Putting SSL Sales Under The Light

It’s hard to imagine anyone in the electrical industry seriously questioning the fact that light-emitting diode (LED) technology and solid-state lighting (SSL) are becoming the light source choice of the future. Most would agree that it is just a matter of time before the technologies’ widespread acceptance is established.

Nevertheless, practically speaking, we’re not quite there yet, and electrical contractors would do well to run a reality check on just what the SSL status quo is and what uncertainties remain—especially in the minds of potential customers. It would be premature to tell the customer that these products are already the ultimate lighting solution, and it goes to the contractor’s credibility if he or she gives that impression. So a review of SSL sales strategies might be in order, with a mind toward selling the LED as it is.

Many ECs who are active in LED system installation have mastered the so-called “value proposition” for selling the technology. This involves helping the customer differentiate between the initial price of the product—which remains high in comparison with incandescent and fluorescent products—and the total cost of ownership over the life of the product.

In essence, this is a return-on-investment proposal that spells out the infrequent maintenance and energy-usage benefits related to the improved efficiency and significantly greater longevity of the LED lamp.

Know the proposition

But some sources believe that not enough contractors are employing this basic selling tool.

“Even though there has been significant discussion in the industry of the SSL value proposition, there is still plenty of opportunity for more contractors to educate the customer on the total benefits an LED system provides,” said Brian Earl, general manager of ConneXion ES, a distributor that also functions as an energy systems integrator providing design capabilities and job management. “Contractors can be at the front lines of these discussions and are best able to counsel the customer on the extended life and reduced maintenance costs of quality LED solutions.”

But while the legitimacy of the value proposition is demonstrable, the sticker factor is still an issue for many customers.

“LED systems are still somewhat pricey,” said Brian Haug, director of the Energy Solutions division of contractor firm Continental Electrical Construction Co. “Customers are interested, but many are still put off by the price tag. And now there are fluorescent lamps available at a quarter of the price of an LED with nearly the same longevity.”

While this is essentially a question of customer needs and budgetary discretion, contractors are cautioned to be careful how they sell the longevity benefit.

“It’s important to understand that the LED value proposition was built around the longevity and energy-saving quality of the lamp itself,” said Rob Harrison, product group marketing manager for solid-state light engines and modules at Osram Sylvania. “But as LED technology has improved, it is now the electronics that is the life-limiting factor in the system, not the lamp.

“Today, 100,000-hour LED lamp expectancies, or 25 years, are common, but no reputable manufacturer of solid-state electronics will say his power supply will last 25 years. If it did, it would almost certainly be obsolete. The contractor should be aware of this distinction. Many DIY outlets describe their LED products only in terms of lamp life expectancy, not the electronics,” Harrison said.

This relates to the larger issue of low-quality solid-state products that don’t meet claimed life expectancy or misrepresent their specifications, Harrison said. Contractors should rely only on Energy Star ratings or the advice of the manufacturer or distributor to protect themselves and their customers.

The dimming issue

A number of sources noted that a well-documented problem with SSL installation is dimmer compatibility. In a sense, this parallels the value proposition situation: No one would deny that the use of dimming controls and daylight harvesting are exceptional cost- and energy-saving strategies, but there are some problems yet to be ironed out in the field.

“Dimming is still somewhat of an issue with solid-state lighting,” Haug said. “The new LED fixtures are being introduced and changing so rapidly [that] it’s difficult to keep track of which dimmer to use. The engineer should spec compatible systems when he does his drawings.

“Even so, we advise our project managers and customers to try some sample combinations of dimmers and switches on site locations to make sure they work before going out and buying in quantity.

“The contractor should discuss this on the job even though it’s not his responsibility—it’s the engineer’s and the owner’s. But, as in other cases, the experienced contractor can catch issues before they become issues,” Haug said.

To be able to do this, the contractor has to work closely with manufacturer and distributor to make sure the proper match is made.

“In retrofit work, the contractor has to be aware that the newer dimming products being brought on the market are compatible with LEDs, CFLs and incandescents,” said Andy Mayo, senior applications engineer at Philips North America.

