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Where now for the LED domestic market?

The lighting industry got its fingers burnt trying to persuade householders to replace incandescent bulbs. Can the transition to LED lighting be smoother?

Daily Mail readers were 'incandescent' when the EU banned their favoured white-hot lightbulbs. The energy-efficient replacements, compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), were unpopular because many took a while to light up from cold, had unflattering light tones and cost more.

The fact that they tended to last longer was little compensation to a public used to the gratifying effects of incandescent lightbulbs, though they were cheap enough for hoarders to buy in bulk ahead of the ban, which was announced by the UK government and implemented EU-wide from 2009.

Light-emitting diode (LED) lightbulbs are becoming increasingly popular, but claims made by some manufacturers on longevity have been disputed. The EU brought in directives to increase the quality of LED construction as the lamps are more complex to manufacture and there are varying levels of quality. But there are anecdotal stories about poor quality construction.

There are two distinct markets: the retail market, which is still relatively small because of the high price of LED bulbs; and the new build market, specifically builders who are incentivised to make new build homes as energy efficient as possible. The new build market is the larger of the two, although the retail market is expected to catch up.

LED lamps have greater energy-efficient advantages over CFLs but without the problem of unflattering tones and uncomfortable flicker. However, unlike CFLs and incandescent products, the weakest component of LEDs is not the lamp, which can often last a great deal longer than some of the other intricate components.

One point of contention is with the claims made on the packaging for some LED products. A manufacturer may claim, for example, that their LED light would be expected to last for 50,000 hours. In practice, this would mean that the product would last for more than 17 years on the assumption that the light was on for approximately eight hours a day.

The reality is far more nuanced. Firstly, LED lights do not burn out suddenly like incandescent bulbs. Their efficiency decreases over time. The confusion is at what point should the efficiency drop before the product is deemed to have failed?

"The performance characteristics of an LED chip will change once it is incorporated into a lamp or luminaire, potentially impacting lifetime. Therefore, it is important to understand which lifetime is being quoted – the chip or the system," says Steve Wrapson, product marketing manager for Philips. "Our lifetime statements are based on a moment that LEDs reaches 70 per cent of their light output."

To resolve many of these matters, the EU brought in a new directive that came into force in September of last year. The EcoDesign DIM2 Regulation, created to improve the accuracy of information on the packaging of LED lamps, will help consumers make better-informed choices.

There are now tougher performance requirements and the new regulation states that directional lamps, such as spots and reflectors, need to meet a certain lumen level to claim a certain wattage replacement.

"Historically, lightbulb purchases have been based on wattage, which actually refers to the energy consumed rather than the bulb's brightness. Now consumers need to understand lumen output to help them make the adjustment," says Wrapson, who points out that Philips' packaging gives Lumen equivalent to existing wattage measurements.

Additionally, 90 per cent of the lamps must survive and still have at least 80 per cent of their initial lumen output after 6,000 burning hours; and 95 per cent of the lamps must survive for at least 1,000 hours.

Making the switch to LED

Will this level of transparency be enough to persuade more consumers to switch to LED luminaires? Visit your local DIY superstore and you will still see rows and rows of CFL-based lighting and perhaps just a small space devoted to LED lighting.

Retailers appear to be unconvinced about stocking too vast a range of LED alternatives, possibly driven by market confusion and uncertainty. In the meantime, consumers are left with what many consider a poorer alternative in CFL lights.

One way the government is managing to increase the uptake of LED lighting for businesses is by offering tax incentives and warranties. The Enhanced Capital Allowance (ECA) energy scheme provides tax allowances for a variety of energy-saving products. It offers a 100 per cent First Year Allowance (FYA) for investments in certain energy-saving plant and machinery including energy-efficient LED lighting systems, of which 100 per cent of the cost could be written off against that year's taxable profits. This has enabled many businesses to save money, as well as reduce energy use, carbon footprint and climate change levy payments. But no similar scheme exists for consumers, in the UK at least.

In the US, however, State Public Utility Commissions (PUCs) have been set energy-saving goals by state and federal government to provide an alternative to the capital expense of expanding power plant capacity. Utilities in almost every state offer rebates for LED lighting. The majority of these are a predetermined monetary amount for each fixture replaced, most of which is reliant on the products being bought with a US Energy Star rating scheme.

New-build incentives for consumers

Although no similar rebate scheme yet exists for UK consumers, purchasers of new-build properties can still benefit through incentives offered to house builders.

