LEDs have been around for years as indicator lights, flashlights, and in your kids’ sneakers. But until now, it’s been difficult to design an LED for homes that produces the same quality of light as an incandescent.
Today, residential LEDs (also referred to as solid-state lighting or SSL) are available in recessed downlights, under-cabinet lighting, outdoor fixtures, and various replacement lamps.
Products that are properly designed use 75% less energy than incandescents, last at least 25 times as long, are highly durable, and provide exceptional light in a wide range of brightnesses and colors.
In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), if all recessed lighting in the United States was converted to LED downlights, the energy saved would equal the electricity production of 13 large power plants—enough to power 6.7 million households.
With all that going for the technology, it’s no wonder DOE calls LEDs “a revolution in lighting.”
LEDs also offer flexibility in lighting design. Check out the winners of Lighting for Tomorrow’s 2009 contest www.lightingfortomorrow.com in sidebars throughout this article for the latest options.
The competition was sponsored by DOE, the American Lighting Association, and the Consortium for Energy Efficiency.
The prices of LEDs—just like solar panels and flat screen TVs—will continue to drop as the technology picks up market share. But let’s admit that at this point they cost more. A fluorescent recessed downlight offering the same light quality and comparable efficacy can cost less than half of an LED downlight.
“An LED is an up-sell,” says Joe Janos, director of engineered products with Kichler Lighting, “but it’s directed to a customer who can afford that. It brings some value and versatility. It brings a wow factor.”
Changing the Face of Lighting
When we think of lighting, we think of bulbs –globes, tubes, spirals. With LEDs, we have to think in a new way. While there are LED replacement lamps, many fixtures come with the LEDs integrated directly into the products so there are no bulbs to change.
Because of the long lifetime of LEDs—more than 22 years at three hours of use per day—LED products could be considered permanent. Homeowners would need to replace their lighting as often as they replace their windows.
LED’s longevity makes them especially useful in hard-to-reach places like recessed downlights and cove lighting. They eliminate the hassle of pulling out the ladder to change burned-out bulbs. For the elderly, the disabled, and the not-so-handy, this is an attractive benefit along with their high energy efficiency.
LEDs are also made of materials that don’t easily shatter, making them appealing in under-cabinet kitchen lighting, and outdoors as step or pathway lighting. The small size of LEDs makes installation easy. For example, the slim profile of a typical LED under-cabinet lighting fixture allows it to mount right to the underside of the cabinet and protrude only a quarter of an inch.
Compare that to a halogen puck, which requires cutting a hole in the bottom of the cabinet to recess it. Even then, it protrudes beyond the line of the cabinet.
Recessed LED downlights are also available with the same easy-to-install housing and trim options found on standard downlights that builders have been using for years.
In a nutshell, LEDs can offer great light and wow factor, are easy to install, and are exceptionally durable and efficient. But not all LEDs are created equal.
Panning for Gold
“LEDs are what we call a disruptor,” says Richard Karney, program manager of the Energy Star Products Program at DOE. “Every so often, a new technology comes along that rattles the foundation of a particular industry and offers incredible potential. But there are growing pains that accompany that potential.”
Imagine, if you will, the Wild West. Regulation was in its infancy and get-rich-quick schemes abounded. That’s a pretty good analogy for these early days of the solid-state lighting industry, as DOE has observed.
While there are a number of high-quality products on the market, some manufacturers have been a little too quick on the draw, releasing LEDs that don’t always live up to their somewhat wild product claims. Many companies are still learning how to engineer the products properly, while others make exaggerated claims about product lifetime. Some manufacturer literature overstates efficacy, the amount of light provided per watt of electricity consumed.
Most important, some products don’t provide as much light as their incandescent or fluorescent equivalents.
“LEDs are a great technology with enormous potential to save energy–just enormous,” says Karney. “But some manufacturers are producing snake oil, which we knew would have a devastating impact on the market. We want to help those manufacturers that are producing high-quality LEDs and help consumers identify those that perform as promised.”
To help buyers cut through the clutter, DOE has been working hard to develop an Energy Star program for LED fixtures.
As of this year, a wide range of fixtures can now qualify for the Energy Star label, including recessed and ceiling-mounted downlights, under-cabinet kitchen lights, and wall-mounted porch lights. These products undergo third-party review to ensure that what you buy is well-designed, reliable, and efficient.
To earn the label, qualified products must provide as much light at equal or better quality than incandescent lighting and use energy as efficiently as fluorescents (although the technology is advancing so rapidly that LED fixtures should regularly outperform the efficacy of their fluorescent equivalents within a few years).
Indoor fixtures also must last for at least 25,000 hours of use and outdoor fixtures must last 35,000 hours.
Research suggests that the products can last much longer. All fixtures must come with at least a three-year warranty, compared to the minimum two-year warranty for Energy Star–qualified CFLs.
At an average use of three hours a day, an Energy Star fixture designed for indoor use would last more than 22 years. During that time, your customers would change an incandescent bulb at least 25 times and a CFL up to four times.”
So far, Energy Star–qualified models represent just a small portion of the overall market, so the shelves at your local lighting distributor may look a little bare. However, applications for new products arrive weekly, and it is likely that builders will have an increased number of choices in the near future.
A wide range of fixtures are available for which there are no Energy Star specifications yet. DOE will release criteria for other types of products as the technology matures and drives the market toward better-performing products.
Energy Star criteria for replacement lamps are expected by summer 2010, which should guide the development of efficient replacement products that rival the performance of CFLs.
The best advice at this juncture is to choose Energy Star, and if there isn’t a qualified product that meets your particular needs now, wait for one since the technology is advancing rapidly.
“Do your homework and make sure that you’re buying a product that’s Energy Star–qualified so it meets high performance standards,” says Chris Gordon of Efficiency Vermont, a nonprofit organization that provides energy efficiency services.
It may not be the quick path to LED lighting, but it is the prudent one.