It took 10 years and dozens of sales calls from a range of vendors before James Felice finally got what he wanted: an LED light that would deliver energy savings, while showing the artwork in his gallery to its best advantage.
"I've probably met with 30 to 35 companies about different applications," said the facility director for the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinberg, Ont. "We wanted to try it earlier, but it just didn't work."
According to Felice, LED lighting will play one of the biggest parts in generating the energy savings the gallery has been aiming for.
"With LED, energy consumption can be reduced massively," he says. "And since you have no heat or UV [ultraviolet radiation], you don't have to use cooling systems as much."
The McMichael's decade-long quest to find the right energy-efficient lighting illustrates the ongoing issues within LED circles. Light-emitting diode lighting has been a mainstay for years for backlights in things such as cellphones and monitors, as well as for street signs and traffic lights. Manufacturers and environmentalists, however, say the technology has yet to consistently reach the promised green goals when used in mainstream room-lighting applications.
"I believe that so far, LED light manufacturers have over-promised and under-delivered [to consumers]," says Jennifer Schwab, director of sustainability for Sierra Club Green Home in San Diego, Calif. "For things like street lights, they're a no-brainer because of the energy savings. Beyond Christmas lights, they haven't been perfected for the home."
"Everyone knows the great benefits of LED — it's relatively energy efficient, has no mercury, can withstand cold temperatures, has a very, very long life, and burns much cooler than incandescent," said Ed Evans, account manager with Osram Sylvania in Mississauga.
Prices are falling, but at around $30 or more a bulb retail, LED lamps still cost far more than traditional incandescent bulbs ($1 to $2 each) or even compact fluorescents ($7 to $8). Still, LED light bulbs are generally marketed with the promise that they are economical, because they will shine brightly for years, since they are based on technology that can last orders of magnitude longer than traditional bulbs.
'They [LEDs] could pretty much outlast the time you intend to spend in your home.' —Doug Hardman, Seoul Semiconductor Corp.
According to Doug Hardman, chief marketing office for Seoul Semiconductor Corp. in Portland, Ore., an LED manufacturer, an incandescent lamp will last 1,000 to 3,000 hours, a compact fluorescent 3,000 to 5,000 and a well-manufactured LED up to 35,000 or more.
"They could pretty much outlast the time you intend to spend in your home," he says.
Yet reality hasn't lived up to the marketing hype, at least so far. The market is seeing performance issues that have resulted from too many producers with poor quality control practices jumping on the green bandwagon.
"You have to remember that while it [LED technology] has been perfected in automotive and in handheld devices, getting it into lamp form is something else," said Evans.
Substandard, no-name products that have been flooding the market have failed both in terms of lifespan and brightness, quickly negating any environmental benefits users expect. Felice says that when McMichael was offered lights for testing from one supplier, for example, he could see that while the LEDs were the same model they weren't consistent: they produced different light levels and variations of white.
"We took them all out and never heard back [from the supplier]. We're trying to be conscious about the environment, but there is still a lot of stuff out there that just isn't top notch."
If an LED is not designed properly and heat is not dissipated properly, the brightness can also fade quickly - sometimes 50 per cent or more within a few months.
"It's the slow, insidious failure that can be the scary part," Evans said.
How 'green' are they?
Some, too, have also questioned eco-friendly claims about the technology, since making LED lights is more labour-intensive than producing traditional bulbs.
To that, Joe Howley, manager of industry relations and environmental marketing at GE Lighting in Cleveland, notes that while LED production is indeed more complex than that of other types of lighting, it is a relatively small portion of the overall product lifecycle evaluation.
"When you look over the life of a lighting product and the impacts, predominantly it's from the electrical use of the product," he explained. "Energy efficiency is as much as 90 per cent of environment impact, simply because you have to run power plants to generate electricity to create light. The less energy a product uses, the smaller the environmental impact it has."
Ranking a distant second on the impact-analysis scale (five per cent to nine per cent) is the lifespan of the product. "The longer it lasts, the fewer materials have to be used. Less lamps have to be manufactured, transported, replaced and disposed of," he explained.
The energy it takes to create the product accounts for just one per cent of the energy involved in an LED's lifecycle, Howley added. "Yes, they [LEDs] have a more complex structure than incandescent lamps, but the first two [environmental benefits] dwarf the additional energy and materials that my go into building the product itself."
New technology, bright future?
While acknowledging that there have been performance issues in home and office LED lighting so far, Lloyd Alter, senior writer for treehugger.com in Toronto, contends that all that is about to change as the technology improves and comes closer to delivering on its original promise.
One sticking point has been the ability to generate a white enough light that is both functional and palatable to the eye. It has all hinged on the development of a green light … literally.
You need red, green and blue to make a good [white] light, Alter explained.
"We've had red LEDs for 30 years; blue came on board 10 years ago. Until now they've had to 'fudge' the green to make white, but not a very good white. The green LED is finally here, so they can now tune the colour properly and perfect the consumer light bulb. That will be the real LED revolution. And what is coming will be brighter, a better colour and much more efficient than what we have now."
For the time being, however, compact fluorescents continue to remain the top "green" choice for consumer applications, Schwab said, until LED prices fall further. "Considering the price and energy efficiency, it's the better choice in the home today. We do see LED as the emerging technology, because it burns longer and the casings are better for environment. It just needs more time."
Evans agrees that once the performance issues are ironed out, LED will win the eco-argument in the end. "Studies show that 50 per cent of all lighting globally will be LED within the next five to 10 years. This is absolutely the future of lighting."