Decisions on the appropriate lighting source are more pervasive than most of us realize. One could trace lighting design even as far back as the Bible, where in Genesis, Chapter I, God declares, “Let there be light.”

Many religions have attempted to explain the origin of light, but one thing is certain: However light found its beginning, since then, the concept, design and installation of lighting has gotten a little complicated.

Various lighting technologies have been developed over time, and some have burned out. Perhaps the most noteworthy casualty has been Edison’s incandescent bulb, a long-time symbol of both electric lighting and, by extension, bright ideas. Due to government regulation, incandescents are living on borrowed time here and in the European Union, where those who oppose the technology’s prohibition have called their ban—a cascading process that will continue over the next few years— “light bulb socialism.”

But currently, most public and industry attention seems to be focusing on two other competing technologies: the long-accepted fluorescents and the newer light-emitting diodes (LEDs) or other solid-state-based lighting systems.

Industry sources indicate that the North American lighting market will double in the next five years, and some estimate that 60 percent of this will consist of LED installations.

But the basic questions for contractors and their customers are for what specific applications LEDs should be used, when they will become as cost-efficient as fluorescent lamps in these situations, and details regarding a time frame for a significant changeover.

Contractors and everybody else in the supply chain should keep in mind that the key decision-maker in this scenario will be the end-user, who is still laboring through the aftermath of a recession and is not inclined to pay a premium for a lighting source just because somebody says it’s the cat’s pajamas or the wave of the future.

Follow the lumens
For any lighting technology to become widely accepted as a viable replacement for the type of product currently installed, it has to demonstrate not only equal or superior performance, but also an economic value proposition that justifies the investment required for the transition. And history has shown that customers do not rush into such a decision, but rather do so only after considerable deliberation, since what is involved is replacement of a whole lighting system including luminaires and lamps. They want evidence of a demonstrable return on investment over a reasonable period of time, usually less than three years.

But even when the justification is established, reluctance to change persists as in the classic case of the T12 fluorescent lamp, approximately 500 million of which are still installed even though they have been surpassed in payback and performance over the last 25 years by T8s and T5s. In fact, it was only in the past few years that T8 sales exceeded T12 sales.

So if there has been less than widespread enthusiasm to switch within the familiar confines of fluorescent technology itself, convincing customers to change to the LED technology can be expected to present even greater challenges.

“Fluorescent installations—both linear [LFL] and compact [CFL] configurations—will definitely continue to be widely used in a number of applications,” said Jim Benson, general manager of marketing, at GE Lighting, Cleveland. “The reality right now is that you can buy a CFL for a couple of bucks, while a comparable LED costs about $35. This represents a considerable sticker shock for customers, especially noncommercial people. In a sense, LEDs are a public perception: They represent about 5–10 percent of what people are selling but 95 percent of what people are talking about.”

He also noted that there are efficiency realities as well as economic realities to consider. A T5 LFL has an output of 102 lumens per watt, while the best comparable LED currently available has outputs 70–80 lumens per watt. So the buying decision, most agree, will be a matter of following the numbers from lumens to dollars.

“The measure of performance of lighting in general is lumens output per watt,” said John Zimmerman, marketing manager for professional solid-state lighting at Osram Sylvania, Danvers, Mass. “The next metric is dollars per lumen—the equivalent of miles per gallon. Right now the cost of fluorescent per lumen is around one-tenth of a cent, and LED just isn’t at that cost level. As with any technology, unit price will come down with volume production, economies of scale and market acceptance. When it reaches a two-year payback, then the CFOs will make the investment. Once LEDs achieve lumens per watt and dollars per lumen targets comparable to fluorescent, then the market can be expected to flip with a significant move to solid-state lighting.”

When this pivotal point will be reached is a matter of opinion. Some industry sources decline to hazard a guess, saying that fluorescent still has a long and vibrant life span ahead and will be around for the foreseeable future.

