Shedding Light

by Katie Lee

Upgrade to LED and maximize your shopping center’s curb appeal, safety and security — requiring less energy and maintenance at the same time.


Where do shoppers want to shop? When it comes to defining “best in class” retail properties, the significance of curb appeal can’t be overstated. External lighting choices have an enormous impact on nighttime curb appeal, easily on par with architectural design and landscaping. Beyond curb appeal, customers expect to feel a sense of safety and security in a shopping center — particularly at night. Property owners are beginning to recognize that upgrading current High Intensity Discharge-based lighting systems to an LED lighting solution can have enormous impacts on appeal, safety and security — with substantial advantages in terms of energy efficiency and maintenance costs to boot.

LED technology uses light-emitting diodes to produce bright, consistent white light very efficiently. Compared with traditional sources, LED fixtures have far longer life spans and produce more light using a fraction of the wattage. Adoption of the technology for residential and commercial use is still in an early phase but increasing rapidly. According to the latest research, the LED lighting market is led by commercial users and is anticipated to grow 45% by the year 2019.

While much attention is often paid to the energy savings associated with LEDs, greater efficiency is only one of several important factors owners should consider when evaluating whether an LED solution is right for their property, their tenants and their business. The quality of light and how it improves property appearance and the overall experience of the retail customer is perhaps even more important.


LED fixtures produce a different type of light than traditional outdoor lighting sources. Traditional sources, such as High Pressure Sodium (HPS) and Metal Halide (MH), radiate light in all directions, requiring reflectors for control and direction of light to the area of interest. This leads to inefficient light loss and less control, thereby creating bright spots and dark spots in a parking field or sidewalk. In contrast, LED fixtures are directional in nature, distributing the light precisely where it is needed, which reduces light loss and dramatically improves uniformity.

NightIn parking lot or parking garage applications, the uniformity of light produced from LEDs makes a big difference. Similar to a camera’s exposure settings, our eyes must adapt to the amount of light in a given setting. Uniform lighting allows the eyes to adapt effectively and see adequate detail. This allows a pedestrian walking to her car to easily see the keys in her hand, spot a coin she’s dropped and avoid any tripping hazards on the ground. Beyond uniformity, LED fixtures can also provide excellent vertical illumination, meaning they illuminate the vertical surfaces of objects in the field of view. Attention is often given to horizontal illuminance on the ground surface but it is vertical illuminance that allows the pedestrian to better identify her car at night from a distance. With traditional light sources, the side of her car was more dimly lit and difficult to distinguish.


For shoppers and store employees headed into a parking lot at night, bright and uniform lighting across the entire parking lot is also a matter of safety and security. Suspicious characters can easily be spotted from afar. Troublemakers are less prone to congregate in a well-lit lot. Theft and vandalism are deterred. These factors improve the safety of a center and thereby the confidence of potential shoppers. Retail tenants have reported that as a result of these and other benefits, lighting improvements can drive growth in nighttime sales.

Improved visibility, particularly vertical illumination, from LED systems can also increase the effectiveness of video surveillance systems at night. Motion sensors can be used in conjunction with dimmable LED fixtures to deter suspicious behavior.  After hours, fixtures can dim to save energy and automatically go to full bright or even flash when the sensors pick up motion.


In most cases, the implementation of an LED system can significantly reduce operating expenses. Project financials will vary from one property to the next depending on factors such as current utility and lighting maintenance costs, material costs, labor costs and available incentives. The design of the system being replaced is also a large factor — if a site is currently under lit, then the savings will not be as dramatic. Typically, a well-designed LED upgrade can reduce energy spend at a property by approximately 30% to 60%.

The high efficiency of the LED light source along with its ability to provide highly uniform lighting is the primary driver behind energy savings. The uniformity allows for more effective use of each unit of light (or lumen) while the LED produces each lumen very efficiently. Additional savings are achievable by taking advantage of dimming via dimmable drivers and controls. Whereas traditional High-Pressure Sodium and Metal Halide lamps generally offer two modes — on and off — LEDs can be programmed to provide anywhere from 20% to 100% output during twilight and early morning hours. With controls, this can lead to an additional 30% to 50% savings versus running “full bright” throughout the night.


The durability and longevity of LED fixtures is another major factor in the value proposition. An LED’s light output doesn’t degrade over time nearly as much as that of traditional light sources, which can lose output by 10% or 20% in the first year.  The output of LED bulbs drops by only a few percentage points annually. Standard warranties on LED products normally range from 5 to 10 years and, in many cases, a product will last longer with little to no maintenance.

With a 10-year product life, the costs associated with monitoring and replacing fixtures diminish considerably. Gone is the need to retain a vendor to drive to a site every month checking for outages and making replacements.


LED technology is still maturing and there remains a learning curve for all parties involved: owners, designers, installers and manufacturers. Despite the allure of improved light quality, safety, security, energy savings and long life, commercial property owners are advised to proceed cautiously along a well-informed path.

Owners should have a firm grasp on their overall goals and objectives before incurring the upfront expense of an LED upgrade project, which typically exceeds the cost of replacement utilizing a traditional technology. Working with a reputable design firm that specializes in photometric design and has experience with LED design can help focus an owner’s strategy and avoid pitfalls early on in the process. It’s also important to understand that not all manufacturers are releasing products of equal quality or to an acceptable standard. The savings gained by using sub-par materials will quickly be undone if newly installed lights begin to fail (The DesignLights Consortium®, a nonprofit serving the commercial sector, has been establishing benchmarks for energy-efficient lighting and offers a Qualified Products List). Before deciding on a manufacturer, it is best to carefully inspect a product for both build quality and lighting quality. Likewise, using an experienced contractor can help avoid faulty products while providing a smooth and quality installation.

There is a strong case for modernizing with an LED lighting solution based on cost-savings alone. But improved nighttime lighting has a much broader array of potential benefits — some of them quantifiable, some qualitative. Commercial facility owners who proceed with knowledge and understanding stand to reap the full range of rewards as they upgrade the quality and value of their properties.

— Nate Mitten, Ph.D. is manager of energy services for Kimco and plans and implements energy-related initiatives to improve the environmental and economic performance of Kimco’s shopping centers. Email the author at [email protected].

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