The latest in barn lights

If you’re squinting at your horses under old incandescent bulbs and flickering fluorescents, it might be time to upgrade. Today’s energy-efficient lighting choices may cost more up front, but you can net huge savings over time.

Flipping a switch and having the lights come on is one of those modern conveniences we all take for granted. And yet it can be frustrating on those dark nights at the barn, when, say, you still need to juggle a flashlight to examine the blood on the back of a horse’s leg, or when you’re struggling to read the fine print on the medication labels.

A woman raking a barn aisle
The right barn lighting makes chores easier and safer

If these situations sound familiar, it might be time to think about upgrading your lighting systems. Barns and indoor arenas can be difficult to light well. Ideally, they require large overhead fixtures that broadcast light over large areas, combined with brighter, more direct lighting in grooming areas, wash stalls and other work spaces. Walkways and the main doors also need to be illuminated for use at night. And all this uses energy—add too many lights, and brighten them up too much, and your electric bills will soar.

Fortunately, retrofitting a barn’s lighting is actually a lot easier than most people think. It can be as simple as swapping some brighter, more efficient bulbs into your existing fixtures or as extensive as rewiring your entire barn. Whatever you want to do, it’s a good idea to spend some time learning what types of lighting are available and thinking through how much light you’ll want and where you’ll need it.

These days, the old incandescent bulbs are on the wane in favor of new technologies, mainly LEDs (light-emitting diodes) and fluorescents, that are much more energy efficient and last longer. If you use incandescent bulbs, replacing them will almost certainly save you money over time. “Incandescent lamps are becoming more and more extinct,” says Rob Rulison, owner of RMS Electric Services in Saint Johns, Michigan.

Yet the most energy-efficient fixtures you can buy—LEDs—are also the most expensive, and even with the savings on your electrical bill, they may not be the most cost-effective choice for your barn or indoor arena. A better idea is to consider the merits of both fluorescents and LEDs—including costs, ease of installation and maintenance, and the hours per day that you use the lights—to make the most sensible choice for you.


Fluorescent bulbs are cylindrical glass tubes that contain a small amount of mercury as well as inert gases, usually argon, neon and/or krypton. The interior of the glass is coated with phosphors, and when electricity runs through the tube, the mercury vaporizes, and the energy produced causes the phosphors to radiate visible light. The sockets the tubes plug into are attached to “ballasts,” which control the electrical current through the bulb. Ballasts can be magnetic or electronic; the latter are more energy efficient, quieter and operate with less flicker, but they are also more expensive. The ballast itself consumes some of the electricity used by the light fixture.

Fluorescent lighting has come a long way since the long tubes once common in classrooms, offices and factory floors. Bulbs of a variety of sizes, shapes and types now offer different qualities of light—-“warm white” versus “cool white” and colors—achieved by altering the blend of phosphors on the coating. The straight tubes are designated T12, T10, T8 or T5 based on their diameters. The largest, T12, is the oldest and still in widespread use. In general, though, the narrower the bulb, the more energy efficient it is.

If you have old T12 fixtures that are still in good condition, the easiest upgrade is to change the tubes out for T10s, which can be used with the same ballasts as the T12s. Not as many T10s may be needed, because each bulb produces more light, with higher efficiency, than the ones they replace. Although T8s can also fit into the same light fixtures as the T12s, they may require different ballasts, so the fixtures will need to be retrofitted.

You will also find U-shaped fluores-cent tubes in different sizes, as well as a variety of smaller compact fluo-rescent bulbs (CFLs). Upgrading to these types of bulbs, as well as to the T5 fluorescent bulbs, usually requires replacing the entire fixture; smaller CFLs can be screwed into fixtures made for incandescent light bulbs.

Modern fluorescent lighting offers many advantages over older fluorescent tube fixtures as well as incandescent bulbs. They also share some characteristics that differ from LED fixtures—whether these differences are good or bad depends on your personal preferences and needs. If you upgrade your fixtures to CFLs or other contemporary fluorescent fixtures, here is what you can expect:

• They can turn on instantly, even in cold weather. Because cold temperatures affect the vapor pressure inside the glass, fluorescent fixtures that use older or cheaper ballasts take time to come up to full illumination when used in unheated buildings. Now, however, you can purchase instant-on lights that operate more efficiently, providing immediate illumination without flickering or strobing even in below-freezing temperatures.

