Buyer education is a never-ending task for manufacturers of light fixtures. With advances in areas such as color and dimming, light-emitting diodes are evolving faster than the public’s knowledge about them. Misconceptions persist, even among architects and lighting designers. As LEDs overcome their technical limitations, the conversation turns to the up-front cost.

The relatively higher initial investment often can be recovered through lower energy consumption, because LEDs last many times longer than conventional lamps. Lighting control systems maintain optimum lighting levels and harvest daylight to further reduce energy costs. The payback is accelerated when owners spend less on changing lamps over the years.

Understanding all of the variables, and how to evaluate them together, is essential to making the right lighting choices. Initial cost and short-term energy savings are no longer sufficient in the age of very long-life lamps.

“LEDs are a different animal,” says Neil Egan, communications director for a lighting manufacturer in Atlanta, GA. “You have to shift the discussion from a simple payback calculation to more of a total operating cost calculation. Of course, you look at initial cost and energy savings. But LEDs can operate in an installation for so many years, you have to look at the time value of money and net present value. You have to also consider the impact LEDs will have on other systems, like HVAC.”

Acuity Brands Visual Economic Tool
The web-based Visual Economic Tool from Acuity Brands calculates the total lifecycle cost of up to three lighting scenarios. (Acuity Brands graphic)

The complexity of those calculations is why Egan’s employer, Acuity Brands, is launching a new cost calculator for lighting. The Visual Economic Tool is an extension of the company’s Visual system for lighting design. The new calculator debuted at Lightfair International 2012 this week in Las Vegas, and will be available free of charge at the Acuity Brands web site at the end of May.

The web-based Visual Economic Tool calculates the total lifecycle cost of lighting alternatives. “It can compare various fixtures,” Egan explains. “So, for example, if you’re considering a fluorescent fixture, an LED fixture and an HID fixture, you could compare all three scenarios.”

As with most cost calculators, this one lets designers  forecast energy consumption. But it is capable of analyzing much more complex cost characteristics.

“The Visual Economic Tool goes beyond the payback aspect of lighting and looks at multiple facets of a lighting investment, including the long-term and short-term costs,” Egan says. Designers can calculate the relative costs of maintenance, lighting controls, heating and cooling. The result is a side-by-side graphical comparison of the selected scenarios. Egan says, “It’s as sophisticated as the amount of data you wish to put into it.”

The cost of lighting is somewhat new to the conversation when building or retrofitting a space, Egan recalls. There was a time when “lighting was always just a given. No one sat down and really calculated what that lighting was costing, until utility rates started to climb.” Then it became apparent that, as the Department of Energy estimates, Lighting consumes close to 35 percent of the electricity used in commercial buildings in the United States.

“Suddenly lighting became recognizable as a large chunk of the annual operating cost. Now we’re talking about new lighting technology and integrating controls,” Egan says. “In the not too distant future this level of calculations will become standard operating procedure.”