I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Eric Marsh, Product Porfolio Manager, and Jeff Hungarter, Senior Manager, Product Marketing, Cree, Inc., for an article developed for tED Magazine. The topic: LED options for upgrading fluorescent troffers. I’m pleased to share the interview with you here.

DiLouie: What basic choices do building owners have to upgrade existing troffer-based fluorescent lighting systems to LED?

Marsh and Hungarter: The good news is that it easier than ever to switch to LED technology with a full range of options that provide cost-saving benefits of the technology, as well as better lighting experiences. At a base level, retrofit kits provide a simple way to retain existing light fixtures while minimizing expenses and providing longer life than traditional lighting. These kits are designed for retrofitting existing light fixtures with energy-saving LED technology. This solution uses the existing fluorescent light housing but replaces the lamp with an LED linear lamp and LED driver. The next option is a full-fixture replacement, in which the fluorescent troffer and pan are changed out altogether for a brand new LED troffer. This often provides the best outcome, with outstanding energy savings and visual comfort with enhanced aesthetics for the space.

DiLouie: How would you categorize LED troffer/panel products aimed at replacing fluorescent troffers?

Marsh and Hungarter: If you look at LED troffers and the technological advances over the past few years, there have been significant improvements in terms of the efficiency of lumens per watt, as well as more freedom in design and advanced controls of the lighting. Troffers can be anywhere from 60-80% of the light fixtures in a space, so they are becoming the leading vehicle that is enabling intelligent lighting.

The LED panels market is very price competitive. There are some companies that are flooding the market with low cost panels that don’t do justice to what LED can do, and then there are companies that are putting more effort into producing fully luminous panels that actually enhance the visual comfort of spaces. For both LED troffer and panel products, if it’s all about the price, some people are willing to sacrifice pixilation in the lens or quality light distribution due to budget constraints. However, it’s important people understand that selecting higher quality options typically provides benefits that pay for themselves, including reduced maintenance, intelligent lighting capabilities and enhanced design aesthetics that provide a more comfortable light experience for users of the space.

DiLouie: What are typical energy savings and other advantages of replacing fluorescent troffers with LED troffers/panels?

Marsh and Hungarter: Replacing fluorescent troffers offers major energy savings with exceptional light quality that improves visual comfort, reduces hot spots and diminishes glare for a more comfortable space. In some instances, up to 80% energy improvement can be generated when replacing traditional light fixtures. A new troffer provides state-of-the-art options for control and diming capabilities that optimize the space and save a tremendous amount of energy.

There are also utility incentives for high performing retrofit kits, which are eligible for premium rebates. If a product meets the Design Lights Consortium Premium requirements, that’s a huge incentive to discuss an upgrade with local utility providers, which will ultimately help with the rapid payback and initial cost.

In addition to energy savings and utility incentives, maintenance savings are a great, and occasionally overlooked, advantage of upgrading to an LED lighting system. Typically, fluorescent troffers will need re-lamping and re-ballasting every 3-4 years. The leading LED troffer replacements offer exceptional longevity, virtually eliminating the amount of time spent on a ladder replacing the lamp and offering10-year bumper-to-bumper warranties. This frees up your maintenance staff to worry less about the lighting and focus their attention elsewhere, increasing productivity.

DiLouie: What are the disadvantages of replacing the troffer with an LED luminaire compared to TLED lamps and retrofit kits?

Marsh and Hungarter: The initial cost is sometimes concerning for consumers because they often don’t look at the full lifecycle cost of product in terms of energy savings and maintenance avoidance over the life of the system. It’s important to understand that making the switch to better LED technology pays for itself.

DiLouie: What are conditions under which replacing the luminaire would be ideal as opposed to replacing the lamps?

Marsh and Hungarter: A full fixture replacement is ideal for projects in which the goal is to transform the space. Replacing the luminaire enhances the look of the ceiling to be modern and up-to-date. Today’s solutions make it easier that every to switch to LED luminaires and enjoy a host of additional benefits, including efficacy performance enhancements, improved dimming and control systems, better light quality and a longer warranty.

DiLouie: How would you categorize TLED lamps and retrofit kits aimed at replacing fluorescent lamps in fluorescent troffers?

Marsh and Hungarter: If you want a new and upgraded aesthetic, an LED retrofit kit is the way to go. A retrofit kit basically looks like an entirely new LED troffer in the ceiling, providing a fresh new look. In addition to upgrading the look of your space, you will get better efficiency, less maintenance and optional for intelligent features that you can’t get with LED lamps. At this point, it’s hard to think of a situation where TLED lamps make much sense.

DiLouie: What are typical energy savings and other advantages of replacing fluorescent lamps with TLED lamps and retrofit kits?

Marsh and Hungarter: One of the biggest advantages of the retrofit kits is that they help address laws such as Title 24 in California. If someone is looking to put in new controls and systems without code triggering, the retrofit kit enables an upgrade that makes the unit look new without having to change anything about the current unit. The performance of these products will allow consumers to achieve the highest level of utility incentives available in the market.

DiLouie: What are the disadvantages of replacing the lamps in a fluorescent troffer with TLED lamps instead of replacing the luminaire?

Marsh and Hungarter: While lamp replacement is a low-cost solution, it is a buyer beware scenario because companies are not consistent in terms of ballast upgrades. There is a risk that the ballast for a florescent lighting system will not be compatible with a TLED lamp and could actually hit the new lamp with a hard and possibly damaging charge.

DiLouie: What are conditions under which replacing the lamps with TLED lamps instead of replacing the luminaire would be ideal?

Marsh and Hungarter: Replacing current lamps with TLED lamps is only ideal for upgrading a lighting system where the luminaire must remain in place. A great example of this is some hospitals or schools with asbestos in the ceiling. There’s a significant cost for dealing with asbestos, but using the existing fluorescent housing leaves the ceiling intact without contaminating rooms. That being said, a retrofit kit would be a better, budget-friendly solution.

DiLouie: What control options exist for TLED lamps and retrofit kits?

Marsh and Hungarter: Retrofit kits offer a wide range of control options, such as daylighting harvesting, motion sensing, color change and general dimming controls. For example, smart lighting can sense if a space is not occupied or if enough natural lighting is coming in from outside and it automatically adjust the lights. LED fixtures can enhance work spaces by creating light uniformity that reduces glare from computers to combat eye fatigue. Education spaces are improved through LED controls when teachers use color tuning to manipulate the lights and help keep the classroom calm. TLED lamps, in general, do not offer these benefits.

DiLouie: If you could tell all electrical distributors just one thing about retrofitting fluorescent troffers to LED, what would it be?

Marsh and Hungarter: There are multiple solutions for retrofitting fluorescent troffers, so it’s important to identify the goals and objectives of the project before selecting the retrofitting method. Is the goal to save money? Are you trying to improve the look and feel of the space? Identifying the desired result and calculating the return on investment with all of the energy, maintenance and utility savings will ultimately lead to a successful, cost-effective project.

DiLouie: Is there anything else you’d like to add about this topic?

Marsh and Hungarter: Choosing the best retrofit or replacement option can be confusing, but it does not have to be. It is important to look for partners who help you collect adequate and accurate information for your specific project, so your switch to LED is as seamless and as simple as it should be!