5 reasons to maximize with human-centric lighting

Color-tunable lighting has been shown to increase student learning efficiency and test scores
By: | April 27, 2021
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James Tu, Energy Focus

James Tu, Energy Focus

The past year has driven many university leaders to view their facilities from a different perspective. Between the COVID-19 pandemic and 2020 tying 2016 as the warmest year on record, the focus on wellness and the environment has never been greater.

Advanced, human-centric lighting systems, or HCL, can positively impact both. This approach can also lower operating costs, achieving “triple-bottom-line” benefits surrounding financial, environmental and human vectors, such as:

  • improving the wellness of the university community through better lighting;
  • reducing environmental impact from sustainable lighting systems;
  • maximizing long-term investments and return on the lighting upgrades.

Government incentives add even more reasons for university leaders to seize the opportunity to make these important upgrades to their infrastructure.

Improve learning, athletic performance and well-being

HCL first emerged around 2013 as semiconductor-driven LED lighting technologies became commercially viable. HCL, through advanced electronics and control technologies, capitalizes on the two primary biological advantages of LEDs: precise control over the wavelengths emitted and minimization of flicker.

Controlling the wavelengths emitted by lamps has enabled the development of lighting systems where the spectral output can be changed throughout the day to better match our biological clocks (or so-called circadian rhythms). Color-tunable lighting has been shown to increase student learning efficiency and test scores by as much as 33%.

Student-athletes can also benefit. Because sporting events typically take place in the evening, student-athletes are often unable to perform at their best due to the conflict with their natural circadian rhythm. Research has shown that exposure to higher color temperature light (bluer light) prior to and during timed trials enabled student-athletes to maintain their peak performance throughout the event.


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A far more subtle consideration for healthy lighting is flicker, the perceived unsteadiness of light due to rapid changes in light source output that typically occurs as the electric current is converted from AC to DC. Frequent headaches, eye strain or fatigue may be signs that flicker is affecting the wellness or productivity of students and faculty.

Quality LED lighting can largely eliminate flicker, and UL (Underwriters Laboratories) provides a “Low Optical Flicker” certification to qualify LED lamps and fixtures. This designation assures university leaders that their lighting was designed to reduce potentially harmful effects on occupant wellbeing.

Building confidence in returning to campus

The application of particular wavelengths can lower anxiety and instill confidence in students and faculty through the use of UV-C for air and surface disinfection.

Portable and fixed air disinfection devices with fully contained UV light can continuously reduce pathogen levels in indoor spaces while students and faculty are present. UV-C has been proven to reduce pathogen spread since the 1930s and has been critical in the fight against drug-resistant infectious diseases in hospitals for decades.

Autonomous UV-C disinfection robots can reduce or eliminate the spraying of noxious disinfectant chemicals on surfaces. Together, air and surface disinfection through the use of UV-C-based technologies offer protection that can be environmentally friendly and human safe with little to no staff maintenance.

Reduce energy consumption by 80%

With lighting accounting for more than 30% of energy consumption by universities in the United States, switching to LED lighting can reduce that energy consumption by as much as 80% compared to incandescent or fluorescent lighting.

However, meeting carbon reduction goals means going beyond reduced electricity consumption and considering the embodied carbon of the products to ensure the investment is not undone in a few years.

Using modular lighting systems with light sources (i.e., lamps) that can be upgraded without replacing the entire fixture, as opposed to integrated fixtures, maximizes long-term sustainability by reducing the amount of material at disposal by 7 to 50 times.

Maximizing long-term sustainability

Evaluating lighting options using a life cycle analysis takes into account the initial cost of installation and future costs associated with the product. This is crucial with LEDs since some manufacturers integrate diodes into the fixture.

When any single component fails in these types of fixtures the only solution is to replace the entire fixture. Fixtures with integrated LEDs could cost 3 to 10 times more than tube-based fixtures during a 5- to 10-year period.


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Fortunately, with recent innovations, universities can now benefit from HCL solutions that leverage existing fixtures and LED lamps. Replacing lamps and switches alone enables schools to implement healthier lighting in a fraction of the time and cost while maximizing long-term sustainability by eliminating the solid waste from fixture replacement.

Incentives to upgrade

This could also be an opportune time for leaders to improve their lighting infrastructure, with President Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure proposal that includes $40 billion for educational facilities to upgrade facilities, technologies and improve energy efficiency and resilience.

HCL provides universities the choices to optimize health and environmental impacts as well as financial returns through lighting upgrades. There may never be a better time for universities to invest in HCL to maximize triple-bottom-line benefits that will pay dividends now and into the future.

James Tu is chairman & CEO of Energy Focus, Inc., a leader in sustainable and human-centric lighting, LED and control technologies and solutions.