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The End For Your T-12 Fluorescents?

Furniture World Magazine
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Article Summary: Major legislation was just passed that affects T12 fluorescent lighting.

View all articles by Monte Lee


“The sky is falling” for T12 fluorescents and other retail fables.

by Monte Lee

“The sky is falling” exclaimed Chicken Licken, “I must tell the king.” Home furnishings retailers who keep up with the lighting news in the trade press, might get the feeling that the sky is falling for T12 fluorescent lighting. A major piece of legislation was just passed that affects T12 fluorescent lighting as well as energy and environmental concerns, but if you want your T12 lights, you can keep them lit.

The magic date is July 1, 2010 after which manufacturers can no longer make magnetic ballasts for T12 lighting systems. T12 fluorescents are 1.5 inches in diameter and have been around as long as most of us can remember. You need a ballast to cause the fluorescent lamp to light. “So how can I continue,” you might ask, “if there are no more magnetic ballasts?” How did we get in this fix and what am I supposed to do? The sky isn’t falling. We have all the answers.

Are Your T12 Fluorescents a Problem?

Magnetic ballasts for T12 fluorescents have been around for 70 years and have a number of problems including the fact that they have coils and capacitors sealed in an asphalt-like substance. The capacitors, and sometimes even the asphalt potting material in early versions, contain PCB, a hazardous substance. That practice was stopped in 1979 but there are still a great number of these long lasting, inefficient and somewhat dangerous ballasts in our homes and non-residential buildings.

Exact numbers of furniture stores that still have T12 fluorescent lighting are hard to come by, but our best estimate is that 38-42% of furniture retailers, 8,000 plus stores, still use T12 in their sales, office, or warehouse areas. For those of you still using T12 lighting, have questions, or want to share your reasons for not upgrading, visit the fluorescent blog post on the furninfo.com website at http://bit.ly/dpuPeh.

Inefficient T12 fixtures are a problem in commercial buildings, factories and schools because these buildings consume about 2/3 of the electricity we generate. More than 2.2 million of the nation’s pre-1980 commercial buildings are thought to still use T12 lighting. More than 300,000 school buildings were built before 1980. Like commercial buildings, these schools are likely to have T12 fluorescent lighting. The economic stimulus package had $6.3 billion for state and local governments to make energy use more efficient. Schools used some of that money for lighting retrofit (getting rid of T12 systems), to save $100 per pupil on average.
While there have been some improvements in the performance of T12 systems they are no match for newer, more efficient T8 and T5 fluorescent technologies. In spite of these facts T12 lamps still make up about 30% of fluorescent lamps sold in the US.

How Did We Get In This Fix?

You may be surprised to learn that T12 restrictions have been coming for a decade. The process to eliminate inefficient, T12 magnetic ballasts began in September 2000 when Department of Energy (DOE) amended the Energy Policy and Conservation Act (EPACT) with a rule that established minimum ballast efficacy factors. That rule took effect July 1, 2005, by stopping sales of T12 magnetic ballasts for use in new fixtures.

The next year, March 31, 2006 to be precise, fixture manufacturers stopped using T12 magnetic ballasts in new fixtures. Magnetic ballasts could be manufactured and sold for replacements from 2005 on but they had to be marked, “FOR REPLACEMENT ONLY.”

T12 magnetic ballasts were no longer offered for sale as of July 1, 2010.
Restricting T12 ballasts in 2006 wasn’t a big problem for new fixtures. Most fixture manufacturers switched to T8 or T5 lamps with electronic ballasts because of energy efficiency demanded by customers, electricity rates and energy regulations. Effectively, the DOE ballast rule requires electronic fluorescent ballasts for T12 systems in commercial and industrial applications. 

Alternatives for T12 Fixtures?

Owners and managers of facilities with T12 lamps and magnetic ballasts have several alternatives to maintain their T12 Lighting systems:

• Replacing T12 magnetic ballasts with T12 electronic ballasts.

•Modifying existing fixtures to accept T8 lamps and electronic ballasts.

•Replacing the existing fixtures  altogether.