• Some fixtures can be fixed or upgraded rather than replaced. Many parts for fluorescent fixtures have been around for decades and are readily available in hardware stores or on the Internet. “Many horsepeople are hands-on and like to be able to fix their own stuff,” says Ron Tracy, an Arizona-based dealer for Orion West Lighting. “With LED fixtures, if you had a lightning strike or something that knocks out your LED, currently you can’t run to the store and get parts. With fluorescents you can get new ballasts, lamps or sockets to repair them, so many folks are more comfortable with that. By contrast, if your LED fixture goes bad, most manufacturers replace the fixture.”

• You can find fixtures designed specifically for barns. You’ll find a number of fixtures designed specifically for use in barns with sealed housings. “For the stall, wash rack, feed room areas, etc., we use a vapor-tight type of fixture,” says Gary Bonk of Pro Lighting in Brighton, Michigan. “You could literally wash them with a pressure washer without hurting them. They are made of fiberglass and use a high-impact acrylic lens held tight with stainless steel latches.”

• They are often an economical choice for overhead lighting. Light from fluorescent tubes radiates outward from every point of the curved surface of the glass, so they are good at casting light evenly over broad open areas, such as barns and indoor arenas. Fixtures with reflectors behind the bulbs to direct light in specific directions are also effective at lighting wash stalls and smaller work areas.

Ten to 15 years ago, people were using 250 to 400 watt metal halide “low” and “high” bay type fixtures for indoor arenas, says Bonk: “These are the big, round fixtures with the acrylic lens. They did the job quite well but cost a fortune to run, yet there really wasn’t any alternative at that time. About seven years ago some companies came out with fluorescent high bays. Horsemen could replace their worn-out 400 watt metal halide fixtures with a T5HO or T8, which cut the energy consumption in half and still maintained the same light levels. We still use them today because they give excellent ‘bang for your buck.’”


Although relatively new to lighting fixtures, LEDs have been around for decades—in digital clocks, remote controls, computer boards and myriad other applications. They function simply: When electricity passes through a semiconductor material, some of the atoms release photons, which we see as visible light. The color of the light depends on the specific semiconductor materials used; the ability to produce white light from LEDs is a relatively recent innovation that allowed the technology to be used for light bulbs and light fixtures.

The available options and features for LEDs have grown significantly in recent years. “The LED bulbs of five years ago don’t hold a candle to the ones we have today,” says Rulison. “The modern ones are moisture resistant and also resistant to cold, and their lifetime is getting better. LEDs far outlast fluorescent or incandescent lamps.”

A single LED is very tiny, and to make larger bulbs or fixtures, many of them are clustered together. LEDs emit light in one specific direction; they are ideal for creating the type of fixture that casts light onto work areas.

LEDs have also been adapted into larger fixtures that can be used to broadcast light over a wider area, and many barns and arenas use overhead lights that look like fluorescents but are actually LEDs. However, the two types of bulb are not inter-changeable: You may need to get new fixtures because LED bulbs usually can’t be swapped into the old fluorescent fixtures.

Here are the primary features of LED fixtures:

• The energy savings are huge. LEDs use much less electricity than other types of lights. By some estimates, you can reduce electricity use by up to 90 percent compared to an incandescent screw-in light bulb and up to 70 percent compared to energy used by some fluorescent lighting.

When building an addition onto a barn, switching to LED fixtures may save you from having to upgrade your entire electrical system. “If you are adding to a barn, you could revamp the old barn with LED lighting in order to reduce the load on the existing circuits so those could be expanded into new areas of the barn, so you don’t have to upgrade the electrical service to handle the additional lighting load,” Rulison says. “Right now we have LED fixtures rated at 40 watts that are replacing 400 watt metal halides. That’s a big difference.”

As a bonus, he adds, “When you are not using as much energy, you are not producing as much heat, which reduces the chance for barn fires.”

• LEDs are long lived. The old incandescent light bulbs were expected to last for 750 to 2,500 hours, and the energy-saving incandescents (halogens) lasted 1,000 to 4,000 hours, according to the Department of Energy. By comparison, CFLs have an expected life-span of 10,000 hours, and up to 24,000 hours for straight-tube fluorescents. In contrast, LED bulbs and fixtures can be expected to last at least 50,000 hours.

