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As Light Emitting Diode (LED) lighting technologies continue to improve, their uses are expanding from headlights and indoor bulbs to outdoor environments. Thanks to their life span and dramatic efficiency, LED is already the obvious choice for new construction.

But what about upgrades to existing outdoor space? As an owner or property manager, you may consider upgrading to LED. There are numerous products to choose from, including bulbs, upgrade kits, and a variety of brand new fixtures.

While options are great, each outdoor environment is unique, and the various LED upgrading methods are not created equal. To ensure your investment reaches its full potential, there’s a few aspects of your lighting design to consider.

How LED is different.

First, a few basics. Traditional, single-point light sources throw light in all directions and are difficult to control, producing bright spots (and subsequent dark spots). In contrast, LEDs are smaller bulbs, arranged in an array. As a multi-point light source, each diode can direct light exactly where it’s needed, resulting in more uniform light output.

In addition, we’ve learned that “brighter” is not necessarily “better.” The human eye reacts much more favorably to light uniformity rather than drastic contrast (bright spots/dark spots). An ideal design has uniform light levels throughout the space.

Before investing in the brightest new luminaires, consider the following:

1. Determine the best solution for your site

Simply replacing the bulbs may seem to be the most economical option, but that’s not ideal for all situations.

•  Replacement bulbs. LED products known as “corn cob” or “paddle” replacement lamps, named for their shape, can screw right in to your existing infrastructure. A corn cob lamp is designed to throw light in all directions, just like the bulbs they are replacing. For decorative post-top lights – commonly found on main streets – this may do the trick.

•  Upgrade kits or replacement fixtures. If you’re replacing lamps in an arm-mounted fixture like the classic “shoe box” shape – frequently found in parking lots – consider other options. These fixtures are designed to reflect light from traditional bulbs, and do not work well with LED replacements. In many cases, the LED bulbs decrease the uniformity of light, creating even more contrast.

As an alternative, consider either an upgrade kit or replacing the entire fixture. Some brands offer solutions to convert their old fixture housings into LED. Ideally, the entire legacy fixture should be replaced with a fresh housing designed specifically for LEDs. While this may be more expensive initially, the significant power reduction achieved by the more efficient LED fixtures often produces a long-term return on investment, and they will last longer.

•  Phased upgrade. It may be possible to phase your upgrade and spread costs over a few years. Consider upgrading building-mounted lighting first. Then, divide up large areas such as parking lots and replace the lights in stages. If you’re replacing fixtures in defined areas, it is generally acceptable to phase the upgrade.

2. Evaluate existing infrastructure

Assuming your original lighting layout was effective, you may be able to reuse your existing poles, wiring, and controller. However, in some cases the current layout may become inefficient with new LED light sources.

• When to reuse it. Have a professional investigate the structural integrity of your existing poles and foundations. If they are in great condition, you may be able to drill new mounting holes or use an adapter. The reuse of existing conduit, circuitry, and wire is also possible. New LED fixtures draw less power than your existing product, so in many cases the circuitry is adequate to handle the new system.

• When to consider new equipment. If you have tall poles, the most efficient LED lighting layout may be to replace them with shorter ones. LED lighting is most effective between 20-30 feet in height. But don’t let this deter you. The cost for new poles could be offset by a reduced quantity of fixtures. Remember, LED is more efficient, so shorter poles also mean fewer, lower-wattage fixtures per pole.

Although the original controller may work with your new system, an upgraded one has benefits. LED fixtures can be dimmed after hours, and sensors can be added to return lighting to full power if someone enters your site. Dimming and smart controls can further reduce your energy bills, providing quicker returns on your investment.

3. Consider Aesthetics

In the past, both light color choice and look of fixtures were limited. LED has opened a world of opportunity, so remember to consider both night and day time aesthetics when choosing new fixtures.

• Light Color. While you strive to promote safety, you also want your site to fit in with the environment and provide use-appropriate lighting. Known in the industry as “color temperature,” the color of light sources varies from warm yellow to cool white. Warm light is perceived as more comfortable, making it ideal for residential uses as well as public gathering spaces and plazas. In parking lots, the color of light isn’t as important, and is simply a matter of preference. Consider how your site interacts with the surrounding community when choosing the color temperature of your new lighting package.

• Fixture Design. LED fixtures are often sleek and modern looking, but many manufacturers create classically styled or historically accurate housings as well. If you have existing period-style fixtures, there may be upgrade kits for your specific products. There are plenty of signature pieces on the market, with uniquely shaped designs that were not possible prior to LED technology. This variety can allow your new fixtures to become a feature of your site rather than an unsightly necessity.


With more new designs hitting the market every day, the time is right to upgrade your outdoor lighting. While the process can seem daunting, or expensive, the results could produce a return on investment much quicker than you think. Upgraded fixtures improve the quality of the space by providing uniform light levels. By using less energy, lasting longer, and providing precise light control, fewer fixtures are needed, minimizing replacement costs and decreasing energy bills.

Each facility is unique and has its own challenges, so before you commit, retain a professional lighting consultant to help you realize the full potential of your site lighting upgrade.

Contact Travis to learn how to get started evaluating your current lighting design and exploring your options.

Travis North Headshot_Bohler Engineering

About Travis
With over 19 years of experience in land development consulting, Travis manages Bohler’s Landscape Department in Pennsylvania. He oversees the landscape architecture and lighting aspects of all his projects, ensuring designs meet municipal regulations as well as fulfill the client’s ultimate vision. Travis has an extensive knowledge of outdoor lighting technology and specializes in fixture specification.