Sources noted that the older dimming products were often designed for incandescent lamps only, but the latest LED lamp designs of the major manufacturers take this into account and help ensure a high level of compatibility.

“The dimmers that accommodate all three lamp types have a corresponding wattage derating,” Mayo said. “Typically, for an incandescent load, it’s 600 watts, but for CFL and LED loads, the derating is generally 150 watts. The contractor doesn’t want to put 600 watts of LED lamp load on a 600-watt incandescent dimmer.

“We work closely with the dimming manufacturers and have mutually developed dimming protocols that include validation testing. Obviously, both sides want to get the maximum life from lamps and dimmers, and, when we come together, we can provide the end-user with the best possible performance. We work closely with the dimming manufacturers to avoid any confusion in the field. Both of us have to be on the same page,” Mayo said.

Again, dependence on the integrity and quality product of the manufacturer is critical.

“The lamp solutions offered by established manufacturers offer a wide variety of dimming capability today,” Osram’s Harrison said. “But, here again, the contractor has to be wary of other lower priced lamp products that work poorly, or inconsistently, or with only a small number of dimmers.”

In determining what combination of products to install, the contractor should be aware that many major LED manufacturers provide a list of the dimmers that their products have been tested with.

“Another challenge faced by the contractor is integration of LED replacement lamps and fixtures with existing dimming systems,” ConneXion ES’ Earl said. “Fortunately, manufacturers realize this and are available to give guidance with system and dimmer compatibility since the system must be properly integrated, and misunderstandings can be expensive.”

A related issue contractors have to be aware of is the heat dissipation requirements of these lamps and fixtures. Designers and installing contractors also must keep this in mind and ensure there is enough ventilation in the area in which the fixtures are used.

“If the thermodynamics are not handled properly, lamp or fixture life can be impaired,” Earl said. “One of the major reasons for LED use is extended life, but this selling point can be negated by improper installation.”

Binning issues

Color quality and consistency is another matter that can be more or less of a problem, depending on the nature of the project and the particular sensitivities of the customer.

“To some degree, LED color consistency is still an issue but has been greatly improved,” Osram’s Harrison said. “Appearance can differ from production batch to batch, and this can be a problem in the field on a large project if half the SSLs are installed initially and the rest a few weeks later, and the color is slightly different.”

To avoid this inconsistency, manufacturers have established a system they call “binning,” which groups like-colored products together. 

“In the binning process, the LED manufacturer sorts the products to tighten color value specs by dividing the lamps into bins,” Harrison said. “Within each bin, there is excellent color constancy and light levels, and this has significantly reduced the number of returns for reasons of inconsistency. Like LED system life expectancies, binning is another marketplace reality that contractors should be cognizant of.”

The usefulness of binning pertains to a variety of project types, whether it involves acceptable mixing and matching, or meeting the highest color-constancy requirements.

“Binning is crucial to ensuring that the LED product meets the specified temperature and color range on a given project,” Mayo said. “This has a number of benefits. On the one hand, it helps keep costs under control because it allows for use of a mixture of individual LEDs of slightly varied color and temperature, but the complete lamping combination will still attain the targeted lighting specifications. On the other hand, binning addresses the more extreme color sensitivity issue. In high-end residential situations, or in demanding commercial/industrial applications such as high-fashion retail stores or museums and art galleries, binning can ensure the consistency of high-quality lighting, which is, of course, more costly. What is critical here is for the contractor to determine the customer’s level of sensitivity to lighting standards, and, as appropriate, advise the client on balancing the trade-offs of cost and performance.”

In the final analysis, the contractor has to understand that the SSL industry is still evolving. The major challenge lies in knowing the promise that the value proposition holds but also the realities of the technological questions that can arise 
on-site—and how to balance the two when selling and undertaking an LED installation job.

About the Author

John Paul Quinn

Freelance Writer

John Paul Quinn reports on a broad range of business and industry issues for journals in the United States and Europe. He can be reached at 203.323.9850 and mirabel@snet.net.

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