For a long time, the lighting industry relied on conventional, legacy light sources and traditional designs. Recent advancements in LED technology, however, have changed the face of the industry in terms of the form and function of luminaires. Electrical contractors would be wise to stay on top of these evolving platforms.

Redefining illumination

Advancements in LED technology in the last five to seven years have redefined lighting, propelling fixture designs forward in terms of form and function.

“Since LEDs can be controlled to the individual diode, they can be designed to maximize energy savings and lifetime as well as create reimagined dynamic spaces,” said Jeff Campbell, head of trade luminaires in the United States and Canada for LEDvance (formerly Osram Sylvania), Wilmington, Mass. “In addition, since they’re small, they provide an opportunity to use smaller form factors. As a result, the fast adoption of LED light sources has enabled manufacturers to rethink how a fixture delivers light to the intended surface.”

This is apparent across the entire lighting industry.

“At first, LED-based products were significantly more expensive than their traditional counterparts, leading to poor ROI calculations, but as technology and competition increased dramatically, those costs have since dropped significantly,” said Tom Veltri, product manager of new product innovation, Hubbell Lighting, Greenville, S.C. Fixture design has evolved at an extraordinary rate, largely due to the integration of multiple technologies into a single package.

“At Hubbell, we see many LED lighting systems now hosting a variety of universal features as it relates to the incorporation of dimming controls and protocols into a single unit or the flexibility of a system to retrofit into a wider array of forms and sizes of existing legacy fixtures,” Veltri said.

According to James Benya, principal illuminating engineer and lighting designer at Benya Burnett Consultancy, Davis, Calif., “There are few, if any, recent fixture designs for any legacy light sources. Everything is LED now and the biggest trend today is to replace every legacy luminaire with an LED version. Although this isn’t particularly creative, the low costs and high efficiency are especially attractive at every level of the marketplace and it represents progress because it encourages everyone who installs lighting, not just high-end projects, to enjoy the benefits of LED.”

However, Benya said lighting design has remained fairly conservative. Only a small number of new luminaires present advanced LED and optical technologies in an appealing way. 

“The vast majority of LED luminaires are conventional fixtures with LEDs and occasionally clever or thoughtful optics,” he said. “There are new and interesting designs in outdoor lighting, decorative lighting and premium products for commercial lighting products, but the vast majority of current designs are LEDs put into familiar boxes. I think we’re just beginning to realize the complete potential for LED lighting to give us better luminaires, not just old luminaires with LED guts.”

Commercial spaces have increasingly seen controls capabilities integrated into fixtures.

“The energy and maintenance benefits of solid-state fixtures are now being augmented by controls capability that can automatically adjust for occupancy, daylight savings, energy metering and indoor positioning, to name a few, which opens up a new level of energy savings as well as opportunities for data collection and analytics,” Campbell said. “The trend has been towards low-profile units that can be hidden or designed into the architecture so that the delivered light is the attraction, not the fixture itself.”

Based on their small size and inherent controllability, LEDs lend themselves perfectly to these designs.

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For the consumer market, the continued trend will be toward commoditization of LED-based lamps with more traditional aesthetics.

Campbell expects the commercial/industrial sector “to begin looking for more future-proof designs where additional functionality can be added at a later date, though this could require some level of design for replaceable/interchangeable drivers and light engines.

“Most users don’t want the bulky heatsink designs and optic glare of many LED-based products available today,” he said.

Optical assembly is another major trend in fixture design.

In the past, reflectors and simple lensing were used to diffuse the original source for visual comfort and optical performance. Now, a combination of compact total internal reflection optics and extruded profile lensing are used to increase distribution and visual comfort in interior spaces. The result of these technological advances is an opportunity for sophisticated performance enhancements and cost savings.

Lighting controls are another factor advancing fixture design across all market segments.

“In the residential sector, it’s the rise of the ‘connected home’ through [Internet of Things] platforms—e.g., the ability for consumers to control the security, HVAC, lighting and entertainment functions within the home in an interconnected way that allows for creation of a custom experience based on personal preferences,” Veltri said. “In the commercial space, it’s a trend toward low-voltage power and control, which simplifies fixture design and installation, but, at the same time, gives rise to deeper data analytics and greater control over the building envelope. And in retail, it’s the opportunity for a different type of interaction between lighting and the consumer through enhancement of color and connectedness but also through the ability to understand consumer preferences on a deeper level.”

Benya believes LED technology enables a range of high-quality luminaires in the commercial sector, but that the cost rises with some lighting systems—such as direct/indirect linear pendant fixtures—and that reality currently stands as one of the biggest obstacles to widespread adoption.

“Otherwise, LED has conquered the downlight, wall wash, troffer and industrial lighting markets, but mostly with products that aren’t much different than their fluorescent and HID ancestors,” Benya said. “For LEDs to make a complete transformation of commercial lighting, we need new concepts that embody much better glare control than the majority of commercial LED lighting today, especially high-bay lighting.”

Benya believes the residential lighting market remains unsettled.

“The replaceable LED lamp is successfully challenging dedicated LED fixtures for a lot of the market and I believe that energy codes will soon change to permit standard, screw-based Edison sockets in homes as long as an LED is installed at the time of inspection,” he said. “Otherwise, LED lighting is penetrating all of residential utility and general lighting, but not necessarily changing it overall. For instance, tape light products are enabling a lot more linear lighting effects, but costs and the complexity of low-voltage wiring and dimming have slowed their potential. 

“On the other hand, landscape lighting with LEDs is marvelous. In the retail setting, LED is a superior retrofit product for many store types, especially those using troffers, track and other typical lighting. For high-end stores, linear LED technology literally makes stores look and work much better, with built-in display, shelf and niche lighting opportunities that weren’t possible with legacy lamps,” Benya said.

Agents of change

“Contractors should be aware of these trends because they can speed up installation time, enable compliance with new energy codes, increase customer satisfaction, and potentially create new revenue streams for fixture updates and controls implementation,” Campbell said. “It also benefits contractors and distributors to recognize both performance and quality when evaluating fixtures. Finding a trusted manufacturer with the history, resources and warranty to back up their products is critical to realizing these benefits.”

Campbell cited entities, such as Architectural Lighting and Lighting for Tomorrow, as great sources that review design and function, while the Design Lights Consortium and Energy Star present current lighting products that meet specific performance guidelines. Finally, the National Lighting Product Information Program at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Lighting Resource Center provides extensive educational resources related to lighting methods, products and evaluation.

“Contractors and specifiers alike need to be aware of these emerging trends because of the impact they’ll have on future business models and the rise of new services, be it control commissioning or device installation,” Veltri said.

He recommends that contractors align themselves with lighting manufacturers making significant investments in training facilities and capabilities as well as respected industry organization such as NEMA or the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America.

However, the channel has the power to transform the field.

“Contractors and distributors are among the best in the industry to effect great change,” Benya said. “If they love a product, they’ll champion it, and while designers may break the ice with new ideas, it’s ultimately contractors/installers who can make a product hugely successful.”

Contractors can seek training by attending national lighting shows such as LightFair International and regional events such as the LED specifier shows and LightShow.

“In the end, I think that contractors need to keep telling fixture companies what they want and need, because some of them really listen,” Benya said.