If light emitting diode (LED) technology continues to drop in price and improve in quality, it will become standard for many applications within the year. Like most new technologies, the hype might outweigh the reality, but in this case, according to Nadarajah Narendran, director of research for lighting at Rensselaer University, the hype might be appropriate.

“LED is definitely ramping up,” he said. “This is the first time in lighting technology I have seen something ramp up at this degree.”

Despite some shortcomings in the semiconductor powered LEDs, the low-energy lighting option is growing beyond emergency lighting and stairwells into main places of business and residence throughout the country.

Economic driver

There are two factors that have propelled LED technology faster than originally expected, said Christopher M. James, vice president of marketing for CREE Inc., Durham, N.C. First off, technological advancements are making LED lighting less expensive and more effective than it was just a few years ago. Second, the energy crisis has pushed energy savings to the front burner for building owners, developers and even those in the construction industry.

“The driver is economic,” James said.

While it is expensive to change existing lighting systems to LEDs, the energy savings amount has grown enough that there is a short wait time to start realizing a savings in the LED investment.

“Payback is [in] about a year now,” James said.

The transition toward LEDs is likely to change the way we think of lighting, whether in residential, retail or other commercial applications. CREE has seen interest in lighting shift to “architainment” with colored lighting that can change to suit the necessary ambiance; and to lower, more focused lighting that can, for example, showcase a product in a store. In fact, James said, that the retail market is very excited about the technology.

Because LEDs have such a long life, they no longer need to be accessible for frequent bulb changes as incandescents do. According to James, people can put LEDs nearly anywhere, including pouring them directly into cement floors.

“Why does lighting need to be in the ceiling? Think of it as something permanent, like a wall,” James said.

Despite all the excitement, knowledge may not have kept up. While customers are excited about the product and interested in how much money an LED installation would save them, Narendran said, the knowledge of how to install and use the lights lags far behind. That gap needs to be filled to make LED technology truly successful. Training in what LEDs provide is necessary not only for customers and architects but also electrical contractors who install it.

Mark Schmidt, president and COO of optoelectronics company Cyberlux, Durham, N.C., agreed. Training is not as difficult as many might think. After a few hours, most installers should understand the basics. With the dropping cost and increasing energy efficiency of LEDs, contractors can expect to see more and more installations in the coming months. Narendran estimates that most customers are still weighing the cost of installing LED lighting with the savings that will be gained down the road.

“One difficulty for LED lighting is that, depending on how the product is packaged, you could experience different performance,” Narendran said. “If you apply it wrong, it will not perform properly. To avoid expensive mistakes, it is better to get educated first.”

For example, heat is one of the worst things for LED fixtures. If the fixture is installed without the right ventilation, then it simply won’t perform.

“On the positive side, there are lots of sophisticated engineers working on heat management,” he said.

Some of that work is taking place at Cyberlux. Schmidt said, “It requires careful engineering. You have to have temperature management.”

To help customers and contractors learn what they need to about LEDs, the Lighting Research Center is establishing a three-day hands-on intensive course for lighting fixture designers and manufacturers, lighting specifiers and other professionals, such as electrical contractors, interested in learning more about LEDs.

“Right now what’s happening is that good manufacturers are providing systems that include help,” Narendran said. “There are tons of other products that do not have any good technical support.”

When they invest in an LED system, users need to determine whether the manufacturer will provide the support they are going to need. To assist in selection of the right LED system, the Lighting Research Center is preparing another service that will test and rate products similarly to Consumer Reports.

“We do not recommend a given product,” Narendran said, but instead release data about how the product works and what its strengths and weaknesses are.

The Lighting Research Center also has established the National Lighting Product Information Program, (NLPIP) which helps contractors, designers, building managers, homeowners and other consumers find and effectively use efficient, quality products such as LEDs that meet their lighting needs. With the support of government agencies, public benefit organizations and electric utilities, NLPIP releases manufacturer-specific information about energy-efficient lighting products based on objective research.

Established in 1990, NLPIP team members are all LRC researchers who are experts in efficient lighting, human factors and technology transfer. The NLPIP product-testing laboratory is one of only three non-manufacturer, NVLAP-accredited labs in the United States. But as more LED options become available, comparing them becomes an increasing challenge.

