Of Dichotomies and Paradoxes in the Emerging SSL Revolution

Posted: August 19, 2013 in General SSL Commentary
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The Replacement Dichotomies

Side One: It is acceptable, if not desirable, for LED luminaires to be replaced at the end of their service life. This is a common position among a wide range of LED product manufacturers. They make the case that extracting performance and costs from LED products requires a level of integration that cannot be accomplished using modules. This further forwards to concept that modules restrict design freedom, that integrated products are free to create light source forms to suit the intended end-product design, without restriction of standardized sockets or modules. Therefore, it is proposed, that the highest performing SSL products will be integrated units, replaced at the end of their life with the next generation of even higher performing product. The model often used to illustrate this approach is that of televisions, where the entire units are replaced, rather than serviced, with newer generation products.

Side Two: The single most active market in solid state deployment is that of the direct lamp and fixture replacement space. This includes screw based lamps made to imitate the light output and distribution of obsolete technologies, and extends now to bi-pin linear forms to replace fluorescent sources. Oddly enough, the one lamp form that is not addressed, is the one most universally despised in commercial and residential markets alike – the plug-in CFL lamp – but let us not be distracted by this obvious and blatant oversight.  This replacement lamp direction appears to make the statement that the existing infrastructure of sockets is not replaceable, that demanding building owners and end use customers to replace existing fixtures is a burden beyond acceptable limits. This also forwards the concept that the existing socket forms within compromised products, is acceptable, regardless of its severe negative impact on SSL product performance, design freedom and appearance.

See the dichotomies? What is being proposed is that it is unacceptable to consider that all existing infrastructure of obsolete lighting product be replaced with new technology – while simultaneously proposing that at the end of an SSL products service life, it is acceptable to expect the same customers replace entire fixtures to restore lighting and update to the latest iteration of technology. This same dichotomy also states that the use of modules is an unacceptable restriction on design freedom, while simultaneously stating that retrofitting LED sources into compromised form factors and sockets designed for obsolete technologies is a valid and desirable market approach. Further hidden inside of these issues is the dichotomy of costs. It appears that the pursuit of the replacement lamp paradigm is hobbled by customers who refuse to accept the concept of an $8 lamp to replace a $1 lamp, while the replacement luminaire model appears to indicate that customers of the future will find it acceptable to bear the cost of labor and materials to replace entire luminaire inventories, over simply replacing a low cost module or insert. Complicating this dichotomy is the idea that in the future, the same cost reduction strategies used to make affordable whole-fixture replacements seemingly acceptable, could not be applied equally, if not more effectively, in reducing the cost of replacement modules, making the concept of whole fixture replacement less attractive.

Paradoxes Show Failures in Logic

Lighting customers today are little changed from lighting customers 100 years ago. The goal of the vast majority is to realize acceptable lighting performance at the lowest possible initial and long term cost. Even though there are those who wish to see a future of lighting where decision making is made on objective basis, comparing operating expenses to initial costs, and basing decisions on rational, rock solid logic, this has never been the case in any market, least of which the lighting market. Lighting may be the myopic pursuit of a few, who see it as the center of the known universe, to the rest it is but one of thousands of other considerations of building ownership and maintenance. Further, solid-state lighting is not the only technology grabbing headlines today. For homeowners, within the blend of games, smart phones, entertainment displays, new cars, toys, and other distractions, lighting is not even an afterthought. For businesses, the blend of skepticism born from decades of marketing hype, blend with distrust for federal intrusion, local regulation,  and soft economic conditions means that talk of lighting energy costs too often fall  low on the list of immediate need, to those with ears ringing from past promises un-kept.

The reason we have the dichotomies described here is that their are too few involved in the direction of SSL deployment who are actually experienced and sensitive to the actual lighting customer base. Committees populated by manufacturers, congressional lobbyists acting on behalf of corporate marketers, federal, local and state agencies and utilities creating policies to capture federal funds – all comprise a fools foundation, where idealistic and monetary goals are pursued with little real recognition of the underlying realities that shape the market. Governments and corporations are more alike than either wish to admit. They are both so blinded by their own myopic agendas, they frequently fail to see their way to an achievable solution. Most become so introverted, they form the opinion that the reason their approaches meet objections from those they impact, is that the ignorant masses are simply unable to grasp their brilliance. The greater the objection, the more brilliant they believe themselves to be.

