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  • 21 Nov 2014

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LED lights seeing their time in the sun

Prices come down on energy-efficient, longlasting bulbs


by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Artist Seth Tane demonstrates the LED light he designed and made to light his paintings in his workshop.From the dollar-store flashlight to the crosswalk sign, light emitting diodes (LEDs) have arrived. Those pimples of light bring energy efficiency to even the least green of us.

In 2007, federal authorities called time on incandescent bulbs with passage of the Energy Independence and Security Act. Thomas Edison’s notion of a wire glowing in a vacuum — which produces more heat than light — was superseded by compact fluorescent bulbs. But consumers were unhappy that CFLs give a cold light and can't easily be dimmed.

Commercial building managers' heads were turned by the prospect of LEDs that last tens of thousands of hours. Changing light bulbs is a major headache in lobbies and offices, and closing off public spaces to send someone around on a cherry picker can get expensive.

Now LEDs are seizing the day, but not without some fumbles.   

"The number one thing that will speed LED acceptance is when cost hits a certain level,” says Margery Conner, an electrical engineer who operates the Designing with LEDs blog, found at designingwithleds.com. A new $13 Cree bulb, made by one of the big three LED manufacturers, may be that turning point, she says.

The 9.5-watt Cree, which gives as much light as a 60-watt incandescent light bulb, uses at least 84 percent less energy. Even if used three hours a day, it’s billed to last 22.8 years.

Other senses besides the naked eye are a factor in light bulb sales, Conner says. "Some LEDs can weigh half a pound. That's a lot when you are on tiptoes trying to change a bulb,” she says. “Then there's noise. CFLs often buzz, which is annoying. LEDs are silent."

Commercial acceptance

Different industries have different requirements that LEDs are meeting nicely. Some examples:

• High-tech manufacturers use them for the curing of special coatings. 

• Dutch farmers use them as grow lights for tomatoes now turning up in California supermarkets.

• Hospitals like them because surgeons need clear colors and no shadows. Bright incandescent bulbs also cause surgeons to sweat profusely, requiring them to repeatedly mop their brows.

• Convalescent homes like the ability to change the color of LED, enabling them to tune their lighting to blueish during the day, to make people more energetic, then shift to warmer hues at night to aid relaxation.

• Auto makers can use that programmable color to light the inside of a car.

Can you see yourself thundering up I-5 from a football game, with the inside of your SUV lit up in Beaver orange or Duck green? 

Conner, a musical theater lover, is impressed by how the entertainment industry has embraced LEDs. "From the LED paddles used by the crowd at the London Olympics to the clockwork scenes in 'Wicked,' there's so much cool stuff out there."

Customer not always right

Key Newell, who runs Sunlan Lighting on Portland’s North Mississippi Avenue, says the main problem holding back consumer LED adoption is the price.

The Cree bulb is good, but Newell doesn't sell many, because for a long time they were over $20. She doesn't think there are any cost-effective floodlights yet.

"I don't think prices will ever drop much below the $10 to $20 range." 

However, she sees money savings to be made from switching to LEDs even at current prices, such as security lighting that’s on for long hours.

"If you can pay for a bulb with energy saving in two years, and it functions for a few more years, that feels good in the pocket book."

Newell likes a $26 dimmable LED by Energetic, and the brands Bulbrite, Sapco and Phillips. 

The industry has been inconsistent, though, she says.  

"There was lot of garbage stuff out there for a long time, companies who are not going to be around in a few years. Gimmicky products and stuff that wouldn't work."

She mentions LED holiday lights that didn't make it to Christmas, and $10 LED bulbs that fail. 

"In my e-mail I get 20 requests every day, will I sell their LEDs,” Newell says. “I just click on the delete button.”

LED technology “is still in Model A phase,” she says. “But people want the Lexus."

Unpredictable technology

A few blocks away is Eleek Inc., which makes and renovates commercial light fixtures and specializes in LEDs. Eric Kaster, who has owned Eleek since 1999, sees the current rival to LEDs being induction lamps, which he calls "fluorescents on steroids," because they have the same lifespan as LEDs.

"At Multnomah County Central library, we retrofit the old fixtures with induction lighting,” Kaster says. “They look like tubes bent in a square shape. They are very bright and work as up-lighting, bouncing more light off the ceiling, which is better for readers." 

It’s not just a green issue, he says. "We use LEDs when we can, but it seems like every three months LED technology takes a leap and we have to design to it."

Parts are constantly being discontinued, which is no fun for Kaster when he is trying to light a streetcar system, thinking decades ahead.

Caster recently judged a lighting competition for design students. He found 40 percent used the new, low-power organic light-emitting diode panels. They are half the size of a piece of notebook paper and produce little heat. 

"I think they were misinformed about how much light they output,” Kaster says. “And their designs used larger panels than you can buy. But kids of that generation are looking at saving energy. They are jumping to that technology. It's just not there yet."