Some of the most dramatic lighting performance gains can be achieved by adopting solid-state lighting in the home, where incandescent lighting has met its match with products that combine the efficiency of compact fluorescent and the quality of halogen. Because of the unique characteristics of the source, light-emitting diodes (LEDs) also enable product designers to reimagine the lighting fixture in smaller, more colorful, more dynamic directions.

This is an exciting time for solid-state lighting. Technology is still advancing, and costs are coming down. Needed industry infrastructure, such as critical testing standards and mechanisms for quality recognition, is being delivered. Today, LED lighting is competitive with traditional sources in residential applications, such as directional, undercabinet and downlighting. What’s more, an electrical contractor can easily find a good solid-state lighting fixture, compare it with other fixtures on an apples-to-apples basis, and be reasonably confident how it will perform in the intended application. The Wild West of product misinformation is being tamed, at least for those who take the time to make educated product decisions. For the uninformed, it is still easy to get burned.

Recent Department of Energy (DOE) product testing, for example, found the fast pace of LED product introduction continuing to be plagued by inaccurate performance claims (see www.ssl.energy.gov/reports.html). Comparing lighting performance and not just wattage, few LED products are competitive against the lighting sources they are intended to replace. Most products are fairly new. About a third of products in the most recent testing had accurate manufacturer claims, while another third overstated performance by 10 to 20 percent and the rest either did not provide performance information or grossly overstated it by as much as 100 percent.

However, DOE product testing, which began in 2006, has been trending positively. In the past two years, efficacy doubled among tested LED products, suggestive of the market as a whole. Color quality is steadily improving. In some applications, from downlights to small-wattage replacement lamps, LED is a competitive technology. Consider downlights, an ideal application for LEDs because of the source’s inherent directionality: There are 500 million downlights installed in American homes that could be replaced with LED downlights for up to $8.4 billion in annual energy cost savings, according to DOE. In a recent study, the DOE tested five 4- and 6-inch aperture, 8–39-watt (W) recessed downlights against 26–32W triple-tube pin-based compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) downlights. DOE found all of the LED products met or beat the light output and efficacy of 45–75W incandescent and halogen downlights, and all except one beat the efficacy levels of the CFL downlights.

Replacement lamps, which should be considered for applications where the owner requires existing fixtures be retained, fared poorly in the testing, demonstrating that LED technology is not yet competitive with small lamps in higher wattages. LED replacement lamps have progressed more slowly than fixtures for them, not surprising since replacement lamps must compromise performance in some way to retain a conventional envelope shape and socket configuration. Nevertheless, replacement lamps have made dramatic gains in just the past year, particularly in directional lighting, with the big three lamp manufacturers—GE, Osram Sylvania and Philips Lighting Co.—all announcing significant product introductions. Currently, directional replacement lamps are available in MR16, PAR16, PAR20, PAR30, PAR30LN, PAR38, and other large sizes, such as BR40 in spot, flood and wide-flood distributions. Warm-white products can now replace up to 45W halogens, while cool-white can replace up to 60W. This is beneficial for consumers who take the time to get in the know. New Energy Star criteria, published last December, will go into effect in August. Additionally, Philips entered the first LED replacement for the 60W A-lamp in DOE’s L Prize competition, which, if successful, would create a new bar for performance for LED omnidirectional replacement lamps.

“We recommend that contractors buy a couple of samples and keep them in their truck,” said Peter Soares, director, consumer channel marketing for Philips Lighting Co. “Then put them into the hands of your customers. Let them see and feel how different these products are but how surprisingly easy they are to use and install.”

As product performance improves, high initial cost and undercutting by cheap, poor-quality products tainting the marketplace will remain the biggest inhibitors to adoption of LED lighting.

“When the cost of an integrated LED fixture is at, or below, the cost of the less-efficient incumbent technology, it will be a no-brainer,” said Gary Trott, vice president, business development for Cree LED Lighting. “Downlighting is already a no-brainer.”

Kevin Willmorth, principal of consulting firm Lumenique LLC, said electrical contractors should look for the highest quality product their project and homeowners can afford and avoid cheap products completely.

“Be prepared to spend more to get more,” Willmorth said.

For contractors interested in reducing the risks involved with LED lighting, Willmorth added: “Demand details on color quality and life ratings; if the manufacturer doesn’t know, don’t buy from them. Test products and ask for demos; this is the first step in avoiding the hyped-up promises that produce poor-performing products. Avoid retrofitting incandescent products if possible; this looks like an easy way to get started, but is also an easy way to end up with poor performance or ugly results. Believe no claim that products can be controlled by any dimmer; if dimmers will be used, test the combination of the LED lighting and given dimmer control. Pay attention to thermal issues such as attic insulation and air circulation; unless the manufacturer specifically states the product is suitable for an intended application, assume it is not. Keep LEDs in context; there is no magic here. If they work for a given application, use them. And finally, stay informed and engaged. Try a few samples; get to know the technology.”

LED lighting offers significant energy efficiency and maintenance advantages over incandescent and halogen and significant quality advantages over compact fluorescent, but despite all the progress, it is still an emerging technology. High initial cost will continue to limit application to areas in the home where LEDs can deliver powerful advantages, such as long service life and no radiated heat or ultraviolet energy.

DILOUIE, a lighting industry journalist, analyst and marketing consultant, is principal of ZING Communications. He can be reached at www.zinginc.com.