“A lot of the products are unique in nature,” Narendran said, which makes evaluating them that much more complicated. “It makes it more difficult to make apples to apples comparisons.”

The incandescent bulb remains

Will LED ever replace incandescent bulbs? Not likely.

“You can get four [incandescent bulbs] for a dollar,” Narendran said.

LEDs will never compete with those prices. But not only do the lamps last longer and save energy, they can fit into places no incandescent bulb could ever go.

“Traditional lights are bulky,” Narendran said.

Trying to install recessed lighting with incandescent lights can require a great deal of space. Not so for LEDs, which can fit into a shallow profile fixture.

LED lighting offers other benefits as well. It can be used as what was originally termed as “panic lighting” that would come on in emergencies and offer several hours of low-voltage lighting to help people evacuate a building. Today with grid problems and various outages, many businesses are opting for a LED solution with more than 60 hours of lifetime once lighted with battery power. LED lights reduce insurance risks as well.

As LEDs become common, Schmidt said, fixtures will migrate to incorporating LED elements. In the meantime, there is a growing retrofit market for lightbulbs.

Then there is architectural lighting, where LED is by far the best solution for many applications. LED sources are uniquely suited for architectural use: they are small, rugged, and have an extremely long effective life—up to 100,000 hours. Many LED manufacturers say nearly half their product goes toward architectural lighting.

Colored LEDs, in particular, have become popular as an architectural and display lighting option because they offer flexibility to designers and consume half the energy of traditional incandescent sources with color filters. And, because many architects have been slow to take up the issue of lighting opportunities, electrical contractors are often left to sort out how the lighting will be applied.

Residential lighting may also be changing as the recent focus on energy brings government into the lighting arena. California’s Title 24 energy-efficiency regulation, for example, limits lighting choices to fluorescent lights as the primary lighting source in kitchens and baths. As LEDs become affordable, they offer an alternative that is more efficient and less expensive to run than fluorescents.

CML Innovative Technologies, Hackensack, N.J., creates LED lighting packages for its customers that are most commonly used in commercial and residential applications, and decorative colored lighting. Edward Quinn, marketing manager, is skeptical about early projections for LED successes. He predicts there will be many years before LEDs hit the mainstream with white light to replace fluorescents.

“I’ve seen forecasts of 2020 where LED will capture some of the market of fluorescents but the cost to benefit ratio isn’t there yet,” Quinn said.

That might change with new innovations. Materials scientists at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, have devised a technique to make thin, crystal-like materials for electronic devices that would make LEDs much easier and less expensive to develop. The technique could supplement today’s tedious and exacting method of growing crystals with an additional benefit of producing materials in sizes and shapes not now possible.

Ceramare Corp., New Brunswick, N.J., has collaborated with Rutgers and the University of California, Berkeley, to devise a method where they coax microscopic grains of crystals to assemble into tightly packed layers. The resulting orderly array of particles mimics the performance of traditionally fabricated crystalline wafers. This could make LED manufacturing so much more efficient that the industry could enjoy a dramatic cost reduction.

In the meantime, applications are cropping up across the country. Kings Park High School, New York, recently installed a Cyberlux emergency lighting system in its Emergency Situation Room. This pilot program, funded through a $10,000 state grant, is intended to demonstrate how LED solid-state lighting can be used in schools and other shelters in the aftermath of natural disasters, terrorist attacks, electric grid failures and any other calamity that can cause widespread electricity blackouts.

The lighting system is based on Cyberlux’s Reliabright Emergency Lighting System powered by a remote, constant charge battery pack with up to 80 hours of light on one battery charge. The system is activated by a proprietary sensor system that detects a loss of power in the building’s electrical system.

In a similar pilot project, Cyberlux installed a solid-state semiconductor lighting system in the emergency management “war room” for Cleveland. The project was in response to the widespread power blackouts in 2003.

While emergency preparedness has become big business in this country, LED technology is proving to go far beyond that function however and it can be expected to accelerate. EC

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at claire_swedberg@msn.com.