Any given year has its predictions. If you’re reading this article, the world as we knew/know it didn’t end on May 21—one of the most publicized predictions for 2011. In Chicago, Cubs fans may yet again be asserting that next year will be the year their team goes all the way. In the lighting industry, however, another long-predicted milestone, the year LEDs finally take off, actually may have arrived.

“Two-thousand eleven is a serious year” for LEDs, said lighting consultant and product designer Kevin Willmorth, who believes promises of LEDs performance and price equity are finally coming true. “It’s starting to give us some lamps that are serious performers.”

Importantly, Willmorth is talking about replacement options that can make retrofit projects financially viable, especially compared to traditional incandescent technologies. No longer simply a “statement” decision by green-minded building owners, the move to LEDs now makes bottom-line sense in a number of applications.

This evolution doesn’t mean the sales job for contractors pursuing LED projects suddenly has become easy. First, cost remains a significant differentiator between, say, possible compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) options and LED counterparts. But the combined advantages of life cycles stretching half a decade or more in heavy-use settings, along with the lack of CFL-related mercury concerns, are strong arguments for clients willing to look beyond initial purchase prices.

“Right now, LED products are several orders more expensive than any existing technology,” Willmorth said. However, he said, when you factor in the maintenance savings accrued through avoided replacement projects, parity is within reach.

That reach may be easier depending on regional electricity rates, said Eric Marsh, senior marketing manager for Philips’ contractor-directed EnduraLED line of replacement lamps. However, reduced maintenance may be the biggest differentiator.

“In most instances, the math works, because the lifespan is so much longer,” Marsh said.

Consider a hotel ballroom chandelier, Marsh suggested, which may have dozens—or more—individual candle-style lamps. Currently, maintenance staff may be spending time every week replacing existing incandescents. Invest in LEDs, he said, and that upkeep is reduced significantly.

“You’re now only going to have to change it every three to five years,” Marsh said.

LEDs also may be taking a lead in retail applications, Marsh said. Take, for example, a 65-watt (W) PAR 38 halogen lamp, with a 2,000-hour rating. The likely 17W LED replacement has a 40,000-hour-rated life. The cost difference—$4 to $6 for the halogen versus $70 for the LED—could be offputting. However, the 48W difference in demand at $0.10 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) could, itself, lead to a payback of two years or less, he said. Plus, the halogen units would need to be replaced 20 times before the LED units begin to fail.

National retailer Macy’s recently ran these numbers and initiated a major relamping effort, Marsh said, changing out accent lighting and some downlights with new LED lamps from Philips.

“They’re estimating around $8 million in savings in energy a year,” he said.

Willmorth sees the life cycle versus first-cost arguments shifting soon.

“Three years from now, that’s all going to be upside down,” he said, explaining how old-school supply-and-demand rules are on the verge of eliminating sticker-shock concerns. For example, he said, Everlight has just opened a fully automated manufacturing plant in China; up until now, he said, most LED lamps were hand-assembled. Furthermore, larger, established brand names also now are seeing customer interest in quantities large enough to justify expanded manufacturing operations.

Lamp or luminaire?
Clients seeking to explore LED options first need to determine whether they simply want to swap out existing lamps for SSL alternatives or if they want to make a larger investment in dedicated LED luminaires, as well. Each choice offers its own risks and rewards.

“Obviously, it’s a better use of LED technology if the fixture is designed from the ground up. The fixture designer is going to take advantage of some design freedoms,” said Scott Riesbosch, president and founder of CRS Electronics, an LED subassembly manufacturer for the OEM market as well as the maker of Energizer-brand lamps.

Simply opting for replacement lamps can create its own problems if you don’t first take time to understand how LED options will perform with the existing fixtures. As Riesebosch noted, “You’re mating the old and the new, and with such a wide variety of fixtures in the market, you really can’t paint them all with the same brush.”

Heat dissipation is the biggest concern when matching new LEDs with existing lighting fixtures. Current can-style luminaires may not provide enough clearance to allow heat dissipation. Heat buildup can shorten LED lifespans, and it increases with wattage. So, for example, a standard PAR 30 can fixture may only be able to accommodate a 9W to 10W LED lamp, Willmorth said.

CRS Electronics designed its lamps with potential heat buildup in mind, Riesebosch said. The company’s products incorporate temperature sensors that automatically reduce the power supplied to the lamp when conditions get too hot. However, while such a design protects the lamp from overheating, it also can lead to less-than-optimal illumination.

“If you have a type of fixture that limits airflow, you end up with less light output,” Riesebosch said.

Newer products with higher efficiencies could help reduce heat-buildup worries by converting more of their energy to light, Willmorth said. Current leading-edge products are reaching 80 lumens per watt (LPW), which may or may not meet a client’s needs. However, he added, products hitting the 120 LPW target are on the horizon, and their arrival could boost replacement options.

Contractors also need to recognize the difference in beam angle between LED and halogen lamps when specifying replacements, Marsh said.

Marsh said LEDs have very tight beam angles, unlike halogen lamps, which produce illumination that can bleed past their specified beam diameter to create a halo effect. So, he suggested contractors consider offerings that feature a 36-degree beam angle to ensure consistent light levels and protect against dark spots.

Test your decision
Standards development continues to lag behind LED technology evolution, so experts urge contractors to test any options before sending out a purchase order. While all reputable makers include a “Lighting Facts” label on their packaging, Riesebosch said the ratings on those labels don’t tell the whole story when it comes to actual product performance. The labels specify color temperature and color rendering index, but don’t address spectral power distribution, which he calls a critical element in how we see illumination.

“You can have two lamps from different manufacturers with Lighting Facts labels that show identical numbers, and they look completely different,” he said. “One could make colors very bland, with a different hue of white, and the other could be much more vibrant.”

In fact, light quality can differ between production batches from the same manufacturer, he said. As a result, Riesebosch suggests specifiers order more than one sample from any potential supplier, and request those samples at different times to get a clearer picture of color uniformity.

Willmorth seconds this approach, adding that an actual demonstration of those samples in a client’s facility can provide valuable insight.

“If I were a contractor, I’d scour the web and stock up on some of the best replacement lamps,” along with a couple of fixtures, he said. “If you had the stuff in your van and could do a quick demonstration, you could win the contract right there; that’s not a bad approach.”

However, despite his enthusiasm for relamping opportunities, Willmorth is concerned that focusing on direct one-to-one replacements may be creating a shortsighted “Back to the Future” scenario that could be overlooking opportunities for real lighting improvement.

“We’re doing the same thing we did with the CFLs—it’s almost like we take the best technology and shove it down into the lowest common denominator,” he said. “When are we going to relook at that luminaire? That’s where the transformation will become real.”


ROSS is a freelance writer located in Brewster, Mass. He can be reached at chuck@chuck-ross.com.