Electronic, T12 ballasts that exceed DOE performance requirements will replace magnetic ballasts. A T12 electronic ballast typically saves 30% in energy,  plus some states or power companies offer rebates for retrofitting to energy efficient fixtures. The electronic ballasts for T5, T8 and T12 systems usually accept both 120 and 277 volt input so they install anywhere. Electronic T12 ballasts can be used in fixtures with 34 watt, energy saver lamps or 40 watt standard lamps. Soon the 40-watt fluorescent will be gone along with incandescents and some halogen lamps. More about that later but lets look at T12 lamps.

T12 lamps have been improved to offer longer life, better color rendering, and higher efficiency – light output per watt of electricity. In theory, the T12’s 30% share of the lighting market could continue indefinitely with electronic ballasts and T12 lamps. But if you are still using T12 fluorescents in your display, office or warehouse areas, you should consider replacing T12 lighting as soon as business conditions allow. Old fixtures and inefficient layouts waste a lot of money even with these improvements.

The option of updating T12 lighting systems to T8 is generally not a best practice. Parts and labor to update a 30-year-old fixture often equals the cost of a new fixture. Typically a T12 fixture has a ‘prismatic’ lens, a sheet of plastic that has discolored over time. The reflectivity of the inside of the fixture has also degraded from dirt and UV radiation. Reflectivity is important when you consider that 50% of the light generated needs to be reflected off that surface. And lastly, most T12 fixtures are built for four lamps so going to 2 or 3 T8 lamps never gives the “right” light distribution from the fixture. The scale tips in favor of replacing rather than modifying existing fixtures.

Replacing fixtures updates the look of the store and gives you an opportunity to redistribute fixtures for the proper light level and energy consumption. Layouts in the 1980s didn’t pay much attention to the cost of electricity and were based on the concept that, “no one complains of too much light.” Today when the electricity bill comes there are complaints about too much light.
Should you consider LED replacements?

DOE and major manufacturers are very careful to not overstate the usefulness of LED or solid state lighting (SSL). The industry does not want to retard the acceptance of SSL as happened with compact fluorescents (CFL). Slow starting, off color and low output CFL turned consumers off for years. Maybe that should read, “Consumers turned CFLs off because they were oversold.” No one wants that to happen with solid state or LED lighting.

DOE instituted the Commercially Available LED Product Evaluation and Reporting (CALiPER) program to make sure LED features and benefits were scientifically and objectively compared to current technology. CALiPER testing concludes that LED technology is not yet ready to displace linear fluorescent lamps in recessed fixtures. The light output is lower for general interior lighting and that is likely to be unacceptable. Solid State Lighting is a major step forward in energy efficiency and may be the only light source left standing in the future. Learn more by going to the DOE solid state lighting program at http://www1.eere.energy.gov/buildings/ssl/caliper.html

Sustainable Lighting

There will soon be more government regulation of light bulbs, dishwashers, dehumidifiers, microwave ovens, and anything else that burns electricity. DOE has announced their intent to regulate 4- and 8-foot fluorescent lamps as well as halogen PAR lamps. We are likely to see some of these lamps disappear from the market. That is happening without regulation because building owners and operators understand that sustainable lighting means lower costs. Sustainable retailers have already given up on standard halogen and T12 lighting. Using infrared coated halogen and new technology fluorescent lighting generally saves enough electricity and labor to pay for the light bulbs and add to profit.

The sky may not be falling, but sustainable lighting, lighting that meets the visual need with the lowest impact on our environment, has become a retail best practice. Maintain old lighting systems if you must, but you have alternatives to improve the look of your merchandise and the sustainability of your business.


Monte Lee is a Regional Manager for Service Lamp Corporation, a distributor of lighting products such as fixtures, bulbs, plus lighting consulting and design services for retailers. Inquiries on any aspect of furniture store lighting can be sent to Monte care of FURNITURE WORLD at mlee@furninfo.com. See all of Monte Lee’s articles on store lighting posted to the www.furninfo.com website.


Monte Lee is a Regional Manager for Service Lamp Corporation, a distributor of lighting products such as fixtures, bulbs, plus lighting consulting and design services for retailers. Inquiries on any aspect of furniture store lighting can be sent to Monte care of FURNITURE WORLD at mlee@furninfo.com. See all of Monte Lee’s articles on store lighting posted to the Operations Management article archives on the furninfo.com website.

View all articles by Monte Lee

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