Navigant Research Blog

Improved LED Christmas Lights Decorate the Tree

— December 9, 2014

As people around the globe dig through their closets this holiday season to locate strings of lights to decorate their trees and houses, a portion of those looking to decorate will decide that it is time to purchase new lights.  When those people arrive at stores or check out online retailers, they will find a wider selection of LED options than ever before.  Most of the traditional incandescent styles of string lights have been replaced with LEDs.  The question is: Will the average consumer make the upgrade?

One of the most important filters is quality.  A consumer may be interested in purchasing LEDs, but he or she first needs to know that the product will meet expectations.  Though LED decorative string lights have been available for a number of years, their quality has not always been up to par.  Early models were often quite dim.  For bare white lights, that dimness was not a large concern because the small points of light were still easily visible.  For styles with larger bulbs, and especially colored bulbs, the lack of brightness was a significant downside, as the lights hardly looked to be illuminated in any but the darkest conditions.  This shortcoming has been overcome.  Today’s LED string lights are every bit as bright as their incandescent predecessors.

On Flicker

A second quality issue that affected bare white lights was flicker.  Because LED chips can respond so quickly to changes in electrical current, alternating current (AC) power can actually cause them to turn on and off at the frequency of that power (50 to 60 times per second).  The blinking that results may not be noticeable when staring directly toward an LED light, but movement of the head or eyes can allow peripheral vision to detect the flicker.  When this occurs from dozens or hundreds of individual string lights, the effect can ruin the cheeriest holiday party.

Again, though, LED string lights on the market today have corrected this problem through improved driver technology, eliminating any perceptible flicker.  Indeed, depending on the style of light, LEDs can be virtually indistinguishable from their incandescent counterparts.

As with LED lighting for commercial and residential applications, prices for LED string lights have fallen greatly in recent years, but the LED version can still be 2 to 5 times as expensive as the comparable incandescent option.  While this range of price difference is similar to the premium paid for residential or commercial LED products, the business case for holiday lights may seem worse.

White Light, No Heat

In our recently published report, Energy Efficient Lighting for Commercial Markets, Navigant Research describes the various trends that are pushing the adoption of LED lighting and shows that upfront price parity is not a prerequisite to widespread adoption, especially if the payback period from energy savings is relatively short.  However, commercial lights operate for many more hours compared to decorative string lights, which may only be on for 6 to 8 hours per day, and for one month out of the year.

Other considerations will certainly influence consumers’ decisions as well.  Environmentally-minded purchasers might like to know that their holiday lights aren’t consuming any more electricity than necessary.  Those who are safety-conscious would surely appreciate that the lights resting on the dry needles of the trees inside their homes generate as little heat as possible, as LEDs do.  Overall, not every consumer will be ready to upgrade to LED string lights this year ‑ but the barriers are dropping fast and the future of Christmas decorations is almost certainly digital.

 

Lighting Innovation: Not Just LEDs

— July 23, 2014

Attendees at the LightFair convention in Las Vegas could be excused for thinking that the show was exclusively focused on LEDs and that LED lighting has already taken over the vast majority of the market.  Surveying the convention floor, new LED products were on display in every direction, and even the big traditional lighting companies seemed to only be showcasing their LED offerings.

Ones to Grow With

However, while LED lighting is starting to represent the majority of sales in some applications, such as street lighting (see Navigant Research’s report, Smart Street Lighting), many other applications, such as office lighting, are still monopolized by older lamp technologies and are only beginning to see competitive LED products.  Moreover, some companies are devoting R&D dollars to develop new non-LED products, and there will certainly be a role for those products to play in a future that will be largely, but not completely, taken over by LEDs.  A few examples of companies that highlighted non-LED products at LightFair are:

