As the LED market peaks over the next few years, lighting maintenance companies could be retrofitted right out of the market. But as with the rest of the digital revolution, advantages beget complexity. We may be able to change the oil in a late-model car, but you need to know the secret handshake to get the warning light to go out. Similarly, facilities staff can retrofit a lamp or fixture to LED, but do they know if it’s compatible with the current lighting control system? An LED lamp may have more lumens, but can it deliver them out of the fixture? Is the housing too warm for sensitive electronics? And if the driver does fail, can it be replaced? Will the contractor (or even the manufacturer) be around to replace it?
Lighting maintenance contractors traditionally operated on an on-call retainer and/or a periodic inspection and repair routine. But once a customer purchases a system that is warrantied for 5 years, why would they need regular maintenance? Well, a manufacturer’s life rating may allow drastic lumen depreciation, even a 50 percent failure rate. Read the fine print on how “failure” is defined.
New retrofit companies that use inexpensive, imported equipment and online distribution are popping up daily. “The customer should really think about what product they want to use. They’re looking for the cheapest price, but a lot of times you get what you pay for,” warned Jared Johnson, director of California operations for Facility Solutions Group. The distribution chain has also been disrupted, with some manufacturers and distributors providing turnkey installations: selling direct and hiring contractors to install.
“LED is not as simple to troubleshoot and maintain for technicians in the field. Standards are not in place. If you have an LED board from a manufacturer fail, there is a possibility that it’s no longer made. I can’t fix it,” said Johnson.
The most common failure point is the driver. According to Johnson, the driver can usually be replaced, though it may be cumbersome. But some fixtures are designed to be thrown away or recycled when a component fails. The longevity of LEDs and rapid improvements in technology combine to work against customers. After a few years, a product may still be in warranty, but the manufacturer can no longer provide an acceptable replacement – leaving the contractor or distributor on the hook.
Vicki Wood is the accounting manager for Tri‑County Lighting Services Inc., a small family business that is challenged by the new marketplace: “There is a lot of misinformation going out to the public. People are assuming that this light is being replaced, and then all of their service problems are gone.” One-for-one retrofits don’t always turn out as expected. She is seeing post-retrofit customers with lowered light levels (a liability issue outdoors) and component failures. “The more we educate ourselves, the more our customers look to us to stay on top of it all and be credible,” she said.
Wood sings the praises of the education and certification programs of the interNational Association of Lighting Management Companies (NALMCO). She says that NALCMO helps her employees stay ahead of the curve. “People will choose companies that are certified and knowledgeable,” she said, which helps her business stand out.
The demands of modern lighting controls
Today’s digital lighting controls marketplace takes complexity to a whole new level, including direct dimming and on-board sensors and controls. “Now the technicians have to be trained to maintain a computer-based system. We can log on remotely and get diagnostics for whatever is wrong,” Johnson said. “A big issue is these controls companies do not work with each other. Each manufacture is making a system that is standalone. To service these systems, the lighting maintenance companies need to be educated on each of the different systems. That is a significant investment. At FSG, we’re fortunate to be a larger company that can make the investment of hiring people that focus solely on learning the various systems. Traditional lighting maintenance companies are small mom-and-pop operations that may not be able to make the investment of dedicating a person to learn about all of these different systems, and because of the lack of interoperability they will probably have to pick one or two that they can commission and service.”
Lighting systems are increasingly becoming dominated by IT. Lighting provides an ideal architecture on which to hang more and more networked sensors for data collection and building controls. Once you add building automation systems and then data and analytics, that learning curve can be endless.
“If it is a family business, they may have a younger generation that wants to adopt technology. Young people know the computers and electronics that support lighting controls and IT. The industry has already changed because of technology, so the contractors that put it in and maintain it have to change as well,” said Johnson.
Code requirements continue to demand more and more dimmability, monitoring, scheduling, occupancy sensing and daylight harvesting – and lighting power densities that can only be achieved with LED. In California, the lighting controls acceptance testing requirement has provided a foot in the door for expert contractors to get involved in new construction and retrofit projects.
Erik Ennen, facility services manager at the nonprofit Center for Energy and Environment, sees lighting maintenance companies in a unique position to bring together “two customers.” Management, particularly health and safety and marketing managers, want a maintenance contract to keep the lights on. Operations and energy engineers are looking at ways to monitor usage and save electricity.
A lighting maintenance company can offer an energy-saving retrofit and handle the maintenance and ongoing support. “A lot of people think, well, there shouldn’t be any issues in the [first] 5 years because they have a 5 year warranty,” Ennen said. But you need a conscientious contractor to “hold the manufacturer’s feet to the fire for you” when failures do happen.
On-call maintenance and inspections both remain necessary, and build trust with customers. Over time, wireless lighting control systems need to be reconfigured as personnel and spaces change. Inspections can reveal if dirt or lumen depreciation has exceeded tolerances and if timeclocks or sensors have been overridden by occupants. Inspectors can deal with occupant complaints that may be causing productivity issues.
“Are you maintaining those savings that you’re counting on to pay for the system?” Ennen cautioned. “You need to rely on your lighting maintenance contractors, and there’s certifications out there to say, Here’s a qualified expert that’s going to come in and manage your lighting maintenance and lighting retrofits as you tie them together.”
In 2016, NALMCO – in cooperation with the Lighting Controls Association – launched the Certified Lighting Controls Professional designation. The certification is open to all applicants and centers around the LCA’s online learning program, which is developed and maintained by the lighting controls industry. The online test verifies that an individual – whether it’s an architect, a journeyman, technician or an IT person – has a high level of expertise in the complex technology of lighting controls systems, their design and commissioning.
“[It’s important to have] that education and understanding to walk your customers through what their options are and what’s going to work for them,” said Ennen. New wireless controls – including controls integrated into new fixtures – have multiple communication protocols that do not always interface with what’s already on-site. An office or retail building may have multiple tenants with several different legacy lighting controls system installed years ago. So lighting maintenance personnel need to know legacy systems and architecture, as well. It’s not just about what’s new.
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