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Changing the bulbsBusinesses will have to replace fluorescent lights as supply runs out

By , - Last modified: May 4, 2012 at 11:06 AM
Bob Preston, energy specialist at the Lancaster County location of Maryland-based CapitalTristate Electrical Distributor, displays a high bay light fixture fitted with the more energy-efficient T-5 fluorescent lamps. Photo/Amy Spangler
Bob Preston, energy specialist at the Lancaster County location of Maryland-based CapitalTristate Electrical Distributor, displays a high bay light fixture fitted with the more energy-efficient T-5 fluorescent lamps. Photo/Amy Spangler

Soon, the lights will go out.

As of July 1, the fluorescent tube lights used in most offices and workplaces will no longer be manufactured in the U.S. or imported into the country.

The linear fluorescents in use are known as T-12 lights, about an inch and a half in diameter.

The mandate comes from the Department of Energy as a part of the Energy Independence and Security Act passed in 2007 to begin forcing a shift in electric consumption by commercial businesses, said Bob Preston, energy specialist with Maryland-based CapitalTristate Electrical Distributor, which has offices throughout the midstate.

With rebates from utility companies, the cost of new, more energy-efficient lights can be paid for in about a year, depending on the size of the company, said Mark Binder, outreach representative for E-Power Solutions, a rebate program of Allentown-based PPL Electric Utilities Corp.

For businesses open longer than the standard 8 to 5, such as restaurants, manufacturers or grocery stores, the return on investment will be seen even more quickly, he said.

"The products are unlikely to get cheaper, and the rebates are not guaranteed to last forever," he said.

Even for small businesses that might not think it's worth the upfront cost or that changing lights won't make an impact on the grid, the net effect helps, Preston said.

"For example, for one customer, we're taking four of those T-12 lamps in a light, which consume 172 watts, and giving them better light with three T-8 lamps, cutting the (watts) usage down to 73," he said.

Based on the hours of operation and the kilowatts per hour rate the company is paying, it'll save it $2,000 each year in electricity.

"A lot of the traditional light sources we've been using are virtually unchanged and unimproved since they were invented," Preston said.

With the advent of technology such as smartphones, laptops and tablets, more electricity is being consumed than ever before, he said. In the coming years, electrical grids will need to find ways to reduce their users' energy consumption to make way for the new uses, he said.

"The alternative energy sources — solar, wind, etc. — are not coming online nearly fast enough to make up for the fact that, though we're saving energy in some quarters, we're mainly adding things to use energy," Preston said.

He also noted that power plants haven't been built in recent years, giving our country a finite capacity for energy consumption.

Although T-12s won't be made anymore, there will still be a supply at distributors and retail operations, said Roger Brubaker, president of Wilco Electric Inc. in Lancaster County.

"It might be four months, six months, who knows what limited amount of time they will still be available?" he said.

The replacement light bulbs for T-12s are T-8s, about 1 inch in diameter, which burn fewer watts, have better light quality and last longer, he said. There also are T-5 lamps, about a half an inch in diameter, Brubaker said.

However, T-8s or T-5s can't just be screwed into place where the old fluorescent lights once were, he said.

Businesses will need a qualified electrician or electrical contractor to install new ballasts, or power transformers, along with the new lights, he said.

"Ballasts are designed for certain types of lights, and the T-12 ballast will not fit newer types of lights," Brubaker said.

The ballast acts as a power source and can power different combinations of bulbs, such as one per four bulbs or one per two, he said.

While T-12s might still be available, and some special types will still be made and imported, now is a good time to tackle installing the new lights, said Greg Allison, green energy sales manager for West Hempfield Township-based Wilco.

China manufactures a particular material used inside the fluorescent bulbs, and as the country recently decided to cut back on exporting, the cost of the new lights doubled in the past year, he said. The price has stabilized for now, he said.

Businesses should call their utility company to explore the cost and timing of replacing their lights, Binder said.

"And we take that load off the grid," he said. "If you take (one business) times 10, times 20, times 100 or times 1,000 businesses over the next few years … we're using less coal and oil to burn at fewer power plants. It's a cascading effect of benefits that we get from a simple replacement."

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