School Lighting Upgrades Save Money, Allowing Schools to Make Health and Achievement Promoting Repairs

America’s schools spend more than $8 billion each year on energy – more than is spent on textbooks and computers combined.  About 26 percent of electricity consumed by a typical school is for lighting alone. Often, even more is spent to compensate for the heat generated by outdated lighting fixtures.  These expenditures on utilities could be redirected toward ensuring the general good condition, health, safety, and educational adequacy of school buildings, particularly for those in greatest disrepair.  If your school hasn’t updated its lighting in the past five years, a lighting retrofit could present an opportunity to reduce the amount of energy you use for lighting by 30 to 50 percent and for cooling by 10 to 20 percent.

The health benefits of lighting upgrades are both indirect and direct: cost savings generated by energy efficiency upgrades can be used toward health and safety promoting building renovations and the upgrades themselves can have positive health impacts.  For example, upgrading to newer lighting fixtures can reduce the risk of exposure to harmful contaminants, such as Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs), carcinogens that can lead to a variety of adverse health effects on the immune, nervous, and endocrine systems.  Trained personnel can carefully dispose of old PCB-containing lighting fixtures and replace them with new fixtures free of PCBs.

Attention to appropriate lighting levels and an increased use of natural daylight can also improve student performance. A 2003 study found that classrooms with the most daylighting had a 20 percent better learning rate in math, and a 26 percent improved rate in reading, compared to classrooms with little or no daylighting.  Improving daylighting doesn’t have to involve a renovation.  It can be as simple as moving stacked supplies away from windows to let the natural light shine in!

Des Moines Central Campus High School in Des Moines, Iowa, a 2012 U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon School, improved its energy efficiency through targeted lighting upgrades, completing extensive renovations that transformed the Central Campus building from a 1918 Ford car factory into a modern educational space with energy-efficient lighting.  Renovations to the school’s facilities took advantage of available natural light and reduced the need for artificial light.

Increasing the lighting voltage – or the energy required to move the electronic charge along the circuit – from 120V to 277V helped to improve the lighting circuit efficiency. Replacing all fluorescent T12 magnetic fixtures with more energy-efficient T8 fixtures improved the quality and efficiency of the lighting. Finally, sensors installed in the school eliminated energy waste in unoccupied areas.

As of 2012, these and other improvements have helped Des Moines Central Campus to reduce its energy use by 28 percent compared to a 2008 baseline. The school regularly tracks its energy performance using Portfolio Manager, EPA’s free ENERGY STAR measurement and tracking tool.  As a result of Des Moines Central Campus High School’s success in reducing environmental impact and costs, the school earned the ENERGY STAR from the EPA.  This work in Pillar I, coupled with its efforts to improve health and wellness and provide effective environmental and sustainability education made it a 2012 U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon School.

To learn more about how efficiency upgrades can save your school energy costs and allow it to address critical facilities health and safety, ensuring students have a fair shot at performing at their best, visit Energy Star for Schools and the ED-GRS resources page.  Hundreds of schools across the country are proving that you do not have to wait to improve the quality of your school facilities.  Lighting upgrades are but one way that energy efficiency upgrades and the cost savings they produce can support healthy, safe, and high achievement promoting school environments.

Andrea Falken is director of U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools