $5,000 in the first year, and the building expects total savings for the whole project to be $41,000, says Moore. Ralph Scarano, the co-op’s president, confirmed the figures.

“The rule of thumb is that you save 60 to 70 percent of your electrical costs when you replace incandescents with fluorescents,” says Peter Jacobson, lighting specialist with Con Ed. “Even replacing older T-12 [12/8-inch, magnetic ballast] straight-tube fluorescents with modern T-8 [8/8-inch, electronic ballast] tubes can save 30 percent. And CFLs and T-8s are very reliable. These savings can be had without compromising light levels, safety, reliability, or even design.”

Lighting designer, architect, and design instructor David Bergman concurs. “These are not the fluorescents of 10 years ago. Today, you get no flicker, no buzz, and no garish pallor. And the fixtures are beautiful. Even in decorative lighting there is growing acceptance of fluorescents, but there is still a big education job to be done.”

Bergman saw that first-hand: he sits on the board of his condo and recalls that when he suggested a lighting retrofit, “one of the other board member said, ‘Oh, great! Let’s get rid of all those ugly fluorescent lights, and get some lovely incandescent [ones].’ I quickly said why we would not want to do that. Because this is a small building, and they knew my profession, they accepted my suggestions.”

Davis, whose firm supplies bulbs and fixtures to many NYSERDA projects, agrees with Bergman on advances in fluorescents. “All of the problems with color, quality, hum, flicker, and style have mostly been overcome with the current generation,” he says. “CFLs, especially screw-ins, are made to match incandescent [bulbs]. Side by side you should not be able to tell which is which. And [dedicated] fixtures now exist in virtually every style from cheap to expensive decorative styles.” It is also important to note that modern fluorescents, both compacts and straight-tube, come to full brightness almost instantly when used with bi-level controls.

NYSERDA, Con Ed, and various lighting suppliers did not have firm figures on the degree of acceptance for fluorescents in New York, but Jacobson at Con Ed says, “Penetration is probably fairly low still. There is plenty of opportunity.” Other sources agree. Davis adds that, “we are at a tipping point: in June, older magnetic-ballast bulbs became more expensive than electronic-ballast bulbs for the first time. This is a historic crossover.”

Looking ahead, lighting suppliers say there are next-generation Super T-8 straight tubes being developed, as well as LED technology that could represent a quantum improvement in some applications even over current fluorescents.

Gubbins says some of the things learned from the Vanguard retrofit were applied to the Solaire, the flagship Albanese green building, which was completed just three years ago. “We are looking at micro-turbines to generate some power, and use the exhaust to heat water,” he notes. “Every day, we review and find new ways of improving performance.”

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