Are LEDs Ready for the Residential Market?
 

Is the time finally right for LEDs to establish a firm foothold in the residential market? Signs suggest yes. Recent technological strides, coupled with a shift in consumer mindset, have paved the way for an array of homeward-bound LED fixtures, particularly in categories such as under-cabinet and recessed lighting, and even outdoor use.

Although issues with higher cost and limited light output linger, the future of LEDs for residential use appears bright, says Nadarajah Narendran, Director of Research at the Lighting Research Center (LRC) and an Associate Professor in the School of Architecture at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, both in New York.

Greater acceptance and even preference for energy-efficient alternatives to incandescent light sources has definitely greased the wheels. CFLs remain dominant in this regard, but get ready for LED technology to shake things up on the home front.

“Going forward in two or three years, you are absolutely going to see more applications of LEDs in the home,” says Narendran. “You’re going to have more options with LEDs.”

Even with the advances in lumen output that have been made, for the most part, today’s LEDs still don’t provide enough light to be a comparable substitute in all residential lighting applications.

“In two years’ time I think we will have crossed that barrier,” says Narendran. “It’s not that we can’t get enough lumens. It’s that the heat increases so much that we end up with shorter LED life.”

Educating retailers, manufacturers and the end users about the pros and cons of LEDs and how to use this technology appropriately will be key to its success, he adds. “The biggest challenge is not about the technology, but about the product — meaning the same LED manufactured by three different [companies] can perform differently. It’s all about system integration.”

Lighting showrooms selling LED-based product and designers working with solid-state sources in their plans must understand the unique benefits and limitations of this medium. “Just like any technology, LEDs also have certain aspects that you have to pay attention to if you want to get good applications,” says Narendran. And by the same token, all LEDs are not created equal. Distinguishing the difference will be the next big challenge facing the industry, he adds.

The commercial market readily embraced LEDs, with high enough volume to benefit from the energy savings in a shorter period of time, lower maintenance costs from longer life and a lower aesthetic threshold in some environments. The residential market’s demands for stylish, well coordinated lighting with consistent color temperature has a higher price tag for its LED solutions, yet can’t recoup the savings as quickly. But technological advances are steadily giving birth to LED products that are not only competitively priced, but in some cases, also undistinguishable from traditional light sources, says Narendran.

Setting Standards
As rapid advances in LED technology charge forward at lightning speed, efforts to standardize this technology have tried to keep up. Recently, an international group of companies from the lighting industry have joined forces to form Zhaga, an industry-wide cooperative with the goal of developing standardization for the interfaces of LED light engines.

Due to the speed by which manufacturers have introduced LEDs in more general lighting applications, and concerns about products living up to the manufacturer’s claims, the Consortium for Energy Efficiency’s (CEE) Commercial and Residential Solid-State Lighting (SSL) Committee issued recommended guidelines that clearly define the information needed to evaluate LED products.

While these steps to standardize the influx of LEDs penetrating the residential and commercial lighting manufacturers make business sense, says Narendran, it may also “curtail application creativity” — creating a crossroads the lighting industry will have to grapple with in the near future.

“You may end up with more creative solutions if you don’t standardize it too early, but then the problem is that if you don’t standardize, the cost is not going to come down. It’s a value proposition,” he says.

Retrofitting entire residences for LED at a large-scale level is not practical. But shifting the perception of lighting is a step toward making LED’s use as a light source in the home more widespread. “In the future, if you are going to construct a building, you may want to think of integrating LED lighting as part of the infrastructure, not an afterthought,” says Narendran. “If you create different types of infrastructures where you can easily change lighting fixtures, it can provide a bigger benefit to the end user.”

EDUCATIONAL OPPORTUNITY
What: LED Lighting Institute
When: May 4-6, 2010
Where: Lighting Research Center, Troy, NY

The recently expanded LED Lighting Institute offers hands-on sessions on how to use this quickly evolving lighting technology. Attendees will receive a crash course on LEDs from leading experts, learning everything from how to incorporate LED technologies into the design of architectural lighting fixtures, to how to design lighting applications using LEDs. The program will also compare LED technologies from a variety of manufacturers and explain operating characteristics, average-rated life, lumen output and other important specification factors. Find more information at www.lrc.rpi.edu.

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