For those who believe whole fixture replacement at end of service life is acceptable – I propose that what will actually happen is that lighting levels in affected spaces will decline steadily well below acceptable levels, demanding new legislation be put in place to enforce minimum light levels in all spaces in an effort to require reluctant customers to replace every fixture they own on a regular basis. With the cost of labor significantly more than the cost of the replacement product, rationalizing whole fixture replacement costs becomes less and less logical as the cost of luminaires drop. When the skill level is changed from simple re-lamp/re-module to whole fixture tear out and replacement, the cost of labor and time invested increases exponentially, resulting in a harder and harder case against replacement. The end result will be declining lighting qualities over time, as replacement is put off year after year, including the period when individual fixtures begin to fail from driver/power supply loss. One has only to visit any large scale commercial or public structure to see the level of tolerance to failed individual luminaires. Couple this with declining lumen output, and one can see where this is going. This has all the earmarks of repeating the mess Mercury vapor products caused, where dimly lighted fixtures remained in service, long after the light levels had dropped below acceptable levels. While the TV model is compelling, one is likley to buy only one TV as a replacement, costing a few hundred dollars every few years. When the cost of replacement is several thousands of dollars in that same period, the resistance to this model will increase exponentially. This will be particularly true of large commercial facilities, where the cost of labor and disruption to operations is compounded.

For the believers in Edison sockets and bi-pin linear retrofits, I suggest that this is handing manufacturers of conventional luminaires a free pass on technology. They can continue to make obsolete product as long as there are retrofit lamps to fill the gap. Rather than being these entities into the new technology, having them invest and participate in the deployment of SSL as a whole, they can avoid change and stay on the sidelines for as long as the retrofit lamp is available. Here is another nugget of thought. As retrofit lamp costs drop, there will be (already are) manufacturers who drop pursuing SSL integrated products, pass on considering any LED modules in development, to return to installing Edison sockets and fluorescent tombstones in products as a cheaper and less costly path. Further, since UL listing of incandescent products is significantly faster, less painful and less costly, dumping LED in favor of producing Edison socket product is a rational approach – allowing their customers to continue to make the same choices in light sources they do now.


Dichotomies and paradoxes exist at times when many parties are pursuing their own myopic paths with the same conviction as those in direct opposition. This is further enabled when those affected are not directly and fully considered or engaged, and further fueled when those affected are not valued at all. Regardless of the fallacies of marketers throughout SSL, who dream the dream of the day when trillions of light fixtures are treated like the latest release of the iPhone, this is a very unlikely and undesirable model for building lighting systems. As we integrate controls and automation into this scene, the issues become more complex and difficult.

The first real solution is to stop the further introduction, production, and distribution of lamp sockets designed for obsolete sources. The Edison socket cannot pass current UL standards of safety, so can easily be targeted for elimination. If not by outright ban, then by requiring each socket be fitted with an appropriate disconnect devise that cuts power any time the lamp is unscrewed. Add to this the requirement that the socket be made of thermally conductive material, in order to facilitate their use as a platform for SSL sources, while maintaining proper wire temperatures. These two requirements will simultaneously increase the pain of continued Edison socket use, while making those that do remain safe and usable as the SSL platform they are becoming. Additionally, create a new tombstone style socket specific to LED retrofit lamp use, with appropriate listing and mechanical/electrical safety to reflect their actual use as retrofits into existing sheet metal fluorescent housings. Add the requirement that these sockets must be used in conjunction with the replacement of the ballast and lamp in order to avoid the entire luminaire be re-listed under UL standards.

The second real solution is to escalate the effort to create socket-able modules for SSL luminaires. While there are certainly limitations to this approach and impacts on lighting fixture design freedom, it is inescapable that under the current state of “design freedom” the vast majority of end products now are nothing more than re-hash of existing fluorescent and incandescent product. Apparently, design freedom does not correlate with exercising it, so there is no case to be made to avoid use of replaceable LED/SSL source modules in downlights, troffers, linear strips, industrial high bays, task lighting, accent lights, and other forms where existing products based on replacing luminaires now using light bulb technology. For those products where this is impractical, such as thin line linear, and architectural feature lighting, standards for wire connectors should be developed to differentiate and facilitate replacement of these products without needing complete tear-out retrofitting. This will simplify the application of SSL for a larger population of luminaire manufacturer, while eliminating the need for whole fixture replacements in the future, for those who find this an unacceptable concept.

Further, until standards for LED package voltage and current are established and adhered to, driver manufacturers will be unable to resolve the diversity they face from the infinite array of products they attempt to support. It is time to set aside the pursuit of market differentiation to create proprietary strangle holds on customers, in favor of at least a starting foundation of shared specification products that module, luminaire, and driver manufacturers can apply in economic and uniform fashion.

Revolutions are great things. However, as the founders of the US discovered, and many countries are now realizing, when revolutions take the form of a free-for all anarchy, there is no productive end. In the US, founders pulled the country together using various tactics that, individually, were ideologically compromised, but binding of the largest number of contributors. The SSL revolution within lighting will require a similar approach. And just as any revolution requires the power of guns and money, if the end result is not better for the people being fought for, it will never succeed. Finding a path that does not make brash, unrealistic assumptions about what customers will and will not do in the future, and understanding what place lighting plays in the lives of those paying the bills, is a great first and necessary step.

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