Whether you attended Light+Building in Germany or Lightfair in Las Vegas, there was a lot of talk about whether consumers on both sides of the Atlantic were ready for the technological advances being made or if general acceptance is still years away. Progressive retailers are carrying the latest light sources to have on-hand for the growing number of energy-smart customers who are expressing interest in LED, but they’re hoping adoption doesn’t take as long as it did for compact fluorescent (which still undeservedly gets a bad rap despite the tremendous improvements since the 1990s).
At both of these international lighting shows, there were less innovations noticeable at a glance. In the past, perfecting colors (an acceptable warm white was notoriously tricky to accomplish), sophisticated lighting controls, and smaller sizes were the big draws and easy to spot. Lately, although developments are progressing more subtly, that does not diminish their significance. “LEDs themselves have gotten more efficient, but there haven’t been the [giant] gains as in the past five years,” notes Steve Landau, director/marketing at LED module maker Xicato. “From the module perspective, we’re concerned with providing consistent quality of light over time.
You want the installations to look as good at three to five years as they did during the first year.” In other words, it’s the little things that count now.
Since LEDs (for more general lighting applications) have not been around as long as their projected lifespans, many companies rely on accelerated life tests to provide data. “Xicato is one of the earlier module makers; we have more installations that have been in place all over the world from four years ago, so we are able to do test measurements. The projections we’re seeing are pretty good,” Landau says.
What’s Available This Year
Just as LEDs are constantly evolving, so is everything else that revolves around them. “Even LED modules are continuing to change, although the customer doesn’t usually ‘see’ the changes since we will retain the same shape and optical parameters,” Landau says.
At Light+Building, the company unveiled its Xicato Point Module (XPM), which offers a very narrow light-emitting area designed to replace 10° (and narrower beam) conventional lamps without any light compromise. “We brought the XPM out in reaction to customer requests. It took one year to get it ready,” Landau admits, adding, “We had a hugely positive reaction to it.”
Overall, the industry has made great strides in 2012 regarding the performance, quality, and consistency of LED lighting, according to Gary Rosenfield, executive vp/marketing & national accounts at SWITCH Lighting™, the LED lighting solution provider recently named a finalist in the Clean Tech/Green Tech category for the 2012 American Technology Awards and the recipient of the 2012 Silver Edison Award.
“We are reaching much higher lumen levels than just one year ago,” Rosenfield remarks. “This has not come from breakthroughs in the technology as much as smarter design and manufacturing of LED products of all kinds. In conjunction with costs coming down, the adoption rate is rapidly increasing. SWITCH is one of the few companies that have launched a breakthrough approach to LED product design, specifically addressing the thermal management challenges of A lamps.”
The company is also focusing on its liquidcooled replacement for A-lamps (LQD), which was introduced to the hospitality industry at HDExpo in May. “We understand the challenges that many properties face with lighting,” says Tracy Bilbrough, SWITCH’s CEO. “That’s why we chose to test our lamps in several top hotels. From the feedback we received, they’ve exceeded expectations in terms of performance and payback period.”
A lower-cost version of the LQD Cooling System lamps will be available to the residential market in the near future. “We are also working on other form factors to apply the liquid-cooling technology,” Rosenfield adds.
LED company Cree® also presented some significant breakthroughs in 2012, which it unveiled at Lightfair and Light+Building. “At Cree, we’re always pushing the boundaries of what’s possible with LED technology. In April, we achieved a record-breaking 254 lumens-per-watt white R&D power LED, exceeding our previous record of 231 lumens per watt set in May 2011,” says Gary Trott, vp/market development at Cree LED Lighting. “Using this advanced knowledge of LEDs allows us to vertically integrate our lighting fixture manufacturing process to develop luminaires with a ground up approach, starting with the LED component. By constantly improving the performance capabilities of the LED components for increased efficacy, lighting systems can use fewer LEDs to provide the same, if not better, light quality as similar fixtures.”
Cree’s recent agreement with Lutron Electronics Co., Inc. to embed Lutron EcoSystem technology on a chip in Cree luminaires shows how LED technology is changing the game within the industry.
Is Consumer Acceptance Here Yet?
“While consumer LED awareness has come a long way compared to [a few] years ago, many people are still resistant to the cost levels of using LED products,” Rosenfield observes. “As we continue to see improvements to LED technology drive down initial costs, it demonstrates that LEDs remain viable in the lighting market to the point that major retailers like The Home Depot stock their shelves with LED bulbs and lamps. Moreover, LED lighting manufacturers are keen to the challenges of bringing LEDs mainstream and tackle these issues to develop household products like A-lamps. At the same time, more and more consumers are realizing that LEDs are the more efficient option compared to CFLs, which can be found in many households today. LEDs, unlike CFLs, are mercury-free, dimmable, and turn on instantly.”
Consumer acceptance is right around the corner, according to Brian Brandes, vp/product development for bulb manufacturer SATCO® and KolourOne LED Technology plus the lighting fixture division NUVO®. “I believe that LED is about to reach out to a much wider audience within the next 12 months,” he predicts. “With newer COB (chip on board) technologies, more streamlined shapes (similar in appearance to traditional lamps), lighter-weight materials, omni-directional optics, plus lower costs, LED is fast-becoming a more comfortable choice for homeowners. Now that the new FTC labeling for lamps has been in place for eight months, products on store shelves are starting to turn over. Those new labels will cause the consumer to take note of the operating costs of the different technologies and help them make the decision to spend a little more up front on LED lamps and save much more later on.”
