Declared to be revolutionary by many industry participants, solid-state-lighting (SSL) is playing a larger role in today’s construction market. Light-emitting diodes (LEDs), in particular, seem to progress month to month. However, actually using LEDs presents a challenge. They must be the right fit to be a successful sale. A thorough product evaluation may be the new essential to successful selling.

Outsourced Innovation, Naperville, Ill., “evaluates and validates” LED technologies so its customers can make an informed and educated decision. The firm also works with manufacturers to assess both prototype and commercially available, market-ready products.

“Companies don’t always engage their customers or the end-users in a lighting change,” said Martha Carney, principal for Outsourced Innovation. “Municipalities don’t often consider their citizenry when they swap out, say, residential street lighting. Understanding the LED lighting experience is essential to satisfaction and ultimate adoption, especially when considering a lighting source touted to last decades. When considering LEDs, it starts with education. LEDs for general illumination are frequently misconstrued as light bulbs even by the customers who approach electrical contractors. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Being digital, LEDs are programmable and offer an unlimited scope for color or other dynamic effects that conventional lighting cannot match. They are a lighting system, which needs to be conveyed as well. Those facts are a start. Education can go much deeper.”

Carney’s measurement-based evaluation approach is something electrical contractors (ECs) could consider when their customers are considering LED lighting.

“The LED market is flooded by a vast number of new and unproven LED products,” Carney said. “Some manufacturers are making claims about performance that seem too good to be true and are not supported on a technical basis. As things stand, it can be difficult for an electrical contractor’s customers to know who to trust or what to believe.”

Carney believes ECs can step in by offering a LED evaluative service.

The two Q’s and demos
For Carney, a thorough analysis of LED lighting systems requires examining both the quantitative and qualitative effects of that lighting change. She recommends comparing two, three or more similar products.

“A quantitative review requires validating the kilowatt-per-hour savings by each manufacturer,” she said. “LED lighting is not a commodity (at least yet) with product performance that varies widely by manufacturer. The challenge is to look at several possible solutions and understand what the customer is trying to achieve in a lighting conversion. There are trade-offs with LEDs. You can drive them harder and achieve a higher light output, but you sacrifice life. You may prefer a warmer Kelvin temperature, but you sacrifice efficiency as greater efficiencies today are realized with cooler light. A qualitative analysis is something often left out in the evaluation of solid-state lighting systems.”

LED standards should help reduce uneven performance. Today, however, Carney cites a lack of standards in everything from optics, adhesives and solder-joints, to power supply and drive electronics that can hamper promises of 50,000 hours of service life. Where does that leave an EC? Eyeing products that offer a solid warranty can help provide a measure of self-assurance.

“The EC should know which LEDs offer consistent long service life as advertised,” Carney said. “That will help guide clients in their lighting decisions and build their confidence. That said, lumen maintenance can be an unknown with LED lighting systems.”

Carney’s firm evaluates stated LED product life. Its findings are informative.

“We have been asked to measure light degradation over time to see if LED lights are retaining a meaningful percentage of their initial light output over 1,000 hours and 6,000 hours of operation,” she said. “Our 6,000-hour test is set against that same grid used for 1,000 hours, so we can then calculate the difference. We use IESNA [Illuminating Engineering Society of North America] methodology to establish a light grid placed under a sample of fixtures to gather a statistically large enough number of foot-candle readings. In some cases, the LEDs have produced stable or little light degradation over one year. However, that has not held true for all LED products. That begs the question of meeting claims for 50,000-hour service life.”

A qualitative measure of LED performance is equally essential to Carney in determining whether a LED product is right for its intended purpose. Her firm recommends to clients that they set up an on-site demonstration to evaluate and compare several products. She explained such a demo might include surveying a company’s employees to assess how they feel about working under a different lighting system and gauge overall preferences.

