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Light Quality: Back in Style

Dec. 13, 2018
After its meaning eroded in yesteryear’s lighting, quality of design and build is becoming an essential part of the LED bulb-selection equation, expanding the distance between competing suppliers in the process.

In the incandescent/fluorescent light era, “quality” was not a particularly operative word when it came to assessing lighting products and suppliers. The only measure that really mattered in that regard was how long the bulb lasted until it burned out. Better products had longer life, while cheaper ones had to be replaced more often. Quality of light came into play, too, but that was more a function of intended design than quality of build. Lighting, in essence, became a commodity.

Times have changed. Today, in the age of solid state/LED lighting, quality means something significant. Despite many advances in the technology that have been universally adopted, quality can be all over the map.

An LED bulb/tube’s design, materials, construction and assembly are key differentiators that can produce meaningful variations in performance and reliability. To a degree, that’s to be expected; as with any product, LED bulbs come in a range of quality levels, even from individual suppliers. But while subtle differences in quality can make a difference on the margins with many products, they can be much more impactful with LED technology.

When corners are cut on key production elements for price considerations, such as the type and quality of components selected and how they’re designed, assembled and integrated into an LED, the result can be a product with hidden deficiencies. And that’s a concern when an LED installation often represents a substantial long-term investment in improved, value-added illumination and savings in energy, replacement and maintenance over many years.

All of that is at risk if lighting designers and contractors undervalue the product-quality variable when selecting an LED bulb supplier. Overlook that, and the door is open to disappointment – in how readily a bulb can be installed, how generated light is experienced, how long it performs to specifications and in how much energy is saved. Bulb design and construction have a direct bearing on that, and subpar quality in several key areas can be problematic.

Key quality markers

LED chip selection and integration into the bulb is key to lighting performance. Bulb makers have their choice of chip suppliers, whose engineering and manufacturing techniques and standards remain highly variable. But better made, higher quality chips directly correlate to a bulb’s light output and color consistency, two key performance metrics. The better chip suppliers also have tight “binning” procedures that keep variability of chip light color in a tight range, helping ensure that a given batch of bulbs will produce similar lighting effects.

Bulb electronics – capacitors, driver assembly and other components that manage power delivery to the LED chip – also factor heavily into bulb performance.  Poor quality configurations that don’t calibrate power management well can lead to chronic light output problems or early bulb failure.

Veteran lighting consultant Dan Blitzer, principal at New York’s Practical Lighting Workshop who’s watched LED quality evolve for 30 years, says electronics are a wild card in bulb design.

“The quality of electronic components is a critical variable in whether a bulb will live up to projections for lumen depreciation,” he says. “It’s difficult to know if a manufacturer is using barely acceptable components or more robust ones that will last longer.”

Substandard electronic connections can also be a source of bulb performance and safety problems, Blitzer adds. An LED tube can overheat if connections aren’t sufficiently tight and cause air gaps that lead to arcing, which can destroy lamps or produce fires.

Bulbs are susceptible, generally, to overheating because chips generate heat that must be dissipated. The quality of a bulb’s heat sink design comes into play in thermal management, as does the material used to make the bulb. Shatter-resistant polycarbonate with an interior heat sink, Blitzer says, has proven to be one of the better designs for managing heat, at least compared to glass, which is less expensive.

Compatibility is also a function of quality, customer-friendly bulb design. “A” type, plug-and-play tubes engineered to be compatible with the widest variety of fixture ballasts have an edge, as do double-ended “B” direct-wire types that bypass the ballast. Those built to connect to the power supply from either end can cost more but work with more socket types and can be safer to install.

Those are two clearly evident markers of bulb quality, but the others that matter even more can be much harder to spot. The easiest solution: Partner with a reputable manufacturer that stakes its reputation on providing consistently reliable, high-performing, well-designed and -built LED bulbs.

The value of a brand

While there are many elements to becoming a superior supplier, few trump the ability to engineer products that meet performance expectations at every promised quality level. Established companies, those like Signify, manufacturers of the time-tested and proven Philips-branded bulb line, have made that their mission, understanding the value that well-made bulbs bring to an installation community whose businesses and reputations hinge on the dependability of the products they select.

For buyers who understand the importance of LED bulb quality and reliability to project success, there may be no quicker path to satisfaction than tightly linking arms with suppliers who prioritize attention to detail in all aspects of bulb production. Through all the twists and turns of the LED lighting revolution that continues to unfold, that much seems to be truer than ever, says Blitzer.

 “What you should be interested in is the quality of the product and the manufacturer’s reputation in finding and building the appropriate components into the bulb,” he says. “There’s still no easy way to independently judge how a product is made and whether product claims are going to hold up over time. To me, that’s where name brand is key.”

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