Objectivity is Relative

Posted: January 16, 2009 in General Commentary

For anyone who has read my contributions to Architectural SSL magazine, or Illuminate, this blog, my web site, or comments on various industry groups, one might believe I fail to remain objective about solid-state. In my defense,  I do simultaneously propose that solid-state is a technology that will lead lighting to all new quality solutions, while attacking product of poor quality, or of dubious value to the market sold on the momentum of interest that exists for LEDs.

To be perfectly clear – I am not an advocate of retrofitting conventional lighting in general – while it has its place in the near term, it fails to deliver the real value of LEDs, places thermal stress on a source thjat already suffers enough from that, and packages LEDs into lumps that give away the design value of solid-state in order to serve a market emotionally attached to the familiar and fearful of anything truly new. Retrofit CFL lamps are a failure, for exactly the same reasons. Meanwhile, fluorescent lighting, from small to large, is a huge success, based on new products developed to bring their unique capabilities to the market.

Retrofit Case 1 – Retrofit R and PAR Lamps: Here’s the silliness as I see it: Install a $60 retrofit LED lamp, limited in output and optical capability, into a $12 lamp holder, vs. purchasing a new LED specific product with higher performance, greater light output, and better optical performance, at a cost of $60 to $85? Why? There is nothing inherent to making a retrofit lamp that makes it cheaper, or better –  in fact, quite the opposite is the case. Incandescent downlight housings and track heads holding PAR lamps are worth less than $30 – not exactly an investment needing protection. Encumbering LED products with the form factor needed to retain these cheap existing housings not only results in a product where the lamp is worth more than the fitting, it sacrifices performance to get there! Seriously, if an LED retrofit lamp can be made for $60, so can an LED specific product with no socket adapter feature, more raw light output, better heat sink, and far better optics be made for $60. That means that retrofitting an existing low cost luminaire serves no purpose, in fact it actually costs more for the delivered light unit overall.

Retrofit Case 2 – Troffer Fluorescent Retrofits: Why are we trying so despiritely to hold on to those old 24″ x 48″ monstrosities hovering over our heads? None of them are attractive. They are also cheap. Most lenses troffers can be had for less than $30, and parabolics at less than $50. Spending 30 minutes to remove ballasts, and install $250 worth of LED tube lights seems a bit of an odd idea. This is like stuffing a Ferrari V12 into the nose of a Ford Escort that has rusted out quarter panels – Why? Why not spend the same time and money on a new LED specific product that has greater performance, better appearance, and is smaller, with greater service life from proper thermal management?

Objectivity is relative to vantage point. When it comes to the idea that the first thing we want to do is stuff LEDs into all our existing old lights, I am not very objective. I believe this is nothing more than the same mind set that continues to plague us in the residential market, where the aesthetic of gas lamps and candle holders remains ingrained long after these sources have been discontinued as the light source. The troffer, the linear indirect systems, task ambient, wall wash, hockey puck indirect, and many others, were all born into lighting by putting fluorescent and HID lamps into all-new products that improved lighting quality while simultaneously increased efficient use of energy. Stuffing these same products with LEDs is no different than sticking an incandescent lamp into a gas lantern design, or worse, shoving a CFL lamp into a coach lantern.

LEDs and solid-state are a new source at least as significant as the advent of the fluorescent lamp was over incandescent, and electric light is over fuel source lighting. At some point we need to divert more effort from the retrofitting mind-set into developing what will be truly new and amazing new lighting tools that will improve lighting quality and efficiency. Until then, we will simply be throttling LED technology with the liabilities of the past, and losing value to the comfort of the familiar.

So, no, I am not objective. I believe that LEDs and solid-state will play a pivotal role in the design of lighting and lighting products, and that any waste of time putting this to work, to realizing this goal, is just that, a waste of time and effort. Relative to this, I find the insistence on pressing the past into the future, or golding onto obsolete cheap hardware using inaccurate assessment and rationalization to avoid change – equally lacking in objectivity, as these approaches fail to put the past in its place and look forward.

I don’t have to be objective, as the gravity of the past is so strong, it needs nothing from me to continue its pull. I believe that it takes the concerted effort  of innovators, nonobjectively forging ahead, resisting that gravity to move markets from one state to the next. In this, I refuse to throttle my approach to the opposing view of objectivity, simply because that pulls the effort in the wrong direction – back to the bounds of the old, and of the past. There are more than enough out there holding the world back, my company and lack of “objective” contribution will not be missed.

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