Growing Pains: LEDs

Among other matters with light-emitting diodes (LEDs), reliability has been an issue, according to Nate Conant, president of W.B. Walton Electric in Beaumont, Calif.

“Some LED products that we’ve used from offshore manufacturers claim to last for 50,000–100,000 hours, but we’ve installed them and, less than a year later, we’ve been back to fix them,” he said. “As much as these brands are out there, buyers need to beware.”

At Lighting Maintenance Inc., Eldridge, Iowa, owner Tom Circello admitted to experiencing similar frustrations with LEDs in certain upgrade situations.

“LED drivers were failing regularly at one national account we were supporting,” he said, “and we also experienced a lot of outages with LED strip lights we were recently installing in gas station canopies; 5-foot chunks of the 20-foot strips we used were failing, but you can’t just replace that one piece. You have to replace the whole strip.”

In spite of these and other issues, both Conant and Circello are the first to acknowledge the many merits of LEDs.

“People love them for their long life and high efficiency, and as far as brightness, LEDs are comparable to the best conventional light sources,” Conant said.

“LED technology is great for a variety of accent lighting, cove lighting and other applications, and it’s becoming more and more standard in new construction,” Circello agreed. “But it still has its problems.”

Long life, unparalleled efficiency, brightness and durability are just some of the benefits that LED technology brings to the industry table and the contractor’s market basket. But while the $2.5-plus billion LED lamp industry continues to progress along its rapid growth trajectory and distinctive path as the future of lighting, it remains plagued by a number of issues that currently impair its viability in a variety of key applications. Following, our experts discuss some of the issues that LEDs continue to face at this stage of their evolution as well as tips to help contractors navigate through the sometimes murky waters of LED technology.

A new playing field
“Relative to everything you knew about lighting, LEDs represent a complete paradigm shift,” said Jim Benya, principal of Benya Lighting Design and director of the Advanced Lighting Design Program at the California Lighting Technology Center at the University of California, Davis. “Before, you used to be able to specify a luminaire with a certain amount of confidence that the electrical components inside it were standardized; they were easily recognized, well-stocked and fairly interchangeable. With LEDs, forget all of that.

“LEDs and drivers are not necessarily interchangeable with one another, and the luminaire plays an increasingly important role in the overall system. LEDs are a decidedly more finicky and nonstandardized technology than their conventional predecessors. And, to add to the confusion, they continue to change every month,” he said.

Benya said that the makeup of the LED manufacturing community reflects a paradigm shift, as well.

“Before, there used to be a few big lighting players—­predictable companies whom you could count on to back their products,” he said. “Now, there are hundreds of different LED components and drivers out there from importers all over the world, some of whom are not well-documented, and you never know what you’re going to get until something comes up.”

What are the major issues contractors should watch out for?

Brightness and color
“Individual LEDs are extraordinarily bright, and looking right at them can be a real problem,” Benya said. “Good lighting design demands that you shield the source from glare by opting for a fully shielded, full-cutoff fixture. High efficiency often goes hand-in-hand with more glare, so contractors are advised not to fall into that ‘efficiency trap’ when it comes to the fixtures’ functionality.”

With regard to color quality, Jeff Hungarter, product portfolio manager at Cree Lighting in Durham, N.C., said that there are many issues that end-users can run into depending on the LED system they choose.

“The biggest issue is not so much the color quality when installed, although there are some players who manage that better than others, but more of how true the color stays over the life of the LED system,” Hungarter said. “This is often referred to as ‘color consistency’ and can leave an end-user highly dissatisfied when individual fixtures or lamps start to shift at different times, leaving an office ceiling looking more like a disco.”

Dimming and controls
“Dimming is a monstrous problem with many LEDs today,” Benya said. “While most dedicated LEDs employ a 0–10V dimmable driver, many electricians aren’t aware that they need a 10V output dimmer to use them. If the dimmer isn’t compatible with the replacement LED lamp, you can experience flickering, strobing, or else something could blow up or otherwise malfunction. This is a huge issue with indoor LED lighting right now, and there’s no easy solution.”

