By Debbie Karcher, K12 Education Technology Advisor and retired CIO for Miami-Dade Public Schools
As educators, we might not pay much attention to the lights in our classrooms. We turn them on when we arrive, and we turn them off when we leave. Classroom lights are also likely the farthest thought from the minds of our students—at least we hope so. But the fact is that fluorescent lighting—the most prevalent source of illumination in K-12 schools across the country—is wreaking havoc on our ability to teach, our students’ ability to learn, and our districts’ ability to keep costs down.
Malillumination is a Real Problem
There’s a reason why the term “malillumination” was coined by researchers to describe the effects of fluorescent lighting. Numerous studies have shown it is harming our students. The UV light and flicker of these traditional fixtures strains eyes and disturbs the brain—all of which causes attention problems, anxiety, headaches, and hyper-activity that makes our jobs as educators more difficult and leads to poor student performance. Fluorescent lights also require ballasts to regulate power distribution, which can produce an audible buzzing that further leads to stress and irritability.
It’s not just UV, flickering, and buzz that causes problems. Fluorescents emit brighter light that is higher on the color temperature scale (i.e., colder and bluer), suppressing melatonin production and interrupting natural circadian rhythm that can lead to sleep problems. A recent study presented at the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded that nearly half of the children in the U.S. don’t get the recommended hours of sleep, and while that has a lot to do with increased use and blue light of smartphones, prolonged daily exposure to traditional fluorescent lighting in our schools certainly isn’t helping.
Not Exactly Bottom Line Friendly
Keeping the lights on and the school running isn’t negotiable. District budget limitations therefore impact staffing and instruction rather than operations, leading to higher student-teacher ratios and fewer resources. Reducing the cost to operate and maintain school facilities delivers recurring savings that can be put back into education.
Fluorescent lights come with some major deficiencies when it comes to operating expense. They consume far more electricity than LEDs and contain toxic mercury that needs to be properly disposed of at the end of life. They also have a much lower lamp life compared to LEDs that last at least five times longer and are far more durable. Aforementioned ballasts also tend to fail, requiring more frequent replacement and higher maintenance costs.
It’s Time to Get Light Smart
Low-voltage LED lighting is now mainstream, and the operational benefits are well documented—longer lifespan, higher energy efficiency, and no hazardous mercury. But merging the advancement of LED lighting with today’s networking technology is the smartest decision that our school districts can make for teaching, learning, and operations.
LED lights that are connected to and powered via networks using power over Ethernet (PoE) technology offer the unique ability to more easily tune the luminosity and temperature of classroom lighting for a better teaching and learning experience. Brighter, cooler lighting in the morning or after lunch can help foster more alert and productive students. Dimmer, warmer lighting can help students relax and focus after recess or other energetic activities. Teachers can preprogram scenes or simply change settings on the fly to match the task at hand, calm students down, or gain students’ attention.
From an operational perspective, PoE lighting not only offers the benefits of LEDs—it offers additional advantages beyond conventional LED lighting systems that leverage AC mains power. Most conventional LED systems use drivers with AC-to-DC power conversion that reduces efficiency. Similar to the ballasts used in traditional fluorescent lighting systems, these drivers can also fail and result in higher maintenance costs. In contrast, PoE lighting uses existing IT infrastructure and familiar network equipment to provide a fully DC-powered low-voltage system that does not require drivers or the higher cost of licensed electricians to do the installation. Each light is also an individual addressable IP device on the network, which means lights can be reconfigured and maintained by IT staff. It also means that monitoring, control, and backup power is enabled from one centralized location for even greater operational savings.
But what’s really exciting about PoE lighting is its ability to integrate advanced IoT technology that transforms the lighting system into a smart platform that can collect and act on information about the environment, everything from temperature and ambient light levels to air quality and occupancy. Armed with that data and the ability to communicate with other building systems, a PoE lighting system can further reduce energy costs by automatically turning off lights when rooms are unoccupied and adjusting temperature. A PoE lighting system even has the potential to make our schools safer by detecting intruders and gunshots, initiating automatic lock downs, and alerting students, staff, and local law environment.
Today’s modern classrooms need modern technology—and lighting can’t be overlooked. Educators, administrators, superintendents, and school boards alike need to come together and insist on technologies like PoE lighting.