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Easy as ABC… 123… LED?

From the chandeliers of Buckingham Palace to the street lights of the Big Apple, LEDs are the fast-growing technology that is redefining the age-old concept of lighting. In an environmentally-conscious world, this energy-efficient light source touts a long list of advantages over other common light sources. Due to the ever-increasing interest in these advantages, LEDs are now offered in a variety of luminaire types and styles for both interior and exterior applications. However, this once thought of fringe technology does still have a few barriers to hurdle. But with almost monthly scientific advances, LEDs are well on their way toward becoming a cost-effective way to substantially reduce our carbon footprint on the world.

What exactly are the advantages of LED technology?

  • Measuring as little as an eighth of an inch in diameter, the tiny light source packs a punch when it comes to energy savings and longevity. The LED operates on only a tenth of a watt of power (compared to the typical 75-150 watts used by incandescent bulbs found in most households) and will provide approximately 50,000 hours of light output.
  • Its long lamp life makes the LED ideal for hard-to-reach and hard-to-maintain lighting applications, and its durability allows the light source to withstand vibration, extreme temperature shifts, and moderate power surges.
  • LEDs produce only a small amount of heat compared to other common light sources, potentially decreasing the cooling demand for air conditioning a space.
  • The LED is an ‘instant-on’ light source with no warm-up required that can be frequently cycled on and off without worry of premature failure.
  • The low maintenance light source does not require any special disposal techniques, as it is free of toxic elements such as mercury or halogen gas.

In the past, LEDs were mainly used in applications such as traffic signals, cell phone screens, and scoreboards, but after the recent development of whiter and brighter LEDs, they have made their way into the commercial and residential lighting markets. LED luminaires are now available in task lights, linear striplights, recessed downlights, track lighting, steplights, decorative pendants, and exterior landscape lighting. Manufacturers have also developed a wide variety of LED area lighting for parking lots/garages, streets, and walkways.

“Prior to purchasing an LED luminaire, consumers should be aware of the current drawbacks – the most prominent being the high initial cost as compared to other common light sources.”

Prior to purchasing an LED luminaire, consumers should be aware of the current drawbacks – the most prominent being the high initial cost as compared to other common light sources. For example, an LED downlight can be purchased for $250, whereas a compact fluorescent downlight that produces a comparable amount of light costs only $125. This high initial cost may take up to 5 to 10 years in energy savings to recoup, depending on the application. Further, with manufacturers feeling the rush to provide cheaper LED fixtures to consumers, many poorly-engineered products have surfaced in the lighting market. The main concern regarding these products is their inability to dissipate the minimal heat that is produced by an LED, which can result in a severe reduction of the LED’s lifespan from decades to mere months.

Currently there are no specific regulations for LED luminaire manufacturers to meet, thus each product must be considered on a case-by-case basis through personal evaluation of sample products. However, hope is on the horizon. The U.S. Department of Energy recently developed the Solid-State Lighting Quality Advocates Program, which provides a growing list of LED luminaire manufacturers committed to testing their products and accurately publishing their performance. With this program, consumers are being guided towards making an energy-conscious investment in LED technology and an even bigger investment in the future of the environment.

– Jennifer L. Harrington, PE, LC, LEED AP