In other words, if they were turned on and left on continuously, an incandescent light bulb might be expected to operate for about three and a half months; the CFL might remain on for just under 14 months; and the straight tube fluorescent for just over two and a half years. The LED bulb would remain on for at least five and a half years—maybe up to 10 or more years.

“When LEDs first hit the market manufacturers claimed that the average life of the LED bulbs would be about 100,000 hours. Some may last longer than that, but the manufacturers now are more comfortable guaranteeing them for 50,000 hours,” says Tracy.

• They don’t require much if any maintenance. Because LED bulbs last so long, and because they are so mechanically simple, they require virtually no maintenance. “The majority of our fixtures have 50,000-hour LED lifespans with some as high as 100,000 hours,” says Bonk. “These fixtures have zero maintenance, which means our customers do not have to climb ladders to change bulbs, ballasts, etc., as you would for fluorescent or metal halide fixtures.”

• Some LED purchases may be eligible for rebates or tax credits. If you install LED fixtures throughout your barn, check with your local electrical utility to see if you quality for a rebate. “Many utilities and electrical companies offer rebates to people who put these in because of the energy savings that reduce stress on the electrical grid,” says Rulison. “This can help pay for the cost of putting them in. Some of them have a rebate per fixture. One of our customers, redoing parking lot lights, was paid $100 per fixture toward the retrofit cost to change to LED.” You may also qualify for federal or state tax credits, depending on your state and situation.

• Professional installation may be required. Unlike with the fluorescents, a LED fixture is more likely to be a self-contained unit that cannot be disassembled for minor repairs. In most cases, installation requires a licensed electrician.


In general, the greatest difference between contemporary fluorescent lighting and LEDs comes down to this: Fluorescent bulbs and fixtures are cheaper to purchase, but they use more energy and cost more to run. LED bulbs cost significantly more to purchase, but they produce much higher savings over time.

Which options are best for your barn depend on how much lighting you need, what type of lights you use and how often you use them. “In smaller fixtures, like stall lights, the LEDs may provide a savings of 10 to 20 percent,” says Tracy. “The medium fixtures—the four-foot fixtures like aisle lights, wash stall fixtures, etc.—are probably in the 40 to 50 percent range of savings. When you get to the arena lights, the replacements for high bay lights, it’s not as significant. The eight-lamp fluorescent high bay fixture consumes 294 watts and the comparable LED fixture consumes 200 watts. It’s not a huge difference for the smaller and larger fixtures, but it can be a considerable savings for the medium-size fixtures. With the three- to four-foot lamps that we usually put in aisles and wash racks, the fluorescent lights consume 84 watts and the equivalent LED consumes 40.”

But the prices of LED and comparable fluorescent fixtures can vary considerably. “You can expect to pay at least twice the amount for LED as you would for a comparable fluorescent light, in the small and medium fixtures. When you get into the large high bay fixtures, the cost may be two to three times higher,” says Tracy. “I could sell you a 200 watt fluorescent for $189.95 while the comparable LED would be over $400.”

How quickly the cost savings of operating LEDs will overtake the higher initial costs depends on how often and how long they are used. “For a building that keeps the lights on 24-7, like commercial enterprises, these costs can be recouped in energy savings fairly quickly [two to three years],” says

Tracy. “Breeders and people who show horses and run lights 14 to 16 hours a day might get their money back in four to six years with LED, compared to fluorescent lights that would get their money back in one to two years because they are paying half to one-third the up-front cost.”

In contrast, he says, “For the recreational horseperson who is operating their indoor arena only maybe four to six hours per day, it would take much longer—maybe 12 years or more—to recoup that same investment [in LED]. The people with no arena and just a stall barn could probably justify LED lights because they might pay $96 for a stall light and can probably get their money back in three to four years with energy savings. What it boils down to is that the LED technology is good, but you still want to do your homework and a cost-benefit analysis.”

The general rule of thumb, then, is that the more often you use your lights, and the longer they stay on each day, the more likely it is that LEDs will be worth the cost—exterior lights that stay on for hours every night, for example. At the other extreme, LED bulbs that get flipped on only occasionally, for a few minutes at a time, such as in a seldom-used storage room, may not recover their costs in your lifetime.

If you decide it’s time to upgrade the lighting system in your barn, the payoff will likely come in many ways, not just financially. You’ll reduce your energy bills, but the biggest payoff may be in being better able to see your horse and his surroundings because of improved lighting. 

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #464

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