Cathy Choi, president of bulb supplier Bulbrite®, voices concern that end-users will need more guidance than the labels provide. The labels point out comparing lumens of the old technology (incandescent) to the lumens of the new LED bulbs. “We have to make sure people are looking at the right data,” she states. While the lumens from two products might be the same, the difference in footcandles is noticeable. To that end, at the recent Dallas lighting market, the Bulbrite showroom offered a demonstration. “We put two fake plants on the floor underneath light sources with the same amount of lumens,” she explains. The amount of footcandles provided by each bulb, however, did not match. There was a definite difference in the amount of illumination supplied to the plants below.
“Everyone says we should look at lumens, but that’s not true when it comes to a directional light source like a PAR lamp,” she affirms.
Clearly there is a need for consumers to have more thorough knowledge of what they are purchasing that goes beyond what they read on the label. This is why Choi believes customers shopping at a big box store that sells LED PARs, for example, could easily make a mistake. She counters, “You wouldn’t go to The Home Depot to buy an iPhone; you’d need more technical expertise for that type of purchase. So where do you get that type of knowledge for a lighting product? At a lighting showroom.”
With the big box stores selling LED bulbs at a lower price, lighting showrooms need to make it known that not all LED bulbs are alike and that they are the educational leaders in their local communities for helping consumers understand LED technology. “Today’s customer wants it now; they want to hit the easy button,” Choi explains, adding lighting showrooms should be marketing themselves as problem solvers.
Just like the electronics industry, LED technology is continuously evolving. Therefore, there’s always an incentive for customers to keep pace. “Every six months, there seems to be an iPhone update,” Choi remarks.
For example, Bulbrite has just released its third generation of LED candelabra bulbs, a product that initially debuted a short time ago. In the newest version, the housing is white instead of aluminum. “Now it really disappears into the fixture,” she comments. “We’ve also changed how the LEDs are mounted.” These tweaks and improvements in technology is something the consumer has gotten used to in other industries, why not with lighting?
What Lies Ahead for 2013
Steve Parker, LC and president of the North American division of German lighting manufacturer SLV, which has embraced LED lamping, says, “I think the big changes going forward will largely be with replaceable LEDs. Zhaga now has seven books published, and we are starting to see Zhaga-certified fixtures on the market. This allows for future upgrades or even changes in color temperature should there be a remodel or change in paint at the existing installation.”
There will be more freedom in both lamp and fixture designs as well. “I have seen some very high-performance LED light sources utilizing a medium-base socket,” Parker observes. “We are no longer limited to only the ‘snow cone’ shape. Pricing is also becoming more affordable.” In addition, SLV has recently manufactured fixtures that he says could not have been accomplished (in shape or size) using conventional light sources.
Shelley Wald, president of WAC Lighting, a manufacturer that unveiled an award-winning decorative fixture utilizing cutting-edge OLED (organic LED) technology last year, sees a lot of breakthroughs ahead. “We made our OLED fixtures as limited editions and placed every piece in lighting showrooms all across North America. The fixtures have been a great conversationstarter for showrooms to talk to customers about technology,” she says. “WAC has been trying to whet the appetite for what’s out there [in the future]. You don’t have to deal with diffusers and reflectors [with OLED] like you do with point source lighting.”
At the recent June Dallas lighting market, WAC introduced another OLED fixture to keep that conversation going. Retailing for approximately $10,000, the super-thin style is available for custom order. “I’d like to think that OLED is not the only new thing in lighting, but it is something to get very excited about since it takes advantage of nanotechnology,” Wald says.
Two topics that get a lot of attention with environmentalists, energy conservationists, and the lighting industry are solar technology and daylight harvesting. “I’m eager to learn about these different technologies and how they can integrate with [lighting] systems. I’d like to see what’s happening in energy storage, too,” she adds.
Regarding LED, Wald believes that there’s still a lot of room for improvement. “I think much of the truly novel development has stopped and that instead we’re getting better consistency and efficacy,” she remarks.
Other product categories will also benefit from LED developments. “LEDs are giving us more artistic freedom as we develop integrated lighting solutions within ceiling fans,” states Nathan Frampton, president of ceiling fan manufacturer Fanimation®. “Ceiling fans, which are already energy-efficient and energy-saving devices, will become even more efficient with LEDs. As OLED costs are driven down, we will have even more artistic freedom when incorporating lighting into fans due to OLEDs extreme light weight and flexibility.” Fanimation already offers one LED-powered light kit for its Landan model, which debuted last year.
Rosenfield concurs, adding, “I think we will see more integration of lighting controls with lamps and fixtures. In general, the industry will collaborate to build better systems, matching the right controls with LED lighting. This has been a big challenge for the industry and will require better coordination between the lighting and controls companies. There will also be a lot of activity related to bringing smart technology into the individual lamp or fixture.”
Choi surmises, “I think the lifetime [ratings] of LED are pretty stable now. The light output is going to grow, but not exponentially like it did two years ago. Now it’s going to be a balance of aesthetics and performance.”