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08/31/13 LEDs and the Changing Lighting Industry

Article- August 2013 By Larson

Low Profile LED Light Fixture

Larson Electronics Low Profile LED Light Fixture

Since the late 1870’s when Thomas Alva Edison unveiled his new electric light, the incandescent light bulb has been the dominant form of electric lighting the world over. 130 odd years later, new energy regulations have spurred a dramatic change in the lighting industry as manufacturers of incandescent light bulbs must now contend with new efficiency standards. By 2011 the 100 watt incandescent bulb, the most common type used in residential households, was no longer being produced. By 2014, 75 watt, 60 watt, and 40 watt incandescent bulbs will also have ceased production. Although some exceptions, such as in the case of specialty bulbs intended for appliances will be made, for all intents and purposes the bulk of incandescent lighting will disappear from the market. As a result, the rush is on to produce lighting capable of meeting these new energy standards, and the lighting industry will forever be changed as a result.

What most consumers don’t realize is that just like the incandescent light bulb, how the lighting industry manufactures lamps has not changed much for many years. The technology behind incandescent and fluorescent lighting has advanced little if any, and other forms of lighting such as high intensity discharge lamps have seen little beyond modest improvements in overall performance. Because of this, manufacturers in the lighting industry have remained focused on improving production efficiency, the materials used to produce lamps, and providing a wider choice of lamp styles. This has all changed with the introduction of new lighting efficiency standards as it quickly became clear that current lighting technologies would be hard pressed to meet the new requirement these standards represent.

In order to meet new lighting efficiency standards manufacturers were forced to explore alternatives to the incandescent light bulb. The incandescent light bulb has basically reached the limit of its practical development, and any further improvements would be so small as to be impractical to pursue. The first alternative to gain attention was the compact fluorescent which was basically a downsized version of the tried and true fluorescent tube. These CFL’s as they became known did indeed provide great improvements in energy efficiency, but several significant issues were quickly identified which tempered the enthusiasm with which the public received them. Primary among these issues were slow startup times, poor light quality, premature bulb failures, inability to work with dimmers, and the presence of toxic materials such as mercury contained within the bulbs. The tepid response to the CFL and slow acceptance slowed development somewhat, but eventual improvements that reduced or eliminated some of their issues helped to maintain their status as an acceptable alternative to the incandescent bulb.

The real excitement and change within the lighting industry however, has been generated by the light emitting diode, or LED for short. Rather than turning materials incandescent through heating as is the case with wire filament bulbs and fluorescent lamps, the LED emits light through a process called electroluminescence whereby electrical energy passed through semi-conducting materials causes the materials to emit energy as photons or, light energy. This process is extremely efficient, powerful, and versatile, and the solid state design of the LED means no more glass to break, no filaments to burn out, and no toxic materials used in their construction.

Although LEDs have been around for decades, it is only in the last 15 years or so that serious LED development has taken place. In less than ten years LEDs have gone from being low powered light emitters producing cold bluish light, to powerful light sources that surpass the incandescent in output and efficiency as well as light quality. Much of this development has taken place because of the tepid response to CFLs as an incandescent alternative, and the LEDs extreme potential which surpasses almost every existing lamp technology available today. More efficient, more durable, long lasting, and capable of being adapted to a wide variety of lighting applications, LEDs have simply become the leading contender for dominating the face of the lighting industry well into the foreseeable future.

Because of their potential and the unique way in which LEDs produce light, manufacturers have found themselves faced with new challenges old lighting technology never presented. First and foremost, LEDs are still a maturing technology, meaning they have quite a bit of development to undergo as yet before they approach the limits of their potential. For an example, as little as 5 years ago developing an LED capable of producing 80 lumens per watt was considered a major challenge, and typical LEDs produced on the order of 40 to 60 lumens per watt at the high end. Today, manufacturers are routinely upping the lumen output of LEDs on an almost quarterly basis, and LEDs producing in excess of 100 watts are becoming more and more commonplace. Some industry experts suggest LEDs capable of producing 200 lumens per watt may eventually be possible, which would make LEDs far and away the most powerful and efficient form of lighting ever developed.

Lighting manufacturers such as General Electric, Philips and Sylvania have totally revamped their development efforts to reflect the potential LEDs hold, and to date have poured literally hundreds of millions of dollars into research and development in an effort to maximize this potential. Such efforts were never considered practical for the CFL due to its much lower potential and limited practicality, and the winding down of incandescent bulb production has left a coming gap in the lighting industries offerings that LEDs will eventually have to fill.

LEDs are also changing how the public perceives the common light bulb. Whereas the average consumer once simply had to equate wattage with brightness, a 60 watt light bulb was good for a living room lamp, and a 100 watt bulb was good for garage use for example, it will no longer be so easy to simply pick a lamp by its stated wattage. Consumers will have now have to acclimate themselves to comparing the luminosity and color temperature of the lamps they consider. While this might at first sound daunting or complicated, in reality it is just a matter of becoming used to a new standard, and eventually consumers will find it second nature to look for an LED bulb of 16 watts with a color temperature of 4300K.

No matter how you look at it, the lighting of the future is going to be a significant change from what most of us have become accustomed to. While some things will take some getting used to, the savings we gain from lower energy use and fewer lamp changes, the reduced impact of carbon emissions on our environment, and the quality and longevity provided by new lighting technologies like the LED will make this change not only radical, but an economic and environmentally beneficial boon as well.

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