In each newly built home, builders are supposed to ensure that at least two rooms are fitted with energy-efficient lightbulbs. However, because the onus is on the builder, whose interests may be more short-term than the owner, the choice of bulb might not be chosen on the basis of optimal energy efficiency or longevity. This unleashes potential for creating a market for cheap imports from unknown brands.

One such home builder, Gaillard Homes, discovered that because of its commitment to providing quality LED lighting from well-known brands, the bulbs were routinely going missing, so now the policy is to install as late as possible in the build.

Denis Sharp, an IET member and engineer, recently moved into a new-build home that was kitted out with poorly designed LED lamps that kept failing. Sharp attempted to replace the lamps himself with more reputable branded products: "I tried fitting a mains LED lamp from an alternative manufacturer and found I couldn't. The lamp holders appear to be GU10, but on closer inspection they are GU10 L1. This means that there is a small spike about 2mm high in the centre of the lamp holder. No one else seems to manufacture this type of lamp," explains Sharp.

Concerns raised by consumer groups, manufacturers and installers are the main reason that prompted the IET to produce The Code of Practice for the Application of LED Lighting Systems, which was published in March.

LED Code of Practice

According to the report's authors, poor quality installation of LED lighting systems could cancel out any advantage of LED technology and result in inadequate lighting, failure to meet lifetime performance expectations or even interference with other equipment from poor systems integration.

"A Code of Practice will benefit the industry and also build confidence in this technology for contractors and customers," says Ben Pap', chair of the IET Technical Committee on LED Lighting Systems.

The new Code of Practice covers performance, safety and lifetime, as well as detailing key compatibility considerations as part of a systems approach to the installation and maintenance of this important technology.

The retrofit market also has issues. Many current UK homes are predominantly fitted with bayonet cap fittings, which are mainly only found in the UK, Australia and New Zealand. As such, many well-known brands have concentrated on the more common type fittings such as the Edison Screw, GU10 and GU20 fittings. However, the good news is that bayonet cap fittings are slowly becoming more available, which should help increase uptake in the near future.

"We didn't have [bayonet cap fittings] in our current range, but it makes common sense for us to include it in the near future," explains Darren Watts, head of UK sales for Toshiba LED lighting.

Low-energy, high-cost lighting

Cost is still the main issue for many home owners. With prices of up to £25 per bulb, some consumers currently consider  LED lighting too costly. Rising electricity prices and falling LED costs mean that, for homes with a large number of halogen bulbs at least, the new generation of low-energy lighting finally makes financial sense.

Concerns over the weak or cold quality of LED lightbulbs have abated. Despite usually costing more than five times as much as CFLs, the payback for LEDs now comes in 15 months or less – and for homeowners changing dozens of halogen bulbs, the savings can be in the hundreds of pounds every year thereafter.

A typical 35W halogen replacement LED could use as little as 4W, which is considerably less than the 10W or so a CFL would use to produce the same level of light.

Dimmable versions cost significantly more, and while 35W halogen replacements are available for just £10 pounds each for the newest perfect fit bulbs, that price jumps dramatically for higher wattage replacements – this will delay the payback by a couple of years.

Manufacturers are looking at other methods to reduce the cost of production and to pass on those savings to consumers. One such company is Plessey Semiconductor, which has a manufacturing plant for LEDs in Plymouth.

"Our aim is to get the bill of materials down for the high-end companies such as Philips or Osram," says Neil Harper, product group director for Plessey.

Harper explains that many LEDs are manufactured using expensive substrates such as sapphire on wafers, which are only 2in in diameter. Plessey's answer is to look into manufacturing on cheaper substrates – such as silicon, without compromising on quality, and increasing yields by increasing the diameter of the wafer to 6in.

"We've just commissioned a test production line," says Harper, although he remains tight-lipped on when these new LEDs will be available.

There are other ways prices could drop. New competition is likely as big manufacturers from the Asia-Pacific market enter the UK and European market. Companies such as Toshiba in Japan and LG from South Korea have an excellent reputation in their native countries but are relatively unknown in Europe. Toshiba, for example, has a history in the lighting industry going back more than 120 years.

Additionally, there are cost savings available in the other components that make up a modern LED lightbulb. The driver houses a microcontroller to provide the correct output current and voltage for powering the LED chips to emit light at the required level of brightness. This is a significant cost on the overall bill of materials, but the semiconductor industry is relatively dynamic compared to the lighting industry overall and therefore the cost of microcontrollers are like to drop massively over the next few years.

Other components, such as housings, connectors and the heat sink, are also expected to drop as manufacturing efficiency improves – but at a smaller rate to the silicon.

The business has set high expectations with LED lighting and hopes it has done enough to avoid the controversies of the recent past.

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