CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — How many gardeners does it take to change a light bulb? Three – one to change it and two to argue about whether this is the right time of year to plant new bulbs.

In fact, there’s no need for argument: Now is the perfect time for schools, libraries, businesses and public offices to change light bulbs if they are currently using fluorescent T12 bulbs. T12s are being phased out by the U.S. Department of Energy to encourage use of more energy-efficient bulbs. After July 1, those ubiquitous 48-inch-long tubes that have long been the standard lighting for businesses and institutions will no longer be manufactured in the United States. The phase-out of T12s means replacement bulbs will become rare and expensive.

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As of July 1, fluorescent T12 bulbs (bottom) will no longer be manufactured in the U.S. Utility companies currently offer incentives to replace them with more energy-efficient T8s (top). | Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

But that’s not the only reason to change bulbs now, according to engineers at the Smart Energy Design Assistance Center, managed by the School of Architecture at the University of Illinois. “If you do it now, instead of waiting until the last minute, you can actually get some money paid to you to ease the financial pain,” says SEDAC technical director Ben Sliwinski.

Utility companies such as ComEd and Ameren Illinois are offering incentive programs for private sector building owners, and the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity has similar incentives for the public sector. These incentives are funded by fees already added to all Illinois electricity bills.

“So if you don’t take advantage of these incentives, you will end up paying for your competitors to upgrade their lights,” Sliwinski said. “And the bigger reason to do it is that the newer technology T8 and T5 lamps are more energy efficient than the T12 lamps.”

SEDAC provides comprehensive analysis and advice on energy efficiency to businesses and public facilities in Illinois. Upgrading lighting systems is one of the easiest and most cost-effective energy improvements any office can make. For example, in 2010, after an energy efficiency assessment by SEDAC, the Peoria Civic Center replaced more than 1,300 ballasts and 2,600 T12 fluorescent lights with the newer, more energy efficient lamps, resulting in a savings of $7,300 per year in electricity costs, according to SEDAC.

This highly visible project had the added benefit of enlightening civic center employees to energy concerns. “It brought an awareness to the staff,” said Marc Burnett, director of sales and marketing. “People were actually taking more responsibility, on a person by person basis, so if you saw one of the garage doors open in the exhibit hall, we would walk over there and say, ‘What’s going on?’ ”

For details on current incentive programs, private sector building owners can consult the website of their electric company (ComEd or Ameren Illinois), and public sector building managers can visit the DCEO website, For a complete range of energy-saving options, building owners and managers can contact SEDAC for a free energy assessment.