May 05, 2015
Given the significant energy-saving and life-cycle cost benefits of LED lighting it’s little wonder that these products have grown in popularity so quickly. However, as with any rapidly expanding market there will always be a number of new players trying to ‘get in on the act’ – often with poor quality products but at a low price that may appeal to some buyers.
This has the makings of a potentially serious situation for electrical wholesalers as stocking the wrong products, which fail to deliver on performance, will do nothing for their relationship with their contractor customers. I would suggest that the safest route is to source LED lighting products directly from the leading manufacturers as you can be sure these known and trusted brands will not let you down.
For example, if a contractor installs LEDs for a customer and then finds that a percentage of them fail prematurely, or do not provide the promised light output, they will then be faced with a return call to the customer to put things right. Clearly this could be damaging to their reputation with the customer, plus they will waste time having to return inferior products to the wholesaler and then make a second visit to install the replacement.
Inevitably this has a knock-on effect on the wholesaler’s reputation with the contractor, as well as generating extra administration related to processing the returned products.
One of the key problems here is that LED lamps tend to look very similar to each other, irrespective of the quality of the components that have been used to make them. The trouble is, they may look the same but their performance can vary considerably. This may be in terms of the light output, consistency of colour temperature, energy consumption or the longevity of the lamp.
In many ways, this is potentially more of a problem with LEDs than other light sources because they are more complex than traditional lamps. For example, a typical LED lighting system comprises a power supply that converts the mains voltage to a constant voltage, which is then supplied to the LED driver. The role of the LED driver is to convert constant voltage into a constant current that is then supplied to the LEDs themselves. The constancy of the current ensures a constant light output, with the light output being proportional to the current applied.
An important point here is that energy is lost at each of the conversion stages described above and this can have a significant impact on the overall power supply efficiency. In fact, the power supply efficiency of LEDs from different manufacturers can vary from 50% to 90% and this will influence the overall energy savings that are achieved.
Also, the light energy generated by the LED is then converted to white light by exciting phosphors that coat the LED, in the same way that fluorescent lighting works. The quality and consistency of the phosphor coating has a direct impact on the consistency of colour temperature and colour rendering.
While the factors described above apply to all LED light sources, there are also other considerations that relate to retrofit lamps that are designed for fitting to an existing luminaire. For instance, the optical design of the retrofit LED lamp has a significant impact on overall performance.
In many retrofit lamps there are both primary optics and secondary optics. The primary optics are frequently built into the LED source, often in the form of a dome that helps to increase light output. There may then be secondary optics added to modify the beam width or light distribution, adding further to the complexity of the design and the intricacy of manufacture.
Then there is the whole issue of thermal management. LEDs can generate a considerable amount of heat. If the temperature in the vicinity of the LED and its electronic circuitry is allowed to get too high this will both reduce light output and the life of the lamp. Retrofit lamps therefore have a built-in heat sink to conduct heat away from the sensitive electronics - so the efficiency with which the heat sink does its job is another important element in performance and reliability.
A lack of effective surge protection is also important, as is the use of a sealed housing to prevent moisture infiltration.
For all of these reasons it is clear that each of these components is important in the overall performance of the lamp that the end user experiences, thus reinforcing the importance of high quality manufacture using proven, reliable components.
Given the complexity of LED lighting, as described above, the reasons for being very cautious when sourcing LED lighting products become immediately apparent.
For example, if you are sourcing an unfamiliar brand through a distributor do you know if they are manufacturing their own LED products, or are they sourcing them from a number of different factories based on which is the cheapest at the time? If the latter, then clearly the degree of quality control must be questionable.
Also, if the price is considerably lower than more familiar brands it makes one wonder about the quality of the components that have been used in the manufacture. After all, the big manufacturers have enormous purchasing power and so are able to source high-quality components at relatively low prices. In contrast, a smaller player does not have that buying power and may therefore be achieving a lower price at the expense of quality.
Additionally, the leading brands have their own test facilities and are able to subject their products to continuous assessment to ensure good quality control and consistent performance.
Another issue is longevity. Given the long life of LED light sources and, therefore, the extended warranties that go with them, it’s worth wondering if your supplier is likely to be around for the duration of that warranty. Or are they simply taking a short-term approach to take advantage of the current popularity of LEDs, with a view to switching to another expanding market when it suits them?
This is not to say that only the established lamp brands can offer quality. The electronic nature of LED lighting has led a number of big electronics brands to put a toe in the water of this market. However, while their products may be of high quality they tend to lack experience of lighting and the application of lighting products. They are therefore less well-placed to understand and meet the requirements of their customers.
For all of these reasons I strongly recommend that wholesalers take a long, hard look at the LED light sources they are stocking, or considering stocking. If you are considering moving away from a well-known brand then be very rigorous in your assessments of the alternatives. Cheaper options may appear to offer you a slight improvement on margin but the real cost of stocking products that fail your customers and their clients can only have a negative impact on your bottom line in the longer term.