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LED Lights Info Series 2012: Part 2 of 3
In this edition, we pick things up with part two of our three-part informational series on LED lighting. In our last installment, we heard from Dr. James Brodrick of the United States Department of Energy. In pat one, you heard about the D.O.E.’s interest in LEDs because of some staggering forecasts. The department says that LEDs will reduce lighting consumption by 46% by 2030.

You also heard that over the next 20 years the D.O.E. forecast $250 billion in energy savings. Numbers that should get everyone’s attention, and the reason we are producing this series as a service to the electrical industry stakeholders and customers.

Now that we’ve established that there is energy to be saved, and money to be made, we move on to part two, where our Bob Mizke sat down with Dr. John Curran, longtime industry consultant and LED expert. Let’s hear what Dr. Curran has to say about some of the practical issues surrounding the ever-advancing march toward LED lighting.

Bob Mizke, ElectricTV: Thank you very much. I am indeed joined by Dr. Curran. Doctor, thank you for taking a few moments with us today.

Dr. John Curran, President, LED Transformations, LLC: My pleasure.

BM: The first question is, in your view, where do you see the pace of LED development, where does that stand right now?

JC: I think we’re at a point now where it’s not a novelty any more. I think many manufacturers are all producing LED products. We’ve moved beyond the novelty, beyond the “Wow, this is something cool.” It’s still cool, but it’s not becoming more mainstream. When you talk to major manufacturers, a significant percentage of the products that they’re shipping now are LED-based.

BM: Dr. Curran pointed out some of the advantages that are making LEDs more commonplace. They are small. They’re on the average, since times more than incandescents, and getting better every year. They can be dimmed. They’re directional. And you can do things with color variation that you couldn’t do before. And finally, the cost of jumping into solid-state lighting continues to drop. Curran referenced what is known as Haitz’s Law, an empirical law that has shown that every ten years, the performance goes up by a factor of 20,a and the cost comes down by a factor of 10. So, the LEDs get 20 times better every 10 years, and cost 10 times less. Perhaps obvious advantage, but there is still no slam dunk when it comes to acceptance.

JC: One of the things that I like to point out to people is that there is a culture clash in the lighting world, because if you think about it, traditional lighting has been around for 100 years. The styles change slowly over time, but the technology doesn’t. LEDs come from the semiconductor world, where change is the major effort that people are looking for. So what that means is there’s a constant change. People don’t want to stock too much inventory because they could be left with obsolete inventory. Architects might specify a project, and it might be three years later by the time the project is going in. Three years later in LED is like dog years. Things have changed drastically.

BM: Adding to the trepidation of jumping into the technology with both feet is the fact that there are so many new players in the LED market. With the lighting, you have a lot of the big-dog manufacturers; everybody already knows who they are. But with LED you have many manufacturers, and that adds to the confusion, right?

JC: I think one of the confusing parts is that you have a lot of people who have jumped into the LED lighting world that were not in the traditional lighting business. So, there’s a caution there. If you’re buying a product form one of the companies who is not one of the major luminaire manufacturers who have been around for decades, you have to worry about whether that company is still going to be in business three years from now, five years from now. If they give you a warranty, how good is the warranty if they’re no longer around? And there are a lot of very good small companies who have come up with some interesting products. You just have to do your homework and see what exactly they’re doing, and see what they look like, are they going to be around five years from now?

There are a number of tools, one from the Department of Energy called Lighting Facts, that I always advise people to not buy a product unless it has a Lighting Facts label on it. What the Lighting Facts label does, is it says that the manufacturer has had their product tested by a third-party testing lab so that it performs the way they say it does. And unfortunately it’s been a fact of the LED world that a lot of manufacturers, at least initially made claims that a product couldn’t actually deliver on.

The Caliper program is an independent testing program. I call it a secret shopper program. The government goes out and they by a product off the shelf, they send it to a testing lab, and they verify or just report that the product either does or doesn’t perform as the manufacturer says it does.

The other program is the Gateway program, and that’s one that’s a demonstration program. They will go out and say pick a street or pick a museum, or a supermarket, and they’ll install LED product and then evaluate how it performs. Did they get the energy savings that they expect? What do customers or residents think of it? If it’s a street, what do the police think of it in terms of the light characteristics? And then they’ll report all that. Typically you’ll find something, in every application you’ll find something that you didn’t expect. It’s the “gotchas” that sometimes you have to watch out for.

