A Needle in a Haystack - my mini guide to choosing LEDs
So after yesterday's post regarding the new LED products at the IES Product Showcase I thought I'd delve a little deeper into the world of LEDs. Being that I've made almost a complete switch to LED based lighting in my projects and that I'm pushing others to attempt to do the same, I get asked A LOT what I use to determine my LED selection. So I'm here to tell you that it isn't a horrible process but it does involve doing ones homework. Even more so, you'll probably need to talk to your reps (you know, those people that are supposed to come around from time to time and update your binders and bring you Red-Velvet cookies) so if you're an utter introvert then you may want to pawn this task off to your interns. With that disclaimer aside, following are some notes to consider when choosing LED based fixtures. Ready?
- Look for Manufacturers with history or backing. I think as designers we have a tendency to fail to ask this question, breezing past the who and going straight for the "ooooo.... Pretty!". We all do it. I'll own up to having done it before. But this is a biggie. Remember, an LED is going to be around for 40,000... 50,000...70,000 hours which equates to not months but YEARS in lifespan, especially in residential construction. Look for manufacturers with either years under their belt (Philips, for example, has been around since 1891; Sylvania was established in 1901) or with the backing of a major corporation (Cooper Lighting is the parent company to some 20 brands including LED newcomer NeoRay). Be weary of newcomers to the market place if they don't have one of the above in place. I'm not saying don't use them, just to pay attention to the details if they don't. A warranty means nothing without a company to honor it.
- Look for fixtures assembled in the States or Western Europe (and of course Canada!). I know I know, I'm going to force Buy American a little (and maybe a little Go Germany!) This is one of those major places where you're going to see a change in quality. The majority of LEDs are made overseas in the Far East. You just can't get away from that. But the real difference in quality happens after the LEDs reach their assembly point and get attached to a circuit board. To ensure a quality light output an assembly man must group LEDs by like colors. Consistency is key. My apologies to my Far Eastern readers, but unfortunately someone making the equivalent of bus fare per day is not putting a ton of effort into assembling your fixture. (Yes Virginia, this WILL reflect in the price of the fixture) As an aside, think of it as supporting the mid-western factory worker (cue violin and tear-jerking infomercial).
- Look for the UL Listing. I think everyone would be surprised that I'd even throw this one out there but yes, I've seen retrofit LED lamps missing the ubiquitous Underwriters' Laboratories label (CSA for the Canadians; CE for our Euro neighbors) . This is independent, third party testing to make sure when you wire it the fixture in, it isn't going to send shock waves through your electrical systems. If it isn't labeled with your respective testing laboratory's label either a) the manufacturer doesn't have the financial backing to go through the necessary tests (which aren't that expensive but do require you test each variation of a system and not just the components), b) is REALLY new to the market and may be jumping the gun a bit, or c) all of the above. Look for it. If it doesn't have your label, steer clear.
- Ensure the lighting source can be replaced in the event of failure. This is a biggie my friends! Currently the biggest difference between lower end LED fixtures and off the shelf incandescent/fluorescent fixtures is in how the lighting source is replaced. In an incandescent/fluorescent fixture you simply unscrew the lamp, run down to Lowe's (or your basement/kitchen/linen closet/children's room), grab a new fixture (hopefully in the event of Lowe's you paid for it first) and then screw it into the socket. LEDs aren't so simple. Remember, LED's are attached directly to a circuit board and then into the fixture (kinda like the geeks at Radio Shack). Anyway, when they fail (in 5 or 8 or 10 years) the WHOLE circuit board needs to be replaced. Look for fixtures in which the circuit board can be removed from the fixture housing rather than those that require you to trash the entire fixture. Cooper's new linear line is a great example of a board that can be removed without trashing the whole fixture. Less waste. Reminder: this is where manufacturer backing comes into play.... you'll want a company that is around in ten years so you can still buy the replacement board.
- Look for dimmable LEDs. This is where the assumptions come into play. NOT all LEDs can be dimmed. Even more so, it is typically the least expensive models that are the non-dimmable types. Keep this in mind: if you can reduce the power usage of an LED 10% by providing an appropriate dimmer (more on these in a later post) you're further expanding the fixture's life span by 10%. Example: a LED with a 50,000 hour rated life span (6250 8-hour days) with a 10% increase adds 5,000 hours or nearly 2 years of 8 hour days to its life span.... Cha-Ching!). I could get into the whole power savings versus incandescent and fluorescent thing but that requires complicated math, etc. etc. (and since I just had a glass of wine I'm not going there). In the end, get dimmable lamps. They may cost a little more but the savings in the long term are substantial.
- Do not make price your first quantifier. Remember when your mother said "You get what you pay for"? (mine used to say "if you keep doing that to your face, it will stay that way".... strangely she was right). Well it goes doubly so for LEDs. If you make price your first target item you'll end up with some crappy off the shelf product sold to you by an acne ridden teenager in an orange vest and after installing it for the third time your idea of LEDs will forever be jaded. And then you'll forever be reading your $150 a month electric bills in the glow of your 75 watt incandescent lamp. I promise. Scouts Honor. At this point in the market, expect a good quality, 5 inch (127 millimeters for our Euro friends) diameter LED recessed down light with trim to run in the $150 to $200 per fixture range. Not horrible but of course not the same as a 60W CFL housing and trim. If you're going square or trim-less or wall washing or ??? (there are a boatload of options) then you're up from there. Either way, spending a little bit more ensures better quality components (with names you can pronounce like Cree and Lutron), more precision assembly, and overall consistency in light output. So you can no longer afford the $6,000 Kohler Numi toilet when you go LED, but you'll have a lighter conscious.
- THE BIGGEST ONE OF ALL - SEE THE FIXTURE IN PERSON. Let me say it again. Call your rep and ask to get hold of the actual fixture with the actual light source that you can plug into your wall outlet and check it out. If you forget all of the above, please at least remember this little byte. I love my reps but never ever take a brochure/mfg statement/rep's pleading at face value. Seriously. No matter how many bottles of wine and red velvet cookies they plow you with see the darned thing light up. LEDs are an investment and you'd never throw money at a company without seeing it first. I've only made this mistake once and let me tell you, it was a nauseating mistake because after allowing the contractor to provide a sight-unseen alternate, the entire room flickered. When I say flicker I don't mean Paul-Revere-candle-from-afar flicker, I mean full on spazz flickering that made at least two of us cover our eyes and run out. My mistake.... learn from it grasshopper. (Just to let you know how geeky I am.... I own a real-live demo of my favorite LED downlight. It sits mostly in my car going from client to client. No I did not work for Radio Shack. Yes, I can program my VCR.... when I had one).
So there you have it.... a few things to keep in mind when specifying LED based fixtures.