In the dark about LEDs? A few things you should know

Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) are a promising, long-lasting and energy-efficient alternative to incandescent lights. But many business owners feel in the dark when it comes to using LEDs.

LEDs have many great qualities: they are durable, energy efficient, don't flicker and don't contain mercury. But according to Dr. Cristian Suvagau, senior Power Smart engineer, the key to using LEDs effectively is "rethinking the way we light our spaces."

Different light, different system

Suvagau explains that many of the misconceptions people have about LEDs come down to expectations.

"For the last 130 years we've had incandescent lamps [bulbs]," he says. "Users expect the new lighting alternatives to work just like incandescent lamps, but they don't.

"To realize the benefits of LEDs, users need to see them not as an alternate light source, but as an alternate lighting system."

Where and how to use LEDs

LEDs are directional, so it's often not a great idea to use them on a ceiling as a straight replacement for linear fluorescents.

However, in a redesigned lighting system that incorporates more task-focused fixtures and brings the light closer to where it's required, LEDs start to make sense.

Suvagau recommends these applications for LEDs in a business setting:

  • Replacing incandescents or CFLs in virtually any situation
  • Matching the performance of fluorescents at close range — under cabinets, in pot lights, and in recessed lights in eight- to nine-foot ceilings
  • Task lighting
  • Exit signs
  • Outdoor applications, such as parking and street lighting.

Most significant is that LEDs are pushing people to rethink how to light rooms and tasks. "They are bringing about a small revolution in the world of lighting," says Suvagau.

Benefits of LEDs

  • LEDs can last 10 or more years, which mitigates their higher initial price tag. You don't have to purchase new lamps as often, or replace bulbs in awkward places.
  • They are on par, or better than, CFLs in terms of energy efficiency.
  • LEDs have a constant colour temperature (warm or cool feeling) that can be easily manipulated to suit an application.
  • LEDs can be monochromatic and are extremely efficient for colour applications because they don't require gels, [a coloured overlay over the lamp] which filter light and reduce output by up to 80%. They are also fabulous for lighting architectural features and colour displays, inside or out.
  • They can be dimmable (the option for dimming must be clearly noted on the packaging).
  • They are cold to the touch.
  • They can withstand strong vibrations, like on an airplane or ship.

LED challenges: price, efficiency, dispersal of light

The generally higher purchase price for LEDs continues to be a hurdle, but prices are dropping and BC Hydro has stepped in to provide incentives to lower costs in certain applications.

LED energy-efficiency is also forecast to improve and become on par with linear fluorescents and high intensity discharge lights. "In fact," Suvagau says, "they could already be matching them in some applications."

Why so heavy? It's about heat

A key challenge for LED technology is dealing with the heat they produce.

"Despite being cold to the touch, they give off an incredible amount of heat that gets directed internally, onto the components," Suvagau says. "So they require a good thermal management system (usually in the form of an aluminum casting) to disperse the heat and protect the technology."

The LEDs' metal casts make them heavier and add to the cost. Suvagau predicts this issue will be overcome in the not too distant future.

The omnidirectional LED?

More difficult to resolve is the challenge of making LEDs more omnidirectional in the dispersal of light. There are some solutions to this, but most involve intricate fixture and optical designs.

Those designs, aimed at stretching the technology to do what it doesn't do well, can drive costs up.

  • Read about BC Hydro incentives for energy-efficient lighting