The Future Is (Almost) Now: Is the LED Light Mainstream?

LED is all the lighting industry talks about, but it’s not mainstream yet. There are many exciting design & collaborative opportunities that still need exploration.

 By Ted Konnerth, CEO of Egret Consulting Group

Given the recent attention our industry has paid to solid-state lighting, I am sure it is hard for you to believe that fluorescent, high intensity discharge (HID), and incandescent products still represent 85 percent of all lighting sales. After all, like you, I’ve attended and led innumerable discussions at industry gatherings on the emergence of LED. And from what we’ve heard, the future is now. However, new technologies always take time to gain full acceptance. The legacy lighting manufacturers have millions of capital dollars invested in tooling, machinery, and processes that limit their ability to make wholesale changes to their companies. The new entrants have no embedded capital limitations, but they don’t have the channel relationships to push LED adoption at a greater pace. And, their limitation of lighting expertise limits the ability to match LED’s benefits with lighting application expertise.

According to a Department of Energy Report from last year, LED lighting will reach a predicted market share of 74 percent by 2030. I believe the rate of adoption will be far faster than that; but the limiting factor will be centered on design.

The Big Picture
There is no greater challenge for companies investing in LED than the one they face in developing designs that allow lighting to be integrated into complete building systems, while also providing proper illumination for tasks. LED enables the integration of lighting into complete building systems in ways never possible before: controls, sound, security, datacom, and communications are all able to communicate with LED in applications that have never existed before.

  • Lighting systems can improve the flow of goods within plants to ensure accuracy; integrated with sensors that illuminate only areas that require a seeing task, improving operational efficiency.
  • Street lighting and parking garage systems utilizing LED are raising and lowering brightness depending on traffic patterns.
  • Optically, LED systems can be specified to illuminate a rectangular or curved pattern.

Many of the legacy design limitations that are tied to a bulbous emitter are rendered obsolete: Type 2, Type 3, troffer, downlight, etc. are unnecessary constructs from the past.

Gaining Space
Since low-voltage SSL systems can be installed without conduits and boxes, there are a lot of exciting opportunities. Plenum space is expensive real estate to an architect, but with LED, it is feasible to design and install a lighting system that doesn’t need to pierce the ceiling. Construction practices typically dedicate several inches of space to the lighting system; LED has the ability to dramatically reduce or eliminate that dedicated space.

In addition, LED’s energy efficiency multiplies the design improvements by changing panel sizes, transformer sizes, refrigerant loads, number of circuits, and wire sizes; since all of those drop proportional to the reduced power load and smaller space demands of SSL. But the key is Design.

Lighting Will Look & Feel Different
To move the industry forward, it’s imperative to have a robust exchange of ideas between fixture designers and lighting designers. Given that lighting will interface within the overall electronic control systems of buildings, the migration of lighting and all things information-based will be crucial. The benefits of LED are proven, so now the discussion has to move to the proper application of LED as a light source and designing lighting systems that incorporate proper lighting into an overall efficient design. LED has created so much discussion that we have largely lost the emphasis on “lighting.”

Proper lighting involves so much more than brightness. Glare, comfort, uniformity, color rendering, accent, layering, and “feel” are the fundamentals of quality lighting. Approximately 20 years ago, the IES created the term ESI footcandles (equivalent spherical illumination). ESI was a measure of “quality” of lighting in an attempt to create a format for designing quality lighting environments (largely for offices). ESI could predict the impact of glare and eye fatigue due to poor lighting design. In many ways, ESI terminology created the reduced glare designs of parabolic louvered fluorescent troffers and the growth of indirect lighting systems.

LED provides an opportunity to create entirely new lighting systems that can deploy illumination to meet IES seeing requirements, with reduced glare, higher comfort levels, and architectural designs that are unique and far more appealing than a 2×4 troffer dropped into a ceiling.

The design community needs to take over the discussion of LED from this point forward. The current efficiency and brightness of LED is sufficient for meeting lighting needs in most applications now. Future efficiencies will contribute additional cost reductions and system modifications; but “brightness” needs to disappear from our vernacular. The day of a 300 lumen/watt emitter is within feasibility; but that doesn’t mean that we will require that level of power for all applications. Technological improvements in efficiency should be encouraged, but we have the lumen packages to create amazing lighting designs today; let’s get back to being a lighting industry again.

The need for technical associations to change is also imminent. A merger or alliance between the Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association (CEDIA) and Illuminating Engineering Society (IES) would make sense, as CEDIA members are trained to install sound, data, and communication systems. As lighting becomes electronic and integrated into electronic building systems, the need for more cross-industry communication will be critical.

Talent Needs to Change
There are a limited number of professionals within our industry who grasp the nuances of SSL integration into building design…we need more. How can we get there? It takes an enormous investment in emotional, cultural, and financial resources to admit changes need to be made – and this is both within legacy lighting companies and start-up LED companies. A careful blend of old and new ideas is needed to accelerate the lighting renaissance.

There is no doubt SSL will change the future of the lighting world and, in turn, how our entire world is lit. Unfortunately, many individuals and companies within the lighting industry will not survive the change. They will be too slow to adapt and will simply lose their relevance and/or market share. But those who do survive the change – and especially those who move it forward on the design side – will reap the rewards. It is truly an exciting time to be alive and active in the lighting industry.

Ted Konnerth is the founder, president and CEO of Egret Consulting Group — a retained search firm specializing exclusively in the electrical industry. Ted was the global V.P., Sales for Cooper Lighting prior to starting Egret and holds a Ph.D in psychology. 

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