The Energy Chronicles

Vine Street Lofts: A Case Study in Multifamily LED Lighting

Brief: With the help of The Energy Group and a local lighting contractor, Vine Street Lofts converted their entire facility to LED lighting, saving over $10,000 annually and improving their building’s lighting quality.

The management team of Vine Street Lofts, a large apartment building in Des Moines, recently came to The Energy Group for assistance with replacing the building’s lights. With a decorative exterior and remodeled interiors, the building exudes the look of a modern place of living. However, as a tax credit property (HUD Section 42 tax credits are used to fund construction and rental of apartments to low-income households), funding for improvement projects is not always on the table. Take a look at the story below to see how Vine Street used energy efficiency to save money, and how you can do the same.

Lighting Concerns

photo of hallway lighting
Vine Street Lofts Hallway Lighting

Multiple ongoing problems had been identified by the property managers. The lighting in hallways was dim, largely because of poor design. Several light fixtures consisted of compact fluorescent lamps (CFL) plugged into ceiling-mounted can fixtures, in which a significant portion of the light never reached the floor. Already tenants were voicing their dissatisfaction, and the poor lighting quality threatened to hurt the property’s marketability and scoring on physical inspections.

In addition to hallway lighting, an underground parking garage was illuminated by inefficient and outdated mercury-vapor light fixtures that were switched on 24/7. All told, common area lighting amounted to over $13,600 annually in electric costs. The maintenance burden of lamp and ballast replacement was also adding up.

The customer needed a lasting solution to both lower expenses and improve the lighting quality, and they needed to accomplish these goals on a limited budget. In the current world of lighting, with a vast array of LED products hitting the market, there are good options and there are bad options. Many cheap products have poor quality. Many expensive options are a bad fit. Clearly, help was needed to make the right lighting choice.

The customer called The Energy Group in late 2018. A couple of years prior, The Energy Group did an energy audit of the building and identified significant potential for lighting savings. Acting as the contractor of the electric utility’s income-qualified multifamily program, we were able to shoulder a significant portion of the project management.

Our first step was to consult with the customer to identify their problems and goals. Two main problems were identified: poor lighting quality, particularly in hallways; and a hodgepodge of different wall sconce fixtures in the hallways. The property management staff wanted to improve the lighting quality, as well as the fixtures’ aesthetic and uniformity.

Our challenge was to find a solution that would satisfy these goals on the customer’s limited budget. After consulting with the customer, our next step was to take a closer look at the existing lighting. We inventoried every fixture in the building and on the grounds, noting fixture and lamp type and model, rated lumens and Watts, etc.

We then coordinated with a local contractor and lighting specialist to discuss the needs and potential solutions. We met again with the management staff to tour the building and hear the contractor’s ideas.

Developing Solutions

After some trial and error with samples, a plan began to take shape. The contractor’s bid called for simple direct-wire lamp retrofit in areas where lighting quality and aesthetics were not concerns, such as laundry rooms, stairwells and mechanical rooms. Where lighting quality and fixture aesthetics were important, new fixtures were specified for the majority of the project. New lamps were specified only where fixture replacement was cost-prohibitive.

The solution for the parking garage lighting deserves special attention. Since these lights were switched on 24/7 in a largely unoccupied space, the vast majority of the existing lighting was wasted light. And since the existing lights were inefficient, this wasted lighting came at considerable expense. By specifying LED fixtures with internal motion sensors, the lighting expense could be cut over 80% in this area. The switch to LED alone would bring significant savings. The motion sensors would ensure the new lights would dim to low power when no movement was sensed near the light fixture, further reducing energy usage and prolonging the life of the LED fixtures.

As a final step before installation, we estimated savings, verified all projects would meet utility rebate qualifications and coordinated with the utility to pre-approve the project for an enhanced rebate available to income-qualified multifamily customers.

Big Energy Savings

The immediate effect of the lighting installation was improved light quality – brighter spaces, better light distribution with fewer shadows, and color qualities that improved the visual experience people have in the building. The management staff noted a “dramatic difference in our hallways and common areas,” with fewer shadows and an increased ability to see down the hallways.