  • Indoor Grow Science (IGS) – This company had a much visited display of its high-pressure sodium (HPS) grow lights, which feature a patented method for venting waste heat so that it does not negatively impact plant growth.  A company representative explained that while IGS is working on LED-based grow lights, there are a number of challenges involved that its officials believe will leave the indoor agriculture industry using HPS and metal halide lamps at least for the near future.  Heat dissipation still has to be managed with LED lamps.  In addition, plants require UV-A and UV-B light, which standard LEDs do not supply.  While UV LEDs are available, they generally degrade faster, which could leave a grower with a light that looks operational to the eye but is not meeting the needs of the plants.
  • Luxim – Having made a splash at LightFair 2013 with impressive demonstrations of its light-emitting plasma (LEP) technology, Luxim impressed again this year with the launch of its Resilient brand of industrial-strength products that include LEP, LED, and induction-based lamps.  While LEP lamps have a tiny market share, this company makes a strong case that they can be the right choice in applications that require very bright lights, especially those that benefit from a small point source of light.  Another advantage is a lack of any flicker, which allows for the use of very high-speed photography in sporting and other applications.
  • Genesys – While not an official LightFair vendor, this company’s representatives were busy at the conference making the case for their gHID ballast.  As opposed to typical HID ballasts that operate at a frequency of 50 Hz  to 60 Hz, the Genesys product runs at over 100,000 Hz, increasing efficiency to be comparable to LEDs, as well as extending both lamp and driver life by factors of 2 to 3 times and 3 to 4 times respectively.  The gHID ballast is largely being sold as a retrofit product, where it can often fit inside existing luminaires or be attached outside of them.  Therefore, it does not require the complete infrastructure change that many LED retrofits involve.  In the longer term, the company sees its product as complementary to LEDs, providing a solution for applications where LEDs may not be as successful such as higher wattage lights.

While these companies showcased innovative non-LED products, the leadership of LEDs at LightFair 2014 would be hard to deny.  Out of 27 entrants for the innovation awards in the commercial indoor category, all 27 were LED-based.  Other lamp types may maintain sizable portions of the installed base for years to come and may continue to make sense in certain specific applications, but it’s undeniable that the age of the LED is upon us.

 

LEDs Get a Makeover

— June 2, 2014

My colleague Jesse Foote noted in a blog earlier this month that high prices, formerly one of the major obstacles to consumer adoption of light-emitting diodes (LEDs), have begun to fall.  In 2012, LED bulbs cost about $40 apiece; now, the price has fallen to around $10.  Price aside, another remaining barrier to LED adoption is aesthetic: consumers dislike the harsh, bluish light emitted by LEDs.  Large lighting manufacturers as well as startup companies have responded to consumer preferences by releasing a variety of LED bulbs that mimic the light emitted from a traditional incandescent bulb.  Particularly as the U.S. incandescent phase-out continues, lighting manufacturers have begun to produce a more diverse set of LED bulbs for different lighting sectors.

Warm and White

Last March, Cree became the first company to produce a LED bulb for residential use that mimics the warm, white light of an incandescent bulb.  The TrueWhite bulb has also drawn customers due to its price (less than $10 per bulb) and design.

Since then, other lighting manufacturers have come out with their own versions of LED bulbs that look like incandescents.  Philips introduced a $12, 25,000-hour bulb in April 2014, and General Electric’s 60-watt equivalent Reveal bulb provides a dimmable LED option.  Ushio also offers a decorative LED lamp that gives off a warm glow.

The variety of players in the incandescent-like LED field is bound to continue growing as manufacturers recognize the market potential for visually appealing LEDs.  Recently, The New York Times ran a feature on a small company called Finally. The startup has developed its own bulb that looks like an incandescent, but is actually a refined form of induction lighting.

To the Streets

In early May 2014, the commercial sector saw the emergence of Cree’s LED T8 lamp.  By bringing down the cost of commercial LED lamps, this product captured some of the fluorescent-dominated market.  However, price remains a large barrier in commercial LED lighting, with the Cree T8 running around $30 per bulb, almost 10 times more than traditional fluorescent lamps.

The forthcoming update to Navigant Research’s Smart Street Lighting report will address the use of LED bulbs in street lighting, a move that has already saved cities around the world millions of dollars on electricity per year.  The emergence of LED bulbs that look like incandescents holds particular promise for more decorative street lighting applications.  Companies like Sternberg Lighting offer traditional decorative fixtures that are LED-compatible and offer a solution to installing energy efficient lighting fixtures in a nonresidential setting.

 

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