“Control compatibility is one of the most prevalent issues contractors and/or end-users are seeing in today’s LED world,” Hungarter said. “Due to rising energy costs and increased regulations surrounding the addition of controls to both new buildings and renovations, we see more and more instances where controls can wreak havoc for installers. Since time is money, adding controls is another step in the process that can burn a hole in the contractor’s pocket if the installation instructions and compatibility of the two systems are not simple and precise. The main issue arises from the fact that there are many players out in the LED market pushing ‘controllable’ solutions that may not have been tested or configured to work with existing control systems being sold out in the field. This causes many contractors or installers to shy away from adding controls even though they’re aware of the energy-saving benefits that controls deliver.”

Awkward applications
“If you’re concerned about temperature, rethink the use of LEDs because you can run risks using LEDs in high-temperature applications,” Benya said.

The economics of applications with short operating hours may also not favor the use of LEDs. In addition, he said, “LED strip lights are like Christmas lights in that they’re wired in series parallel, so if one goes out every few inches, they all do.”

Looking ahead, Hungarter said: “An application where LEDs aren’t overly used now but where they’re starting to appear is in high-bay applications over 35 feet, such as warehouse space and manufacturing facilities. The cost of having to replace light sources in high-bay applications is not only in the material cost of the new lamp or fixture itself but in the cost of maintenance and the length of downtime that the end-user has to absorb every time a traditional lamp or fixture fails. Though not necessarily widespread now, we expect that these applications will represent an upcoming opportunity for LEDs to take over from incumbent fluorescent or HID technology.”

Costs and benefits
Both Conant and Circello agreed that, while LEDs can deliver many technological benefits to end-users, their economics have yet to hit their stride.

“Compared to a 400-watt metal halide fixture, for example, LED parking lot lights can cost $1,200, so the payback isn’t necessarily there yet, even with a utility rebate,” Circello said.

Conant agreed. LEDs are “still a bit expensive for a service person, which makes it harder to sell an LED job, although they’re increasingly specified for new construction,” he said.

Benya noted that it is important to weigh cost against performance when evaluating LED options.

“One primary reason to use LEDs is the power of their long life,” he said, adding that, if they don’t last, however, their financial advantages disappear, which could create a nightmare for the end-user or contractor. He cited a $14 million LED upgrade undertaken by the city of San Antonio in fall 2012, which resulted in all 25,000 of the fixtures being sent back and having to be replaced. The issue? Defective gaskets allowed moisture to get into the fixtures, causing the lamps to short out in the rain. The real concern, Benya said, is knowing who is going to pay for this defective product and the labor to replace it?

“A callback is expensive, and unless you’re buying from a reputable company, it could be risky for the contractor to bring in an unknown or untested supplier, even though their product may be cheaper upfront,” he said.

He recommends that contractors promote LED products with five-year warranties to best cover both the product itself and the contractor’s standard one-year warranty on labor and materials so that the contractor remains out of the line of fire in the event of product failure.

“We don’t have the money in the lighting and construction industries to do experiments on the job,” Benya said. “The fact is nobody’s going to want to write the check if the experiment goes wrong.”

An ounce of prevention
Hungarter agreed that prevention is the best medicine.

“Finding a quality supplier is the first and most important step in managing LED issues in the field, and we advise that contractors do their homework on each supplier they intend to do business with,” he said. “Ask questions about their history with LED solutions and how they back up their products with lifetime testing and warranties. To mitigate control compatibility issues, make sure you check out the manufacturer’s ‘Control Compatibility Matrix,’ which generally shows all the control systems they’ve tested and how they work together. If they don’t offer this, ask them how they know it actually works. To manage color quality, make sure the supplier’s LED system meets either Energy Star or Design Lights Consortium requirements for color quality and consistency over its designed life rating. Also, be sure to read the fine print, as many LED manufacturers will not warrant color consistency if used outside of a certain temperature range or in special applications. Finally, find a quality supplier who will be there for you if something does go wrong, which is a reality that can inevitably happen to any supplier.”

In the last couple of years, Benya said, LEDs have become more viable options for outdoor, retail, high-bay and a wide variety of other applications than ever before.

“LEDs are now worth considering just about everywhere, as long as you carefully evaluate their quality, warranty and the exact specifications of the application,” Benya said.

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