“You might ask about brightness, glare or color of light preference,” Carney said. “A growing body of early research suggests a correlation between preferred lighting and employee productivity. If you have a municipal customer, you might help support an LED ‘research street’ in a public location where different LED lighting can be changed out as the community provides feedback on each. Maybe you want to show how LED street lighting illuminates without sacrificing public safety. In a building, your objective might be to get a sense of employees’ acceptance and comfort with dimming and adaptive-control technologies. Let them know these technologies are being considered to leverage energy savings and could actually offer personal lighting control in an office setting.”

Carney added that exposing an employee or general public to LED lighting is important because its spectral intensity or wave length is vastly different than conventional lighting.

“LED lighting can feel different,” she said. “There’s a physiology to lighting as it pertains to human behavior. Facilitating client demonstrations is a true service ECs can suggest.”

Still, some may be skeptical of a demonstration proposal’s effectiveness. However, it could help avoid costly overhauls later.

“We’ve conducted primary research with 10 Illinois municipalities and heard them suggest that their community wants to be engaged in street lighting decisions. In fact, the research found that when residents don’t like a lighting selection for reasons such as color or light distribution, they typically complain to the mayor, and the fixtures ultimately come down. In the commercial and industrial sector, large companies typically have budgets to evaluate various lighting options, but prudent evaluation can be a stretch for small companies,” Carney said.

Factoring in power
To learn which products are best for an application, contractors must be technically proficient regarding SSL technologies. After all, customers have to live with the results. If lights don’t perform as claimed, operations and the utility that supports delivering reliable service may suffer detrimental financial loss.

“On the utility side of the equation, power companies want to understand and validate the input wattage and power quality from LED lighting, especially if new rate structures are developed around SSL,” Carney said. “For commercial LED applications, Energy Star specifies greater than 0.90. Some utilities implement a power factor charge to commercial or industrial customers if electronic products fall below a certain power factor threshold as it’s more costly for a utility to deliver service to that facility. There are also proposed Energy Star LED standards for total harmonic distortion established at less than 0.20. The call is to eliminate the risk of LEDs interfering with the performance of other electronic products, such as computers. Measuring and understanding power factor is important.”

Thinking like a CFO
Carney advises ECs think like a chief financial officer when selling LED lighting systems.

“ECs need to be proficient in running the numbers and facilitating discussions on return on investment [ROI]. In today’s economy, most customers won’t adopt the technology if it does not make good business sense. Communicating internal rate of return [IRR] and how LEDs compare to a bank certificate of deposit or calculating net present value returns are all conversations that need to be second nature to today’s contractors. These discussions help make your case and ease your customer’s decision in committing to LED,” Carney said, adding that today’s LED fixtures can cost as much as 30–60 percent more than conventional light sources.

“Many successful applications can build a business case on maintenance cost savings alone, making the energy saving story secondary to a conversion,” she said.

Added, added service
Outsourced Innovation’s work does not stop with the field evaluation. It typically writes the business case for its clients, so they can present to a building owner or other party why a lighting conversion makes sense. When asked, the firm develops strategic messaging, so its customers can incorporate a sustainable lighting message into their overall mission statement and marketing.

“There are many LED lighting systems being installed today without prudent evaluation,” Carney said. “By sharpening skills going forward, ECs can provide new value in helping clients make the right purchasing decision. That will require being technically proficient when it comes to LEDs. By analyzing what products are quality performers or best for an application, ECs are providing an invaluable service. Also, know what incentives are out there, so customers can leverage rebates from utilities and others. As LED technology reaches steady-state performance, perhaps some field measurement will become unnecessary. Certainly, the digitalization of light is met by the speed in which such products are advancing. The vast opportunities for solid-state lighting suggest we have only scratched the surface for this exciting light source and its innovation.”

By providing customers with a deep understanding of SSL technology, ECs can become the consultants who understand where LEDs make sense. More than ever, the successful sale will be in the details.


GAVIN is the owner of Gavo Communications, a marketing services firm serving the construction, landscaping and related design industries. He can be reached at gavocomm@comcast.net.