The project will save over $10,000 annually in electricity costs, reducing common area lighting costs by 74%. A significant part of the project was paid for with utility rebates, reducing the payback to below two years. The return on investment is nearly 54%. Even though they had to invest nearly $20,000 to make the upgrade, that cost will be completely offset by year 2. By year 5, Vine Street will have saved an estimated $32,000 just in energy savings. When you include other benefits such as maintenance savings which are harder to quantify, that number grows even higher.

electric usage cost graph
Switching to LED’s covered the installation cost in less than 2 years

Most of the replaced lighting system was switched on 24/7, which was the driving factor in why the retrofit was so cost-effective. Typically, replacing 24/7 lighting with LED is the most cost-effective improvement that can be made in a multifamily building. Cost-effectiveness varies by product type and by the cost of electricity. Generally, retrofitting an existing fixture with LED lamps will have a payback of two to four years.

Beyond the benefits to the customer, a significant societal benefit in the form of greenhouse gas and atmospheric pollution reductions was gained. The project will save an estimated 130,000 kWh of electricity each year. In terms of green-house gas and CO2 emissions, this is equivalent to:

  • Removing 20 passenger vehicles from the road
  • The entire energy usage of 10 homes
  • 10,000 gallons of gasoline consumed
  • 100,000 pounds of coal burned

LED Lighting in Multifamily Buildings

list of benefits led lighting
Switching to LED’s does more than save money on your bill each month

There is a considerable opportunity for lighting improvements in multifamily buildings. Many common area lights operate for long hours with inefficient technology. Continued purchase of fluorescent, CFL and HID lamps and ballasts is a cheap, quick-fix strategy to maintaining a building’s lighting system, but this comes at significant long-term cost and does not solve any existing lighting quality problems.

The maintenance savings alone can go a long way in justifying the early replacement of inefficient lighting with LED. Consider the CFL and LED versions of the medium-base screw-in lamp. Most CFL lamps have a rated life of 10,000 hours, compared to 25,000 for LED lamps. While the CFL lamp is rated for 10,000 hours before failure, most LED lamps are rated for the point at which 30% of light output has been lost. So, at 25,000 hours the LED may still be an acceptable light source.

While most multifamily maintenance managers are installing LED lamps on an ongoing basis as older lamps burn out, there is a strong case for early group replacement. By replacing all building lamps, maintenance can avoid the constant, ongoing burden of replacing lamps in hundreds or even thousands of light fixtures.

Security and safety are often foremost in the minds of multifamily property managers, and LED lighting can help in this regard as well. It’s been well documented that the cooler, white light produced by LED exterior and garage fixtures makes areas appear brighter than conventional fixtures. And the recent introduction of LED screw-in lamps with built-in photosensors ensures entry lights will be on at night and off during the day. These lamps offer an inexpensive alternative to replacing an existing light fixture or wiring in a photocell. These are still switch-operated, allowing tenants to turn them off and save money if they wish.

Conversion to LED can bring huge benefits, but careful consideration is needed. Not all LED products are high quality, and not all high-quality products are appropriate for a project. While most good LED projects will pay for themselves in one to six years, our company has seen bids for projects that have a payback of over 20 years. Cost savings is not the only factor to keep in mind. If a main goal of the project is to improve the lighting in a space, other factors such as a product’s brightness, color temperature and color rendering must be considered.

Third-party analysis is a must before accepting a contractor bid. In fact, it may be the best first step in buildings with a variety of light fixtures or significant lighting quality problems. An energy auditor or lighting specialist can evaluate a building’s existing light levels and energy consumption, providing invaluable information on the existing lighting and potential for improvement.

For simple projects involving a small variety of light fixtures, a more limited analysis is typically acceptable. However, bids should still be evaluated by a third party to ensure savings and other claims are met. The Energy Group can do this at little expense to the customer, utilizing electric utility billing information, product specs and information about the existing lighting. The small added expense is extremely worthwhile when comparing bids that may have significantly different costs and product qualities. Contact us today to find out how we can help you!

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