Red Cross (Prince George)

Lighting upgrade cuts costs, improves health and safety

Nina Winham

When the Red Cross purchased a 40-year old building in Prince George four years ago, it took on about 18,000 square feet of space over three floors, enough for its 22 staff and volunteers with a large rental suite left over.

It also took on the headaches (literally) that went with an aging lighting system.

"I found I used to be squinting to try to keep the light out," says Stefanie Hencheroff, Programs and Administration Coordinator for the Canadian Red Cross, BC and Yukon Region. "I used to turn my lights off and just use a desk lamp because they were just too harsh. I was one of the ones who was getting headaches."

Hencheroff says the old lights posed a maintenance challenge too. "We had a lot of fixtures in the hallways and stairwells that seemed to be going out all the time. We would put new tubes in and they would blow right away. We wanted to make sure the spaces were safe and well lit, but we'd always have a lot of lights out."

The problem: Aging ballasts

Hencheroff's electrician diagnosed the problem as aging ballasts – the device within a lighting fixture that converts electrical line current for use with fluorescent lamps.

"It's one of the more expensive parts of the light," says Hencheroff. "At least it was for ours, because of their age. Everybody had been changing to new lights and nobody really carried these anymore. Plus, replacing them isn't entirely cost-effective because sometimes they still won't work well, and just won't last as long.

"It was a catch-22. There was the cost of new ballasts versus needing to keep our staff and volunteers safe."

Balancing conservation and budget

Hencheroff needed a solution. "Because we're a non-profit, it's important for us to do our part for the environment, and of course to use our money wisely," she says. "So I started to look into the Power Smart program to see what it could do for us."

Hencheroff learned about the Product Incentive Program which provides rebates for energy efficient retrofits. She also got help from the Power Smart Business Help Desk.

"I talked to some people who were so helpful and very knowledgeable," she says. "They walked me through what we would need to do to be eligible, the cost savings we would realize, and the ways it would help. The more I looked into it, the more I knew this was the way we needed to go."

Payback: Five years

In early 2009, the retrofit project began. All lights and exit signs in the building were replaced, including those in washrooms, hallways, and in the portion of the building rented by a tenant. The project cost $32,319, with $13,615 of the total reimbursed through the Power Smart incentive.

With the incentive, the project will pay for itself in about five years and cut electricity and maintenance bills by about $4,600 per year.

"That was the selling point, in terms of being able to make the capital ask," says Hencheroff. "If you can say this is what we'll get back as a rebate, and this is what we should see in savings over the years, you stand a lot better chance of being approved."

"Before, we changed lights weekly, or every couple of weeks," Hencheroff says, reflecting on the results. "The new lights last much longer – we're changing them every month or two, and it's just a bulb here or there, not an entire bank. We bought a box of bulbs when we did the retrofit and we haven't gone through it yet – maybe not even half of it – and that's for the entire building."

Which means her headaches have gone away, in more ways than one.

"You can't be working with no light in the middle of the winter," she says, "and now we notice the building is brighter, but the light itself isn't as harsh. We used to think, 'That's just fluorescent lights, that's the way they are and they'll never change.' But [upgrading] makes a big difference; it's much easier on the eyes.

"It's worth the investment – for the savings, the energy efficiency, and just making it more comfortable for people to work."

Nina Winham is a Vancouver-based sustainability consultant and frequent contributor to and the Power of Business eNewsletter.