Analysis: Are LEDs Ready for Prime Time?

May 1, 2008

By Craig DiLouie

When it comes to white-light LEDs, one hears a standard refrain in the lighting community: "Are we there yet?"

Another way to look at this is to ask: "Are LEDs at a tipping point as a technology?" A tipping point can be said to be reached when a technology is widely needed, accepted, and understood by a market that is also excited about it.

A major inhibitor to solid-state lighting, a lack of infrastructure in the industry to support it, is finally being addressed. Because LEDs are a brand-new light source unlike traditional sources, new standards must be developed to test and represent products. Meanwhile, the technology has moved much faster than these standards could be developed - look at where white-light LEDs were just a few years ago compared with today. Standards that typically take 3 to 7 years are now being introduced by the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America (IESNA) in less than 2.

These standards will gradually help generate more confidence in manufacturer performance claims for products and enable architects to compare the product performance on an apples-to-apples basis. Previous to these standards, product performance could be represented inaccurately either by intent or accident, indicating a degree of confusion about how and what to test—and that some reputable LED makers still have more to learn about the building illumination market. (For an interesting solution, consider Philips Lighting, a lamp manufacturer and LED producer, buying Genlyte, one of the country's largest lighting fixture manufacturers, partly to acquire a delivery vehicle for new and advanced light source technologies.)

The U.S. Department of Energy's (DoE) CALiPER program tested 50 commercially available LED products in 2007 and found manufacturers often overstating performance; many products marketed as energy efficient, in fact, turned out to be only a little better than incandescent, proving that just because a product has LEDs in it doesn't make it energy efficient. New standards will force an honest, level playing field and empower architects and lighting designers to make the best decisions, with lower risk, for their clients.

So LEDs are getting there as a technology, and the lighting community is getting there in terms of supporting the technology with the requisite standards, but it would seem that we still have a ways to go before LEDs cross their "tipping point." But then a project like Haus im Haus comes along.

Haus im Haus is a fascinating study in solid-state lighting application in that the architects didn't consider LEDs to be simply another way to do traditional lighting but instead used the light source according to all of its advantages - compact size, low wattage, long service life, easy controllability, and yes, its "cool" factor—to take a risk and re-imagine lighting. The compact size of the LED light source enabled Behnisch Architekten to re-envision the lighting fixture as a ceiling panel, the ceiling itself becoming the glow in Haus im Haus's glowing translucent architecture. The low wattage of LEDs enabled the architects to use a considerable number of LED sources across an entire ceiling to achieve the desired lighting effect. The easy controllability enables dimming, scheduling, coordination with daylighting, and dynamic sequencing to create effects as diverse as flares and floating clouds of soft light. And the "cool" factor of LEDs helped the architects to communicate a contemporary feel for Haus im Haus.

But not everyone wants to take big risks or has access to the kind of budget that lets them do so. For a technology to reach its tipping point, it must be widely accepted (and it must become affordable for a majority of projects). At the end of 2008, look for the first ENERGY STAR®-labeled LED lighting fixtures. These are LED products with visible confirmation that the product is at least as efficient as a typical competitive compact fluorescent product and that it will meet a certain threshold of performance regarding service life, color rendering, etc. The first fixtures covered by ENERGY STAR indicate applications where LEDs are proving their greatest value initially: undercabinet kitchen, undercabinet shelf-mounted task, portable task, recessed downlight, and outdoor wall-mounted porch, step, and pathway fixtures. With ENERGY STAR, consumers have confidence that a given LED product saves energy and performs well.

Consider where the technology was 5 years ago without these standards and a quality mark like ENERGY STAR, and now imagine, if the same rapid technological growth continues with this infrastructure, what could be possible in just the next few years. It makes you believe that the "tipping point" for solid-state lighting technology is indeed getting close.

Craig DiLouie ([email protected]), a lighting industry journalist, analyst, and marketing consultant, is principal of ZING Communications.

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