Kevin Dowling, vice president of innovation at Philips Solid State Lighting Solutions, holds up one of his prized possessions. It’s a glass-blown incandescent lightbulb from the Edison era more than a century ago. Remarkably, not much has changed. The shape of the bulb looks much the same. And the filament is in a horseshoe shape.
By contrast, the lighting technology that Dowling works on advances at seemingly light speed. When Dowling showed me his Edison-era bulb one year ago, he talked of Philips producing LED (light-emitting diode) downlights that produce about 400 lumens. Now the company is looking at downlights that emit 600 to 700 lumens, rivaling a 60-watt incandescent bulb’s 850 lumens.
Philips and other LED lighting companies have reason to be bullish about LEDs—and to innovate rapidly. The U.S. Department of Energy has awarded millions in LED research grants to Philips and other companies, looking to the technology as a replacement for incandescent bulbs, most of which are now legislated to be phased out in the United States beginning in 2012. The LED market, in many senses, is like a Wild West gold rush to get products out.
LED lighting also promises to be a boon to homeowners who want to save energy but don’t like the harsh light of compact fluorescents or the environmental hazard of the small amount of mercury in each CFL. LEDs are five times more efficient than incandescent lights and can last longer than both incandescent and fluorescent ones.
But as a lighting source, are LEDs ready for prime time? Can we light our homes with them? I’m writing this as I sit beneath two $55 5-watt LED lamps that replaced 20-watt halogens in my home office track lighting. The lamps, from LED Waves, are made with LEDs from Cree, one of the more respected names in the LED marketplace. The light from my two LEDs is adequate for typing on a laptop with a backlight, but reading beneath them causes eyestrain, so I usually augment them with a 20-watt halogen.
Granted, these are just two small MR-16 type LED lamps, producing a total of about 525 lumens. I resolved to see if there were LED lights that could be used for task lighting, so I drove to Philips’ Solid State Lighting Solutions Headquarters in Burlington, MA, to tour its showroom.
I stood beneath an eW Downlight SM Powercore, a $250 square ceiling fixture with a steel bezel that mounts to standard fixtures and uses about 15 watts to produce up to 492 lumens (depending on your choice of color temperature and beam angle). It’s also dimmable down to about 20 percent with ELV (electronic low-voltage) dimmers. It is sleek looking and casts a nice light. Still, I don’t think it sheds enough light to read under.
We also view some eW Profile Powercore low-profile lighting that runs for $60 a foot and can be mounted beneath a cabinet for surface lighting. The spacing of the LEDs provides an even, natural light without any harsh effects.
One of Philips’ advancements is its Powercore technology, which allows its LED fixtures to be plugged into an AC outlet or wired directly to high-voltage. LED lights run on low-voltage DC, so the high-voltage AC must be converted to it, much like what happens in a power adapter or transformer between an outlet and your electronics. Powercore does this right in the fixture of the LED, though Philips won’t reveal how.
Okay, so where are the screw-in replacement LED bulbs that everyone is waiting for? Those are coming, too, in the form of a PAR-38 replacement lamp for recessed lighting and outdoor flood lighting, due to hit the market next year.
There are already plenty of screw-in replacement LED bulbs on the market, but buyer beware (read LED shopping tips here). “Be careful about reading your warranties, and look for UL ratings. Those are going to be more reliable products,” advises Greg McCord, application engineer in the LED systems division for another lighting giant, Osram Sylvania.
The UL (Underwriters Laboratories) rating is a safety rating, so why do you want to see one on a harmless little LED? Because contrary to popular belief, LEDs get hot. Actually, the light itself isn’t hot, but the fixtures can get very hot in the back. The heat is a serious issue, says McCord. “Most screw-based LEDs are low-lumen, low-wattage, which equates to lower heat. As they get into higher lumens, they have to deal with the heat issue in the base.”
Sylvania, too, is looking to introduce a PAR lamp LED replacement in 2009, and the company should also have a 12-inch 450-lumen HF2 Display Stick. In addition, its DLM700 is capable of 700 lumens. In some cases, Cooper Lighting’s Halo LED recessed light that replaces a 65-watt BR30 recessed lamp is being specified into homes, though the LED lamp itself is $130.
McCord says that most of Sylvania’s products will come out as fixtures and not screw-in replacements, and the folks at Philips concur. “Why should we shoehorn LEDs into something that was invented 100 years ago?” asks Felicia Spagnoli, Philips’ Solid State Lighting product marketing manager. With the various and flexible form factors that LEDs can create, instead of turning on a lamp, someday you might come home and turn on your whole ceiling.
It seems the sky is the limit for LED lighting. But still, will it let me read? And how soon can I light my house with it without going broke? Is this the year?
“I don’t know if we’ll pass CFLs in 2009, but it will be soon,” says McCord. “In 2009, it will filter more into the residential market.”
“This is going to be a year of advance for LED product manufacturing and controls,” says Philips’ Campbell.
“And 2010 will be a very big year,” says McCord.
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Steven Castle is Electronic House's managing editor. he has been writing about consumer electronics, homes and energy efficiency topics for two decades. He is also the co-founder of GreenTech Advocates