LEDs Take Center Stage

The opportunity in the LED retrofit market is enormous, and the missteps made in rushing other energy-efficient lighting to market (e.g., the compact fluorescent lamp) are less likely to slow market growth this time around. Experts say the science behind solid-state lighting, its quick return on investment, and ease of retrofit installation will result in a win for manufacturers, contractors, end-users and, ultimately, the environment.

The Department of Energy (DOE) predicts that LEDs will become the dominant light source in the United States by 2025. Rather than a market share based on dollars, the DOE calculates market share based on lumen hours, or demand for light over time. By that measure, the DOE predicts LEDs will have 59 percent of market share in a little more than a decade. That’s a tall order, but should it happen, U.S. lighting energy consumption will be sliced by nearly one-half, according to the DOE.

The DOE’s study didn’t focus on LED lighting retrofit per se, but it is clear that a great deal of the low-hanging fruit lies in the replacement of fluorescent lamps in commercial and institutional settings. Regulations have eliminated a majority of magnetic T12 lamp ballasts as well as the majority of linear T12 lamps. But according to the DOE, at last count, more than 500 million T12 lamps were in operation, including approximately 400 million 4-foot lamps. Obviously, there are other fluorescent options ahead of the LED as replacements for those T12s—namely the T8 and T5—but LED manufacturers are slowly applying this technology to a range of traditional lighting sources.

“The growth market for replacement of ceiling troffers is humongous. There are 2 billion sockets waiting to be filled in commercial settings, including office buildings, universities and hospitals,” said John Casadonte, marketing manager for lighting at Cree Inc., a company that manufactures lighting products and semiconductors for power and radio frequency (RF) applications.

Forget the T12 fluorescent. Casadonte said LEDs should leapfrog newer products like the T8. 

“Some universities are just now considering replacing T12s with T8s. It’s up to us to convince them that the newer technology is in their best interest,” he said.

While the LED market, as a percentage of the installed base is still quite small, companies that manufacture retrofit LED systems are making big bets on the future of the LED. Rob Freitag is vice president of marketing at EYE Lighting International, a company that has traditionally focused on metal halide, high-pressure sodium, and mercury lamps for outdoor applications (including parking lots, loading docks, and sporting facilities) as well as for large interiors (such as warehouses or big-box retail stores). 

There are tens of millions of lamps ripe for replacement by LEDs, Freitag said, adding that, “The LED is our greatest opportunity for growth in the coming years. They will become the majority of our lamp sales over the next decade.” 

Leviton has produced electrical devices of one form or another for more than a century. It was not until recent opportunity presented by LED technology, however, that the company decided to make a strong push into the lighting retrofit market. 

“Our first venture into the LED market is a retrofit kit. The opportunity for growth in this market is substantial, or obviously we wouldn’t have gone down this road,” said Peter Kleinman, director of distribution marketing at Leviton.

While LED retrofit products may be new, they are not untested. Freitag said the industry “stubbed its toe on the CFL fluorescent. There was not much regulation by government or self-regulation by the industry. There were also many false claims made about the CFL and its performance. [The] industry recognized the misstep, and the approach to LEDs has been much more cautious. We now meet standards set by the EPA, the Illuminating Engineering Society (IES), and the Northwest National Laboratories, among others. These standards have helped establish a recognized level of performance and comfort for the consumer.”

The Lighting Facts Label, registered to the DOE and placed on LED lamps, looks similar to the nutrition facts label on packaged foods. It includes light output measured in lumens, watts, lumens per watt (efficacy), color accuracy, and light color or temperature. Most of the LED retrofit products now on the market claim 50,000 hours of lamp life. Lamp life for the LED is measured differently than traditional bulbs. LED luminaires and lamps do not “fail” like conventional sources. Their light generally decreases over time. Studies show that when the light is at 70 percent of its initial output, the human eye can detect it, and IES considers that to be end of useful life.

In addition to establishing the L70 life expectancy standard, IES publishes LM-79, which defines testing performance output of solid-state lighting products, and LM-80, which establishes uniform test methods that allow for reliable comparisons of test results among laboratories when measuring of lumen maintenance for LED light sources. Greg Gallucio, Leviton’s director of lighting product management, said the better companies “easily meet the 50,000-hour standard.”

