Lighting a Path to LEDs

As someone steeped in the world of residential and commercial lighting, Christopher Thompson, principal of Studio Lux, Seattle and Los Angeles, recognizes that lighting accounts for roughly 12 percent of U.S. electricity consumption. So he routinely specifies LEDs to lighten the load. They are a whopping 85 percent more energy-efficient than incandescent bulbs and are expected to last 20-some years. Yet the conversion has been bumpy, to say the least. With technology advancements continuing apace, "You have to do a deep dive to understand where [LED technology] has come from and where it's headed," he says.

Thompson has had success following two basic principles: he buys only major brands that follow rigorous, standardized benchmarks to produce consistent color rendering and quality, and he rarely specs a fixture he hasn’t tested. When Thompson recently talked a landlord into converting an entire office building to dimmable LEDs, the impact was immediate and lasting. “These hallways are bathed in warm light, and we went from 5,000 hours to 50,000 hours per lamp, and from 90 watts down to 15 or 20,” he says.

With incandescent bulbs being discontinued in phases by the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007, electrical contractors have an opportunity to educate customers about the changes and help them decide which lamps are best for their applications. Mark Voykovic, light bulb merchant at The Home Depot, describes a “good-better-best” scenario in terms of energy efficiency, with halogens a good option (28 percent more efficient than incandescents), CFLs a better choice (75 percent more efficient and lasting 10 times longer than incandescents), and LEDs in the top-performing category.

Aside from the energy savings, LEDs’ longevity makes them a good fit for hard-to-reach locations. They are Thompson’s go-to lamp for soffits, cathedral ceilings, inside or under cabinets, and oculus lighting above a staircase. He also uses them in linear extrusions with different beam spreads, ranging from about 10 degrees to 120 degrees, to focus on artwork or entirely wash a wall. “With incandescents, you had no control,” he says. “Now we have the ability to throw light where we need it, and when you can control the light, you can use less of it.”

While the higher initial cost of LEDs is a hurdle for some homeowners, it’s less so for commercial building owners, says Santos Camero, operations manager at Light It Up Electric. For example, pole-mounted LED lights in parking lots are a no-brainer on new installs. “If you have to maintain a ballast and 400-watt metal halide lighting, which I do frequently for clients, it gets expensive,” says Camero, who adds that 30 percent of his work comes from Redbeacon, a Home Depot program that lets him access prequalified job requests. Recently Camero also replaced undercabinet halogens with a self-contained LED fixture for an elderly customer who didn’t want to be bothered with frequent relamping.

Tubular LEDs that retrofit fluorescents are also fairly simple to install. Philips Lighting Company, for example, offers two types: One runs directly on line voltage and has an internal driver, and the other has an external driver. “In both cases you disconnect the fluorescent ballast, which saves even more energy,” says Tom Kilkelly, Philips national account manager for The Home Depot, which partners with major manufacturers to offer Energy Star-compliant bulbs.

LED bulbs are typically sold as warm/soft white (around 2,700 degrees Kelvin), bright white (3,000 degrees Kelvin, mimicking halogen bulbs), and day-light (4,000–4,500 degrees Kelvin). Regardless of temperature, look for a color rendering index of 80 to 100 to avoid unpredictable coloring, Voykovic says.

Joel Holliman, principal of Archetype Electrical Service, who wires a lot of high-end homes and shopping-mall tenant improvements, relies on lighting suppliers and on lighting designers like Thompson to help him source top-rated LEDs. Virtually all mall stores use the bulbs now, he says, but homeowners are hesitant. "It's not the quality of the light anymore, but the cost that concerns them. I cna always find the right produc