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Lack of LED Standardization Can Cause Headaches Down the Line

When creating the first commercially viable incandescent light bulb, Thomas Edison had the luxury of inventing something entirely new, the only one of its kind. Because Edison had a monopoly on production, his design of the Edison screw, today called the E27 screw base, quickly became the accepted world standard. This bulb base became so ubiquitous that, more than 100 years later, even today’s most cutting-edge CFL and LED technologies are expected to be offered with E27 bases for retrofit purposes. 

Fluorescent lighting came to the forefront of industrial and commercial lighting in the 1940s, as wartime manufacturing drove demand, and by 1951, more light was being produced in the U.S. by fluorescent lamps than incandescent ones. Such wide adoption required industrial standardization, and the two major players at that time, GE and Westinghouse, adopted a handful of variations on the common T8 lamp and ballasts.

Standardization makes it easier for the end user to repair, replace, or upgrade their equipment or its components no matter which company produced the original part. If your GE light bulb burns out, you can replace it quickly with any number of standard bulbs. Ballast or sockets fried? Your local electrical supplier has you covered. The variety of producers—all working within generally accepted standards—keeps costs down, with little differentiation: all brands will work the same in similar-type equipment.

Welcome to the Wild West

Today’s LED lighting industry does not operate in the same way. Thousands of LED fabricators around the world are creating new products, with new specifications, at breakneck speeds. With new technologies and products entering the market seemingly every week, and without universal standards à la the E27 base or T8 lamp, the lighting industry can feel a bit like the Wild West.

Each of the basic parts of an LED fixture—the Surface-Mount-Device [SMD] (the actual light-emitting diode), the printed circuit board, and the driver—can all be made in myriad different ways. Manufacturer X could create a fixture with a 25W driver, but that driver may operate from 10-50V, while operating currents may be from 200-250 milliamps. Manufacturer Y could also create a 25W driver, but this one operates from 18-36V and 400 milliamps. The end user could assume that every 25W driver is the same, but when they replaced Y driver with X, their light output in lumens would not only be markedly different, but the LED also may not operate within required parameters and could cause failure or reduced life. Think of this like filling up the family sedan with diesel and the tractor-trailer with gasoline: both are fuel, but neither engine will work!

A programmable driver presents a greater challenge: in the interest in cutting down SKUs for fixture and driver manufacturers, many drivers are now programmable, often set to specific parameters on specialized equipment.  This makes finding replacements at the retail level nearly impossible. If a driver is a mini computer that has specific instructions regulating power consumption and output of the luminaire in which it resides, then replacing a pre-programmed driver requires finding either the exact same driver from the same manufacturer, or programming a suitable substitute to the same parameters. And without knowing the exact programming specifications—what parameters were coded in at the factory—a programming tool, not an electrician, would be required to fix it. Add in the lengthy rated time to failure (TTF) of 50,000 hours, and you’re looking at nearly 20 years before a driver may have to be replaced. Will that manufacturer still be in business in 20 years? Even running 24/7, as many commercial buildings do, 50,000 hours is just shy of 6 years, and that time may be longer than some companies’ life span.

Bringing Some Order

One area where the market is seeing movement towards standardization and interchangeability is in LED T8 Tubes for retrofitting fluorescent installations. These look like today’s fluorescent T8 tubes, but have LED light sources. Some have external drivers, some are internal, some run off line voltage, and some are ballast-driven. Beyond this, there are even hybrid LED tubes that will run on both ballast and line voltage. While it sounds like this is still the “too many options” problem, it really isn’t: as long as you know which type you’re installing, you can buy off-the-shelf replacements when needed. This is the level of standardization that will save the industry from imploding. Local Electrical Supply houses cannot be expected to carry 30, 40, or more different models of LED boards and drivers to fit every make of light fixture.

The most promising efforts toward LED interchangeability today come from an industry-wide collaboration between LED fabricators across the globe, the Zhaga consortium. Members include luminaire manufacturers, LED module makers, material and lighting component suppliers as well as service providers such as test laboratories. By working towards agreed-upon specifications, Zhaga-certified equipment, in any of a dozen different categories, can be made with standard sizes—for instance, the L56W2 (560 x 24mm) or L56W4 (561 x 41mm) boards seem to be taking over as base models. This frees manufacturers to differentiate on capabilities or lumens instead of developing proprietary sizes and mounting patterns, while allowing them to use LED boards from several suppliers.

If the LED market is the Wild West, the Zhaga consortium is attempting to be a figurative cowboy, herding disparate parties in the same direction, towards a common destination. Today, parts carry 5-10 year warranties with little chance, thanks to consolidation, advancements in technology, and companies going belly-up, that those parts will be available 10 years from now. If a manufacturer today makes an LED board with the same hole pattern or form factor for the next 10 years, by that time, the LEDs will likely have a much higher efficacy and greater light output, so they wouldn’t match existing lights. But by working towards Zhaga standards, some of these future problems can be avoided.

Unfortunately, this is currently the only attempt to work towards anything resembling a standard—and it does not appear to be taking hold. While manufacturers are required to hew to government-regulated ANSI requirements for safety and functionality, participation in Zhaga is entirely voluntary, and only a fraction of manufacturers are doing so because they are finding they can design boards with different widths and lengths that provide price advantage over those that follow Zhaga.  For example a 44 x 0.7 inch PCB is cheaper than two Zhaga L56W2 and the labor cost is lower when assembling them into fixtures.

The industry is currently off-balance. Too many manufacturers create ‘good enough’ products, and these low-priced imports are attractive to budget conscious building managers. But today’s ‘good enough’ product will eventually come back to haunt end users. Without an agreed-upon standard for LED technologies, one that requires interchangeability and interoperability, without a standard benefitting both manufacturers and end users, the promise of energy-efficient, cost-saving 21st century lighting will continue to be firmly screwed in to the 19th century—in the form of the Edison socket.

So what’s a building manager to do? Here’s a few things to keep in mind when sourcing your lighting:

1) Choose fixtures from established or reputable companies with a domestic presence. The current flood of low-cost imports may be initially appealing, especially to the bottom line, but a no-name company that only started producing LEDs within the last three to four years may not be there in another four or five.

2) Research the rated life estimates from the manufacturer and ask for estimated life based on the EPA’s Energy Star TM-21 calculations. 

3) Avoid buying items that are just ‘good enough.’  All LED fixtures are NOT created equal; the lowest cost does not always represent the best value and life cycle cost.  If a fixture requires professional installation and fails in five years, you have to buy a new fixture and pay the electrician again. 

4) Know where you need to recognize savings. Can you justify changing fixtures every five years as the technology improves just to save a few additional watts of electricity?  If you wouldn’t consider a major facilities upgrade if the payback is not within two to three years, then changing every five does not make for good payback unless the energy savings is huge.

5) Keep in mind that even the large, legacy companies have made numerous updates or obsoleted some of their earlier LED parts. In some cases, replacement parts are not available, or jobs that were never finished have run into supply problems because of discontinuations. In order to avoid ‘obsoleting’ issues and to ensure uniformity of equipment, when it comes to upgrades, consider that partial upgrades may not be the way to go.

Jeffrey Goldstein is CEO of LaMar Lighting.

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