“The technology is improving rapidly. We’re in a better place than we were even a year ago. It’s not uncommon to find five-year warranties on luminaire drivers, which typically replace fluorescent ballasts,” he said. (Leviton warns consumers to steer clear of LED replacement tubes with drivers in them because of associated safety and performance issues.)

For every proposal that EYE Lighting makes, it first tests the luminaire in its own environment. 

“Each luminaire poses its own challenge to thermal and optical performance. It is prudent to study the existing lighting infrastructure and design the system accordingly,” Freitag said. 

By adhering to both industry standards and the results of its own site testing, companies like EYE Lighting can raise the level of consumer confidence in LED illumination.

The consumer will also like the return on investment they receive for the LED retrofit. Payback of the original investment is usually less than five years, often much less. LEDs produce dramatic energy savings, starting immediately. They reduce maintenance costs significantly, particularly in outdoor applications. Freitag said sending a bucket truck and crew out to replace failed lamps can cost $200 to $400 per luminaire. 

Return on investment can be improved if the customer takes advantage of various rebates and other incentives offered by local and state utilities, state energy-efficiency programs, EPAct tax incentives, and federal stimulus money devoted to energy efficiency. For electrical contractors and other interested parties, Leviton features an easy search of such incentives by locality or ZIP code on www.leviton.com/dsire. Energy.gov also offers a search for incentives and rebates.

One more test that LED retrofit must pass is ease of installation. LED manufacturers have gone to great lengths to make the process quick and seamless. 

“The Cree UR Series LED Upgrade Kit, designed to fit into existing T8/T12 linear fluorescent fixtures includes magnetic mounting clips on the light bars that are ‘hands-free’ and hold the fixture in place until it can be secured with metal screws,” Casadonte said. 

He said an experienced electrician could install a retrofit luminaire in 10 minutes or less. 

Leviton said that replacement of its Zipline LED retrofit product, which requires almost no wiring, also takes 10 minutes or less to replace.

“EYE Lighting’s LEDioc system matches light center length with those of the incumbent systems it’s intended to replace, ensuring optical photometric performance,” Freitag said. “Prior to making a proposal, we look at each luminaire, then design a mechanical solution that will give the customer the best optical and thermal performance. We test the electrical system for driver and surge protection. Then we demonstrate the test results to the customer.”

“We’ve been very successful with our customer-centric sales technique,” he said. “It may take more time up front, but it pays off in the end.” He suggested that contractors, partnering with manufacturers or working solo, could benefit from such an approach. 

“They can either contact existing customers or new prospects and ask to speak with them about their current lighting system and a possible retrofit to LED technology. After making a site visit to evaluate the situation, they can sit down with the client to discuss energy efficiency, return on investment and environmental payoff. Many companies, in addition to seeking ways to reduce costs, are serious about contributing to a greener world,” he said.

Casadonte said that electrical contractors share a common enemy with manufacturers: fear and trepidation toward change.

“It exists throughout the supply chain, right down to the consumer. It’s up to all of us to remove that fear by demonstrating the cost-effectiveness of retrofitting, while emphasizing performance of our products, which come with long-term warranties,” he said.

Some contractors, said Leviton’s Kleinman, are “simply looking for the lowest cost, rather than trying to convince the end-user of the product’s high performance and long life. Customers should be presented with the differences between a $79 fixture and a $129 fixture, both in terms of performance and longevity. Then, let them make the decision.”

It shouldn’t be that difficult of a sell, but contractors must take pains to know the product they are selling. Many manufacturers offer such training. So do organizations like the LED Lighting Association, the DesignLights Consortium, and government agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star Program. Contractors should familiarize themselves with local rebate and incentive programs that can help lower installation costs. Some of the major manufacturers offer free online energy calculators that can be used to determine return on investment for their products.

Once a contractor has a few retrofit jobs in the rearview mirror, the company can start to position itself as a green energy company, thus attracting attention from players throughout the supply chain, including, of course, the end-user. Partnering not only with manufacturers, but architects, lighting designers, building managers, and others could trigger geometric growth in business and a nice niche in the LED revolution.

About the Author

Rae Hamilton

Freelance Writer

Rae Hamilton, a former vice president of communications for the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, is a freelance writer and artist living in Parkton, Md., and can be reached at caddy41048@yahoo.com.

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