Schools Get High Marks for LED Lighting Upgrades

By Jim Ouellette and Ryan Berlin

In today’s fast-paced operating environment, the smart use of resources is a must for successful organizations, particularly schools, which are typically under pressure to balance rising costs with ever-tightening budgets. The good news is that easy opportunities to impact the bottom line probably exist right in your school’s lighting system. With lighting costs accounting for as much as 30 to 40 percent of the average school’s total energy expenses, lighting upgrades involving high-performing and energy-efficient LED retrofits can be a quick-to-implement means of improving your school’s lighting quality and performance while significantly reducing operating costs.

Mequon-Thiensville School District’s Donges Bay Elementary School in Wisconsin used LED lighting to reduce energy consumption and costs.

According to the Institute of Education Services, the average public school in the U.S. was built in the 1950s-1960s, implying that it likely contains opportunities to upgrade its lighting to more modern, energy-efficient technology. Most facility professionals have experienced the fallout of this reality — with a single team often responsible for maintaining multiple schools within a district, personnel are typically caught running from school to school to address bulb and ballast change outs, flickering fixtures, fluorescent and HID lamp disposal issues, and other lighting maintenance needs, often in highly-trafficked or other difficult-to-access locations.

At the same time, and often due to the challenges of reduced staffing, maintenance personnel sometimes elect to replace all of the lamps and ballasts in an open fixture even though some of the change outs aren’t necessary in order to save time and money, which can result in the inefficient use of lighting resources.

LEDs: A Smart Choice for Schools

Long considered “the future of lighting,” LED technology has advanced dramatically in the past five to 10 years and has become a proven new lighting standard in commercial, industrial, retail and educational facilities nationwide based on its performance, energy efficiency and long life. In the average classroom, hallway, or cafeteria, LED alternatives are readily available and deliver better lighting output with up to 50 percent or greater energy savings, life expectancies that are warrantied to last two to four times longer, and minimal lumen depreciation. If you are looking to upgrade your school with new LED lights, you can also look into getting high bay fixtures fitted to give the illusion of a longer range, maybe in the sports hall and also update the school’s look.

With their acrylic lenses, LEDs are safer and more durable than many of their conventional glass-enclosed counterparts, while their pricing has declined dramatically such that today’s LED upgrades can routinely deliver payback periods in under one to three years, especially when subsidized by any of the numerous utility rebates available on LED products nationwide. Overall, their long-life, self-contained drivers mean significantly fewer surprises for maintenance personnel and allow the school to present a more environmentally friendly face to the community.

Case in Point: Mequon-Thiensville School District

In keeping with its consistent rank as one of the top K-12 school systems in the nation, the Mequon-Thiensville School District in Mequon, Wis., proactively pursues the utmost in quality, comfort and energy efficiency for the district’s three elementary schools, two middle schools, one high school and one community center.

Recently, a simple lighting upgrade using LED Troffer Retrofit Kits and LED T8 Lamps from Harvey, Ill.-based LED manufacturer Litetronics brought improved lighting quality, maintenance ease and sustainability to the school system’s one million square feet of facility floor space while significantly reducing energy consumption and costs.

A hallway at Mequon-Thiensville School District’s Wilson Elementary School in Wisconsin recently underwent an LED upgrade.

Overall, “the look and feel of our lighting wasn’t uniform,” said Director of Facilities Kyle Thompson of the mix of T8 and T12 fluorescent lamps and incandescent technology present across the district’s largely 1950s-era buildings. “Some areas were underlit, others were overlit, and the lamps were different colors, all of which made for poor aesthetics that were also wasting energy.”

In 2015, the operations team attacked this problem with a lighting upgrade involving Litetronics’ Troffer Retrofit Kit, a unique 85,000-hour retrofit solution that quickly upgrades a standard fluorescent troffer to powerful, long-lasting and highly-efficient LED technology. Where appropriate, this technology was also complemented with Litetronics’ Plug & Play LED T8 lamps, which fit directly into existing linear fluorescent fixtures and deliver long 50,000-hour life.

According to Thompson, the results of the upgrade made an indelible mark on the facilities. “We’re enjoying a 2.8-year payback on the energy savings alone, not to mention the maintenance savings,” Thompson said. “In addition, we’re securing better and more consistent light because the LEDs don’t lose light output over time. We can’t wait to complete other upgrades throughout our buildings and I’d upgrade every light tomorrow if we could.”

The Time is Now

For schools looking to make the switch to LED technology, here are some tips to help ensure a successful transition:

  • Conduct an Audit – Reach out to a qualified lighting professional to conduct an audit of the lighting upgrade opportunity in your facility. There’s no better way to secure the buy-in and support of your administration than through a detailed analysis of your facility’s very own consumption data, which will also include recommendations on the best LED solutions for your application(s) as well as the aesthetic and economic benefits they’ll deliver to your bottom line.
  • Do a Mock-Up – Once you’ve secured your team’s support, sample the new lighting design by doing a mock-up with some of the actual LED solutions proposed.
  • Capitalize on a Rebate – Litetronics proposals include all local utility rebate information and schools are encouraged to investigate the availability of these incentives with their own utility. Whether offered in a ‘prescriptive’ or ‘customized’ format, utility rebates, if available, can make a big impact on the bottom line by further improving ROIs and accelerating project payback periods.
  • Conduct the Upgrade – Whether performed by a qualified outside contractor or your own in-house maintenance team, LED upgrades can be done after school hours, on weekends, or during the summer to minimize disruptions to school operations and will then free up previously time-challenged maintenance personnel to work on other projects of benefit to students and faculty.
  • Consider the Capital Options – Though LED upgrades are one of the most attractive financial investments available to facilities today, limited funding in the typical cash-strapped school system can make even this highly-appealing option a hard sell for many facility professionals. Schools that are unable to fund the cost of a system-wide lighting upgrade project out of their capital budget should consider doing one facility or even just part of a facility at a time (perhaps those areas with the greatest lighting usage, such as school offices or other spaces that are used year-round, etc.).

Schools can also consider using the rebate dollars they receive from one project to help fund their next upgrade, or simply keep a stock of products hand to replace older lighting as needed and take advantage of energy and maintenance savings on a fixture-by-fixture basis.

Overall, based on their size, operating conditions, and known operating challenges, schools represent great opportunities for energy-efficient lighting upgrades. The time is now to embrace the energy and cost savings, maintenance reductions and quality improvements that an LED upgrade can provide.

Jim Ouellette is the regional vice president of sales, South, for Litetronics and can be reached at Ryan Berlin is the managing partner of Blythewood, S.C.-based S.L. Hulett & Associates, a manufacturer’s representative which represents the Litetronics line of lighting products, and can be reached at

This story was first published in the May issue of School Construction News. Check out a video of the Mequon-Thiensville School District lighting upgrade project at