Although at first glance the costs associated with classroom lighting may seem fairly simple, the fact is that the real costs of owning a lighting system for 10 to 20 years can be complex and not always obvious. Ultimately, the true“cost of ownership” in school lighting is determined by adding up four factors; 1) the initial purchase price, 2) the cost of labor to install the system, 3) lifetime maintenance and upkeep charges, and 4) the electricity charges through the system’s lifetime. Another important consideration to weigh is the quality of the luminous environment that will be delivered by the lighting.

For school facility decision-makers, the best purchase decisions will be those made only after a detailed review of these five important factors.

1. Purchase Price

The initial price of the lighting receives the most attention in the purchase decision. Unfortunately, many lighting systems selling in the market are designed to show the lowest possible price tag. This is usually achieved by some level of compromise, be it in quality, performance or ease of installation.

Best practice: Since initial purchase price can account for as little as four percent of the lifetime costs of owning the system, give the price tag the appropriate weighting.

2. Installation Charges

The cost of installation labor, often separated from the purchase price and included in the electrical contractor’s invoice for the overall building work, can range up to double the equipment purchase price. Some manufacturers keep their price tag low by offloading final assembly tasks to the contractor at the jobsite. These extra installation charges can make“low-cost” systems much less affordable than they first appear.

Best practice: Request a detailed estimate of installation costs prior to selecting the product; combine this with the initial price to obtain the most realistic installed cost. Look for systems that install more easily to save money on this facet of the purchase.

3. Maintenance Costs

How easy is the system to clean? Is the product designed for fast changing of fluorescent lamps? Through the system’s lifetime of 20 years, the “ladder time” required for regular maintenance duties can develop into a significant, ongoing operating cost.

Best practice: Evaluate competing lighting products for ease of maintenance, and develop cost estimates for yearly maintenance costs through the lifetime of the system.

4. Energy Costs

The cost of electricity to power school lighting is the most significant lifetime expense in classroom lighting. Yet, all too often, energy savings are bought at the cost of sub-standard illumination quality.

Best practice: Avoid sacrificing quality illumination on the altar of “energy-efficiency.” Look for well-designed school lighting products that are carefully engineered to deliver a balance between energy efficiency and classroom ambience.

Best practice: Prior to the review process, set your goals for illumination levels, classroom ambience and energy savings. Eliminate systems that do not address your needs. Analyze future energy costs and savings through the system’s lifetime, and add this into your lifetime cost analysis. Manufacturers should be able to help with this as they can predict the energy usage of their products with a great deal of accuracy.

5. Ensuring an Optimal Educational Environment

Evidence abounds from educators who have noticed how lighting affects students’ behaviour, alertness and ability to learn –— as well as their own effectiveness and ability to handle the legendary stresses of the teaching profession.

The key issues are visual comfort and providing appropriate light levels for all the various tasks and activities that take place in the classroom. The good news is that you do not have to break the budget to meet both these key objectives.

Many experts agree that the best approach to classroom lighting is a balance of indirect (up) light — light reflected from the ceiling that provides uniform ambient illumination throughout the space — and controlled direct (down) light, to provide enhanced visibility for reading and writing tasks. These fixture designs are commonly called direct/indirect and typically use fluorescent lamps enclosed in steel or aluminum housings that are suspended from the ceiling in continuous rows (called linear lighting in the industry).

By contrast, older style ceiling fixtures (or troffers) embedded in the ceiling tiles or suspended are direct-only designs that usually throw enough light into a space. Unfortunately, they also cause glare problems in computer screens and/or create an unwelcoming “cave-like” atmosphere to the space.

Best practice: Modern direct/indirect linear lighting systems are well suited for the classroom setting. Make sure these systems are included in your competitive review process, and be sure to take a close look at them.

Multipurpose spaces need multipurpose lighting

The modern classroom is a space where a wide range of teaching/learning activities take place. These include traditional black or white board tasks, individual desk work, computer work, audio-visual presentations, the use of visual aids around the walls and more. Classroom lighting needs to provide teachers the ability to change the lighting in response to the visual needs of each type of activity.

Best practice: Make sure you include variable light level controls in your classroom lighting criteria.

A comprehensive analysis of the financial, lighting, energy-usage and lighting/design factors involved in selecting lighting is often beyond the expertise of in-house school facility managers. Involving a qualified lighting designer can help clarify the issues and identify preferred options. In fact, given the large line item cost of lighting electricity, it may be worthwhile retaining a lighting consultant to provide this expertise on a districtwide basis, if not for individual projects. Once a lighting strategy is selected, having all competing manufacturers provide a detailed analysis of their own products allows you to compare the strengths (and weaknesses) of the various systems.

Best practice: Invest the time now to carefully analyze all the factors involved in your impending lighting purchase. This additional effort in the short-term will be well worth it when your school gains a lighting system that meets its requirements for cost control and quality.