BM: Let’s go through the myths or misconceptions that people have right now with LED lighting. They produce no heat?

JC: As a matter of fact, they do. They’re must more efficient than traditional lighting sources, but they do produce heat. The problem with the LED is that they don’t radiate heat. If you put your hand next to an incandescent light bulb, you would feel the heat radiating from it. An LED, the heat is generated in the LED itself and you have to have a physical path to be able to bring that heat to the outside to be able to dissipate it.

BM: OK, another one. LEDs last forever?

JC: I gave a talk one time called 100,000 Hours, or LED Fairytales, and during the talk I asked people to humor me and I asked if somebody had a stopwatch and I said, “I’m going to turn this LED on. Let’s see how long it lasts.” So somebody started their stopwatch and about eight minutes later I whipped out a hammer and I smashed it. Of course, that LED lasted eight minutes. The point was that I was trying to show that how long an LED lasts is very much a function of the environment and how it’s treated. I’d say, in a reasonably designed fixture, you can get them to last very easily 50,000 hours or 100,000 hours. In fact, in most cases, in my opinion, it’s probably not going to be the LED that’s the first thing that fails. It’s probably going to be the driver, the power supply.

BM: As Dr. Curran points out, when it comes to solid-stat lighting, there’s more involved than just the LED itself. To make the luminaire complete, there’s the driver, or power source. There’s optics, to put the light where you want it to be. There’s a housing fixture, and there’s thermal management to dissipate the heat. If any of these elements fail, the fixture fails.

JC: There’s a supermarket in my neighborhood, and they put in LED fixtures in their refrigerator cases. Six weeks after they put them in, I was walking by and one of the freezer cases was out. The manager of the store came by, and I know him, and he said, “Oh, you just kick it and it comes back on again.” So it had nothing to do with the LED, there was a short-circuit or a bad connection. The other thing is that LEDs aren’t magical in terms of maintenance. So in terms of street lighting, typically you have to go up every so often and clean the lens. You do that many times just by the fact of replacing the light. With an LED if you plan on putting it up there and not touching it for 15 years, you’re kidding yourself because dirt is still going to collect n that LED fixture, just like it will on any other kind of fixture.

BM: Street lighting is an area where LED lighting is taking hold. But there are still issues to watch out for.

JC: I think that the places that take advantage of the unique characteristics of the LEDs, street lighting for one, street lighting from the point of view of LEDs are highly directional so I can put the light exactly where I want it. Light trespass is a major issue with LEDs. In one slide I use in presentations, I call it “be careful what you ask for,” the manufacturer had designed their streetlight product to have an absolute cutoff right at the curb line. Well, when it was installed at one of the test locations, the residents objected because now their sidewalks were totally dark.

BM: For the electrical contractor, there’s much to be gained, or market share to be lost, depending on your readiness for the LED wave that is clearly building.

JC: I think you want to have someone in your organization that you’re kind of designating the LED person. And they need to be looking at a lot of sources. The Department of Energy has a lot of good information on their website, the Gateway and Caliper programs, those types of things. LEDs, at least for the next 10 years or so, are going to have this constant and rapid change of product and abilities. And it’s very critical that a contractor has someone in their organization that’s keeping track of that.

BM: For the forward-thinking electrical contractor, perhaps it’s time to add a new position to the managerial chart: Director of LED Technology.

JC: If an electrical contractor is not getting out there, the example I like to think of if someone in business was selling and repairing VCRs 15 years ago, their business is pretty much dried up now. If you are not taking LEDs into account and starting to plan for LEDs as being a major portion of your business, you’re going to be hurting because all of your competitors are not making that assumption and they are learning about it, trying it, putting in projects and making sure that they’re aware of what’s going on.

BM: Thank you very much, Doctor.

JC: You’re welcome.

BM: With special thanks to IBEW Local 164 in Paramus, New Jersey for putting a roof over our head for this interview, let’s throw it back.

Thank you, Bob. And thank you, Dr. Curran. There is so much going on with LEDs these days, and solid state lighting, we hope that this brief segment will point you to where you can spend all the time you want on the subject.