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Color tuning in K-12 schools

Most K-12 schools welcome children with diverse backgrounds, various family situations, different learning styles, abilities and preferences. Additionally, many students have vision problems or sensitivity to light, ranging from eye tracking to trouble focusing and beyond. Luckily, more educational institutions are beginning to move away from old-school fluorescent lights and adopting modern LED solutions for their classroom lighting needs.

One of the major advantages of LEDs is the ability to alter the color temperature through a process called color tuning, a relatively new technology in lighting that allows you to dynamically change the correlated color temperature (CCT) in a space. We spoke with Matt Petti, product manager for connected lighting with Eaton’s Lighting Division, about tunable light and the importance of color tuning for classroom lighting in K-12 schools.

Why are color tuning and CCT relevant to classroom lighting design?

MP: Color is a key attribute in lighting. Correlated color temperature, defined in degrees Kelvin, is related to the warmth or coolness of white LED lighting. Warmer color temperatures, like in an incandescent lamp, have a lower CCT and emit a yellowish-orange light. Cooler temperatures, such as those in a doctor’s office, emit more of a sterile, blueish light and have a higher CCT.

Correlated color temperature is relevant in the K-12 school setting, because light influences the way the classroom feels. The key is understanding and evaluating the needs of the environment you want to create. In a learning environment, it’s crucial to be conscientious of any stimuli that are added to the environment, especially when you’re working with students with autism, ADHD or other neurodevelopmental conditions. With that said, any student, neurotypical or otherwise, is less likely to perform at his peak potential when asked to function in a classroom that is too dim, too cluttered or even too warm or cool.

What issues may arise from using classroom lighting with a less-than-optimal CCT?

MP: For the past several decades, schools have been using fluorescent lighting controlled by a single on-off switch on the wall. But now, with the advent of products like VividTune offering tunable white LEDs as an option, we can better address the needs of students and teachers in the classroom. Schools often send the maintenance crew out to purchase new fluorescent tubes without knowing enough about lighting to look for the same Kelvin temperature for all of the lamps. In turn, institutions may end up with a hodgepodge of color temperatures that aren’t optimized for the space.

Once you put the fluorescent lamp in the luminaire, you have a fixed Kelvin temperature, so no matter what activities you’re doing in the space, the lighting remains constant. This is where problems can arise, particularly in elementary schools, where so much of the day’s activities take place in the same classroom. When it’s naptime or reading time, and you want your students to be relaxed and comfortable, they’re stuck with high-output, 4000K lamps, which are better suited for test-taking environments, in the luminaires. Of course, teachers have the option of turning off the lights, but that does not allow much flexibility for teachers to make their classroom respond to the activities that are going on in it.

What correlated color temperatures are recommended for different areas of a school?

MP: When considering CCT for schools, different color temperatures depend on the atmosphere you want to create. In the cafeteria, for example, where you want to convey an inviting, calm atmosphere, warmer temperatures in the 3000-3500K range work best. Deciding on color temperatures for classroom lighting is more complex than doing so for a cafeteria or hallway, as these spaces don’t always require the same amount or intensity of light. That’s where LED lighting and tunable LED lights offer the most benefits to the education sector. VividTune offers a few common CCT ranges that are being specified and recognized as the best choice for classrooms. The most common for K-12 use is the 3000K-5000K range. While you may not want the lights at 4000K all the time, you do want to stay in that range, since classrooms are generally productivity-focused environments.

Now, we can make LED lights in classrooms respond to the activities people are doing in them. Cooler temperatures in the 4000-5000K range are great for keeping students energized and focused. For example, during a science lab that involves intricate observations, you can tune the color temperature to about 4500K, so that the room feels really bright and everyone is extremely alert. Students are able to perform the activity better than they would if the color temperature was simply fixed at 3500K. But when it’s time for students to wind down, the CCT can be tuned to warmer temperatures in the 3000 to 3500K range.

With the technology associated with today’s LED luminaires, teachers are even able to use different color temperatures in the same room and blend them to achieve various CCTs. If students are testing on one side of the room but go to another area of the room to read quietly after the exam, tunable LED lights help achieve these differentiated atmospheres in the same space.