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Why LEDs Are For Real Now

Sept. 1, 2009
Cree's Gary Trott speaks out on what LEDs mean to electrical distributors.

In your experience in the lighting industry, can you compare the expectations and excitement with LEDs to other lighting technologies such as CFLs, T8s or electronic ballasts when they first hit the market?

I've never seen this level of excitement before. The lighting industry is more than a hundred and twenty years old, and frankly, not much basic technology has changed during that time. We say that a LED revolution is underway for good reason. LEDs are fundamentally changing the way we think about lighting. It's not just about bulbs and fixtures — it's about integrating electronics and new lighting designs. It's not about wattage and heat generation — it's about energy-efficiency. I truly can't think of a better time to be in the lighting industry.

Are these expectations with LEDs legitimate or are they over-hyped in any areas?

I wouldn't say over-hyped, but I may say mis-managed. LEDs are not ready for every application right now. Of course, if you read this interview in a couple months, we may have changed that. That's literally how fast things are moving. Consumers should expect beautiful light, long life and superior energy-efficiency from LEDs. They should not have to compromise on less-than-beautiful light quality, or an unattractive aesthetic. The U.S. Department of Energy is working hard to learn from prior energy-efficiency campaigns by policing the marketing claims. There are always going to be LED products that don't live up to their marketing hype, or the technology's promise. The best way I can think of to minimize this impact is to accelerate the LED revolution so consumers are educated about what to look for and good products get to market first.

If an electrical distributor is thinking about stocking a line of LEDs, what's the best way for them to evaluate the product and vendor as far as reliability, warranty and a company's claims on amount of light delivered?

Compare products side by side and don't trust a spec sheet. Only your eyes can tell you how closely a fixture replicates incandescent color. In addition, look for suppliers that have successful stories from customers and can demonstrate their products' successes in a variety of applications and markets. And make sure they have reliable third-party test data to back up performance claims. Ask them to show the test data that backs up their lifetime claims. Finally, look for an EnergyStar mark. An EnergyStar qualification is not available on all fixture types, but it's a good first step in evaluating fixtures.

What types of LED products (screw-in replacements, retrofit for existing fluorescents, downlights, etc.) and applications offer the best sales potential right now?

Recessed downlights are the best starting point — in fact that's where we started our product line. There are millions of recessed downlights in the market — and the good LED fixtures on the market are 80 percent more efficient than incandescent and 50 percent more efficient than fluorescent solutions. Outdoor lighting has also rapidly taken off and there are some great sales opportunities — especially capitalizing on U.S. federal stimulus money.

Is there a certain price point/return on investment where LEDs will become competitive with existing products for general office lighting? If they are not competitive yet, how long do you think it might take?

The biggest challenge we face in adoption is education, and this is where distributors can play a pivotal role. As LED technology advances, costs will naturally come down. But what we are seeing is that price is not an entry barrier in the majority of the applications we address. Energy costs are rising and building codes are becoming stricter. The time to talk about viable, LED lighting with your customers is now.

Gary Trott is vice president of market development with Cree LED Lighting Solutions, Durham, N.C., where he is focused on the design and marketing of new LED-based products. He received a B.S. in architectural engineering with an emphasis on illumination from the University of Colorado. He has led the development of numerous breakthrough lighting products from Gotham Lighting, Peerless Lighting and Lithonia Lighting. The products he has developed have set new standards for lighting performance, ease of use and energy efficiency.

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