Others peg the turnaround at between five to 10 years out, but most agree the timetable will depend on the shifting percentage breakdown of end-users between the “early adopters and innovators” who want to get in at the front end of what they perceive as a definite emerging industry trend, and the laggards or late majority who are slow to adopt any new technology.

Reading between the lines, experts are talking about a Catch-22 situation involving the need for market acceptance before volume production can bring down costs but continuing high costs hindering that widespread adoption.

Niche selection
Despite slow markets and a still lingering recessionary malaise, some of those early adopters have embraced LED technology in certain niche applications.

“Even at the height of the recession in 2008, we saw some major supermarket chains investing significant dollars in upgrading their installed base of fluorescents to LEDs,” Zimmerman said. “They were sitting on cash reserves that weren’t earning any real interest, so they took a closer look at the economic value proposition of using LEDs in one particular sector of their stores.”

The area in question was the freezer compartment section, because fluorescents don’t perform that well in cold temperatures, often have on-off switching problems under these conditions, and don’t have the distinctively bright white light of LEDs. The supermarkets first tested LEDs at a few of their locations, collected data on energy consumption of both technologies, judged that they could realize a two-year payback, and made the substitution throughout their store chains.

Weighing initial cost versus ultimate return on investment (ROI) was the key element in the decision.

“There is no one-size-fits-all in lighting,” said Silvie Casanova, senior communications manager at Philips Lighting Co., Somerset, N.J. “Customers need to understand the ROI for their individual application and that, while some systems may cost more up front, they will save more money in energy costs and maintenance in the long term. The contractor should be advising them on how to make their lighting investment work best and guiding them to the solution that best fits their particular requirements.”

She also notes that many customers haven’t the expertise to factor in complex interrelated considerations such as foot-candle requirements, beam angles, color-rendering index, and power consumption, so assisting with these complexities is a significant value-added service the contractor can provide.

Some bright ideas for the customer
Given the fact that the lighting market is going through a transitional period—complicated by numerous variables, options and contingencies—contractors might consider offering counsel to the customer that takes into account his or her specific criteria and cost considerations. Here are some points for the contractor to keep in mind when seeking customers and in subsequent selection discussions with them:

• As a general rule, LEDs seem to be making the most impressive headway in commercial applications, such as the mentioned supermarket freezer sections and also in some fast-food chains. Exit signs, traffic signals and street lighting are also emerging opportunities.

• For the time being, at least, office overhead and parking garage lighting is expected to remain the domain of fluorescent lighting because of its proven high-efficiency application in these areas.

• In the residential market, homeowners and builders might consider installing LEDs in such applications as outdoor lighting and spotlighting or track lighting in the kitchen.

• Ballasts can be a problem under any circumstances, especially when a technology switch is involved. Ensure the installed ballast (or power supply, in the case of LEDs) and the lamps have compatible life expectancies. The wrong ballast can compromise the efficiency of the entire system, which results in higher operating costs. If the ballast fails, it has to be replaced by an electrician. In the case of a change from fluorescent to LED, ensure the ballast is replaced by a power supply, otherwise the UL rating will be voided in most cases.

• A strong selling point for LED installation is its green character, which makes it an obvious preferred option in situations where sustainability is a critical issue. A key consideration is knowing what rebates the local utility is offering and how the contractor’s installation can shorten payback time for various customers.

• Contractors should take advantage of the information about advising the customer on the right lighting solution that is available from trade and industry associations, from local distributors or manufacturers. For example, GE Lighting’s website, www.gelighting.com/apples-to-oranges, answers frequently asked questions about choosing the appropriate technology.

In the final analysis, the contractor should focus on helping the customer make up his mind and not on selling any given technology or product.

“Members of the supply chain have to be responsible brokers in helping their customers understand the capabilities and limitations of various lighting sources,” Zimmerman said. “A lot of people in the industry talk about LEDs as a panacea, and maybe someday they will be. But right now they aren’t. There is an incredible future ahead for LEDs, but fluorescents will also be around for quite some time.”


QUINN reports on a broad range of business and industry issues for journals in the United States and Europe. He can be reached at 203.323.9850 and mirabel@snet.net.