One of my favorite topics to talk or write about is LED lighting and lighting accessories. I’m a big fan of those little light-emitting diodes. Even in the early days, when prices were high and options pretty much non-existent, the technology intrigued me.

LED Upgrades – Fixture Retrofit or Replacement?

Steve Maurer, IME
One of my favorite topics to talk or write about is LED lighting and lighting accessories. I’m a big fan of those little light-emitting diodes. Even in the early days, when prices were high and options pretty much non-existent, the technology intrigued me.

It still does.

Switching to LED lamps and fixtures can save you money on your electrical bill. And there are so many new options, the ways to switch over are almost endless.

Sadly … I can no longer use these options in my home.

I’ve got everything converted … there is nothing left.

When it comes to LED upgrading in commercial and industrial settings, the options are also numerous. I tried several of them before I retired, and I’d like to give my take on some of them.

If you’re a contractor, maintenance supervisor, or building manager, there are two questions to ask.

  1. Do I want to replace or retrofit the fixtures?
  2. Which is the more cost effective option?

There really is no right or wrong answer to the first question. Either way, you’ll save on energy costs. However, for some fixtures, the answer might be already determined. There are some luminaires that might not be able to be retrofitted, and replacement is the only option.

But those are fairly few and far between.

Possibly the largest groups of fixtures to ask the two questions are fluorescent strip lighting and troffers. You could go either way with them. But the answer to the second question—which is the more cost effective option—will likely answer the first.

When I was working as a plant electrician, I both replaced and retrofitted when going from fluorescents to LEDs. The cost of the fixture or the retrofit kit is part of the equation. But only part of it.
Depending on your situations and the lighting involved, the correct answer depends on several factors.
Here are a few to consider.

Labor costs/availability
This one can depend a lot on whether you’re a contractor, or a maintenance supervisor/building manager. If you’re a contractor, you’re probably paying workers by the hour. And the more hours spent on a single job, the less you make overall on that job. So in that case, retrofits might speed up the process, allowing you to get on to the next job.

Even if you’re quoting cost plus labor, getting the job done quickly and under budget makes for happy customers. And happy customers … are repeat customers.

A maintenance manager is also working with hourly-wage laborers. But they usually have a set number of hours they’re going to get paid, regardless of whether it’s on a lighting project or otherwise. So the wage element isn’t as much of an issue. However, if you need them for other maintenance projects, a retrofit might be more productive, if it’s allowed.

Downtime/project time allotment
Here again, it may depend on your situation and location. If you’re working in an office area, upgrading to LEDs, you might have a limited time for the onsite work. For example, you can work at night, but must clear out by a certain time so the office can be occupied the next day. Warehouses are often the same scenario. While new fixtures are always possible, a retrofit might get more area covered in the time slots allowed.

If the work requires an area be shut down for safe working, keeping downtime to a minimum is crucial for a business, warehouse operation, or factory.

Fixture location/system design

If troffers need upgraded in an office area or similar environment, quick disconnect whips on fixtures make changing out the light fairly easy. And this can often be done in hallways and vacant meeting areas quite easily during occupied hours. There will be some ladder work involved, so make sure to use all safety precautions, particularly those related to personnel traffic control for office workers.

Strip lighting in warehouses and similar locations can be problematic. I’ve done a lot of this. Of course, fixtures located in high ceilings require the appropriate lifting device to reach the lights. But even lower ceilings can be an issue, depending on the layout of the system. If strip light fixtures are fed by individual drops, replacing them with new products is relatively simple.

But those connected end to end, or those connected to each other by rigid conduit can be a royal pain. If all the fixtures are fed from one breaker, all of them must be shut down and the breaker locked out, at least until a run of lights can be isolated. In this case, retrofit products allow for a quick upgrade to LEDs with a minimum of rework to the system. You can isolate a run, then quickly upgrade the fixtures in that run. After that, it’s lather, rinse, repeat for the other runs in the system or area.

Magnetically mounted LED strip attach quickly to the gear tray or cover, and after gutting the fixture body, a driver (if needed) can be quickly installed and wired to the tray. There are some cool new tools that attach magnetically to the fixture body, and hold the tray securely while working on the fixture. They are easily removed to reuse on the next one.

I’ve personally done retrofits like this in about 10 minutes per fixture. At about 6 fixtures per hour, this could be the fastest way to upgrade in that scenario.

Upgrading to LEDs is a definite plus for lowering energy costs. Installation, whether new fixture or retrofit upgrade are two options to be researched so the full cost of installation can be calculated.
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