Picture this scenario: a homeowner of a magnificent apartment entrusts her residence to a new house manager. She shows him where the project manuals are located and wishes him good luck. The manager peruses the manual and finds some old construction documents to re-lamp a downlight in the living room. Light fixture “Type A” says recessed downlight. He sees that the light takes an MR16 lamp; he has heard of that before. He opens some drawers in the kitchen and finds one that is packed with a lot of lamps that were leftover from construction. With dusty fingers, from the construction-coated lamp box, he pulls out the trim, changes the lamp, and inserts it back in. Instantly the lighting design is ruined. Why? Well the lamp was not “Type A,” but “Type M,” and it called specifically for a GE: QMR16/C/NFL25-EXZ. What the house manager installed was a 50W MR16 flood made by a “no-name” company whose inferior product with a cheap reflector is turning the light green. And on top of that, when he installed the now fingerprint-laden trim, the light is no longer aimed on the Chagall masterpiece hanging on the wall, but on the floor.

Or something more common: walk down any high-end retail or mall environment and look at the fluorescent cove or display lighting. Chances are you will see a myriad of different colored lamps. How did something so simple as changing a light bulb, apparently become so difficult?

Lighting design does not end with the project's completion. A look down the road shows the many pitfalls that can take a creative effort and transform it into a muddle of mediocrity. The key is providing the right information and the right training to allow long-term benefit. There are numerous factors involved in maintaining a lighting design, and several solutions to achieve success.

A few years ago, providing lighting design services to my high-end clients, I realized that only very careful attention after construction was the way to ensure the design would last and continue to meet their expectations. In response to this need for maintaining designs, in 2004, within the constructs of my own lighting design practice, I created a separate division called Elu to maintain my projects as well as the work of other lighting designers and architects.

Lighting design maintenance is accomplished by preventative care, a thorough and complex database of every single luminaire (refrigerators included), documentation of the dimming system, and other associated elements. Through this exercise of maintaining projects, I have accumulated some key experience.

Lighting maintenance begins with the specifier who is hired to create a beautiful space with light and create contract documents that support that vision. Construction documents consists of two key items: a lighting plan and lighting specifications along with the associated cut sheets and details. However, these two items do not benefit an owner who does not have the knowledge or the experience to review two different sets of documentation and locate the appropriate information.

We at Elu observed that specifiers often make decisions that do not consider long-term maintainability. For example, designs that require two different beam spread lamps in the same multiple lamp fixture; projects designed with no less than 75 different lamp types; framing projectors placed 36 feet in the air over a staircase that takes three men half-a-day to erect scaffolding to change a light bulb; and so on. Designers do not think who will have to deal with these problems. If specifiers were required to maintain their projects, their design strategy would most certainly change.

Lamp manufacturers are another factor in the equation of maintaining a lighting design. For example, in the 32W T8 fluorescent variety there are approximately 90 different lamps to choose from by the three major manufacturers and over 150—yes, you read that correctly—ONE HUNDRED FIFTY—different MR16 lamps to choose from with different beam spreads, wattages, IR capabilities, cover glass lenses, and overall reflector quality.

Additionally, a final focus may change all the lamps from one beam spread to another, or color temperature, depending on the artwork, finishes, or other special feature. Often, the originally specified lamps never make it onto the job site. Some contractors will bring in construction lamps—cheap lamps just so the fixtures turn on—but never replace those lamps with the correctly specified ones.

Lamps are not instant gratification. Most specialty lamps have to be ordered with a one-week minimum lead-time before they arrive. Therefore, the lamp originally specified will be changed with one that is in stock a.k.a.—an “equivalent.”

Even if the proper lamp does find its way to the project, there is still the issue of long-term care, as demonstrated in the apartment scenario mentioned at the start of this article. The project's continued health is delegated to someone who is not familiar with, or even trained in lighting. Office managers, stock clerks, bus boys, and house staff do not have the experience or the interest in maintaining lighting. Electricians are often brought in to service lighting and usually add their own take (and fingerprints) to the situation. As new personnel are hired, and the job is assigned to them, there is even less inclination to maintain the lighting scheme and make sure it adheres to the original design intent. Yet, despite these difficulties, there are solutions that can be implemented during the initial project design to ensure a balance between design and ease of maintenance.

Good design requires planning. As the designer, you weigh different options daily. Here are some ideas to consider for the long haul.

  • Not all lamps are created equal, especially when it comes to lamp life. If a lamp lasts 6,000 hours longer than its slightly higher-output cousin, consider what the advantages of two years more of use are before replacement is required.
  • Dimmers and soft starts on incandescent lamps may extend lamp life.
  • When designing a space within the auspices of a larger environment, contact the facilities manager for a list of lamps already in use.
  • Re-think placing lighting fixtures in out-of-reach locations, such as over ramps, stairs, fixed furniture, and other uneven terrain. There may be another solution that in turn does not require specialized equipment to maintain it.
  • Evaluate what type of abuse—environmental or man made—a fixture will receive, and consider options to prolong the fixture's life.
  • Avoid specifying lamps that have the same base, or socket, that can perform quite differently. A PAR lamp with an Edison base may very quickly be substituted with a standard A-lamp. F28T5 lamps and F54T5HO lamps have the same dimension and base, so attempt to use only one-wattage on each project.
  • Specify adjustable aiming fixtures that have locking capabilities.
  • Do not design fixtures that you cannot access. One situation Elu has come across, in its experience, involves a wall-mounted fixture where a piece of glass was added to the wall detail, which then had to be broken in order to change the lamp.
  • If you have a large quantity of fixtures that require transformers or ballasts, order additional gear in the event one fails. It will be faster and cheaper to replace gear already on site than to order one and have the electrician charge for twice the necessary service calls.
  • There may be valid reasons to design an application requiring specialized and financially painful maintenance, but that issue must be placed before the owner so a calculated decision can be made.