LEDs and their makers aren’t whiter than white

Obfuscation about the long-term performance of solid-state lighting threatens the market

Lighting crime is rife again this month. Confidence tricksters are targeting innocent property owners and businesspeople who understand little or nothing about lux, lumens, colour temperature or how to tell the difference between a well-engineered heatsink and a lump of recycled bean tin.

The con works like this: lighting companies approach business owners with a promise of huge cash windfalls in the form of energy savings and maintenance cost reductions. The initial claims may be true on paper, but often the products installed to achieve the promised savings are, in fact, crap.

Flat, dull and dingy

Sure, they deliver the promised savings, but the lights themselves often fail to deliver the amount, quality and colour of light that we have come to expect. The result is that once well-lit spaces turn into flat, dull and dingy caves. In a few applications this may be acceptable, but in restaurants, offices and shops, lighting is a key ingredient in the overall success of a business and getting it wrong can be disastrous.

The crime scene this month is a highly regarded gastropub in North Yorkshire. The main dining area was subjected a few months ago to a retrofit of MR16 low-voltage halogen lamps. All was well for the first month or so – this is a crime story that burns slowly. After a few weeks some of the lamps had failed. This was blamed on a dodgy batch and they were promptly replaced. A few months on, a more serious problem is emerging, even if it goes undetected by the untrained eye. It’s an issue the lighting industry often refuses to discuss, but believe me it will be coming to a retrofit or new installation near you soon.

The issue is colour shift. You think you’re having some nice warm white retrofit bulbs fitted, then over a few months they change to shades of white you didn’t think were achievable (and certainly aren’t desirable) – grey white, pink white and even brown white.

So what, you might say, who cares? But when I dined at the scene of the crime, I thought they were using two colours of table cloth – one a nice crisp white, and another a dull cream colour. In fact the apparent difference was caused by the light from the offending MR16s. The result is an unhappy user, unlikely to follow up on a sensible effort to reduce energy consumption.

With the lighting industry’s marketing focus moving rapidly in the direction of LEDs, it’s time to start exploring these issues before consumers switch off. LEDs are not only about long life and low energy. Reliability and colour performance are just as important in the long term. With a raft of new methods and techniques being used to implement LED lighting, how do manufacturers prove what will happen towards the end of a product’s 50,000-hour life?

During April’s Light + Building exhibition in Frankfurt, a number of manufacturers demonstrated that they recognised this is an issue, and they have a solution. At the top of the list is Manchester-based Projection Lighting, which is offering a five-year ‘no colour shift’ guarantee on its Xicato module-based fittings – a positive step forward.
Now, who’s going to be brave and make a similar promise for a retrofit bulb?

Gordon Routledge, LEDs expert and publisher of Lux, can be found on Twitter @gordonroutledge

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