Walk down the lighting aisle of any big-box store, and you’ll see something you wouldn’t have five years ago – half the light bulbs available are LED. And they don’t cost $70 a pop either.
We may look back in 20 years and see that now is the time of revolutionary invention with LED lighting as big as Edison’s discovery of the carbon filament lamp in 1879.
Smaller lighting manufacturers like Acuity and Cree are dumping a mint into R&D (research and development) with bigger companies like GE swallowing smaller brands and their technologies whole.
The upshot for consumers? Cutting-edge technologies are reaching consumers faster through the established distribution channels those bigger companies have. And light bulb (“lamp”) forms are changing radically, giving buyers seemingly limitless ways to use lighting.
There’s a “Moore’s Law” of efficiency improvements happening year to year (at least for now), and operational costs for LEDs continue to drop. And some technologies require less and less material for the same lighting output, so even the upfront cost for LEDs continues to fall.
The coolest feature about LED lighting is that it smashes old ideas about what light bulbs need to look like. This year, GE launched the Bright Stik, an Edison, screw-in lamp ¾-inch thick and a few inches long.
“The Bright Stik is essentially a 60-watt incandescent replacement about the size of your thumb,” says Webb Lawrence, executive vice president of LED Supply Co. in Denver, Colo.
Lawrence talks about the changing “form factors” of lighting and how LEDs can be shaped in disks, sticks, plates and even sheets. “The Light Stick has an Edison [screw-in] base, and it produces the same amount of lumens [light output] of a regular 60-watt incandescent – with only three watts.”
Lawrence also says since he formed LED Supply in 2009 (at the nadir of the recession), he’s seen lamp efficiencies mushroom. (Lighting efficiency is measured in “lumens” – light output per watt.)
“At this time last year, top-of-the-line fixtures cast 100 lumens per watt. Today, it’s between 120 and 150 lumens.” Webb says as technologies continue to advance, he doesn’t see any ceiling on efficiencies.
Another way that LED manufacturers will be able to drop upfront cost of lighting is by using less material in fixtures but delivering the same or more lumens. Lawrence points to “edge lighting,” which is largely used in commercial architectural applications. You’ve probably seen it with acrylic signage and etched messaging.
“What manufacturers are able to do is cut the number of diodes in a fixture. Instead of diodes shooting downward, they are using acrylic lenses that have been laser-etched in order to reflect the light.”
Fewer diodes, less cost.
But the most exciting technology is OLED – organic light-emitting diodes that are paper-thin.
“It’s in its infancy,” says Webb, and he doesn’t anticipate big-time availability for two to three years. But electronics manufacturers like Samsung and LG already have TVs that compete handily with LCD models, and most of us have been using some form on OLED on cell phone screens for years.
“The diode is 4 inches, by two inches, and it’s millimeters thin,” he says. “You can do things like bend it. Now all of a sudden, you can bend the light source itself, creating neat architectural light fixtures that people haven’t seen before.”
In commercial buildings like office and retail, LEDs are a no-brainer and usually have simple paybacks within three years, though Webb says he doesn’t see much use in hospitality or residential applications (yet).
A word about the lowly CFL – compact fluorescent lighting. CFLs were never intended to be the end of the road for high-efficiency lighting. Not only were they the whipping boy of anti-government detractors who resented efficiency standards imposed from above, first-gen (20th century) were pretty ugly – like a bus station bathroom.
Still, CFLs deserve their due and served a vital function – giving us all a bridge solution away from inefficient incandescent lamps as the price of LEDs dropped from $50, $70 to $5.
Dear Readers, mention you read this blog post, and Webb at LED Supply Co. will give you 5 PERCENT DISCOUNT off your LED order. You can reach him at Webb@LEDSupplyCo.com, 720-480-7369.
(IMAGES: GE Bright Stik from HomeDepot.com; Edge lighting from PRWeb.com; OLED from LEDSMagazine.com)