(Issue: May 2018)

Shift in Customers’ Expectations on LED Products and Projects

By Jack Curran

It wasn’t that many years ago when lighting customers didn’t know enough to have any real expectations regarding this “new technology” known as LEDs. The only obvious characteristic of LED products was that they were horrendously expensive. To overcome that objection, the industry touted the energy savings possible with LED products. LED manufacturers published their data sheets showing the impressive efficacies possible with LEDs. In fact, that early data was somewhat misleading since the efficacies published were measured at 350mA and at 25ºC. While the mA rating was reasonable for the time, the temperature characteristic was not. In order to maintain a temperature of 25ºC, the LEDs had to be pulsed for very short periods during which measurements were made. If the measurements had been made in a real-world environment (with the LED continuously lit) the junction temperature of the LED would have been significantly higher, and the measured efficacy would have been much lower. Data sheets showing “warm” LED performance (measured with LEDs operating continuously) didn’t come along until much later.

The benefit of lower energy usage for LEDs didn’t provide enough advantage to warrant a purchase in most cases. So, the industry began to emphasize lifetime as a major advantage of LEDs. Combining energy savings and maintenance savings provided a story that was much more compelling than energy savings alone. As an example, Figure 1 shows the comparison of ROI for an LED fixture versus a traditional source.

Figure 1: LED Lifetime Economics

The longer the lifetime, the higher the ROI. With that logic, the industry went on a multi-year spree touting the extraordinary LED lifetimes. And since at that point (in the 2008–2011 timeframe) there was no standard available to predict LED lumen depreciation (and thus lifetime), manufacturers were free to claim lifetimes based on whatever criteria they wanted. Exaggerated claims began to appear from a few manufacturers, and the buying public became skeptical of what manufacturers said about LEDs.

The inflated claims made for LED lifetimes used to offset the high price set lighting customer’s expectations unrealistically high: “LEDs last forever;” “LEDs produce no heat;” “LED color doesn’t shift;” “LEDs work in all environments;” to list a few. LED began and continue to be held to higher standards than conventional light sources, and characteristics that were acceptable with other light sources (color shift, for example) were not with LEDs. In a nutshell, the market began to expect too much of LEDs, and subsequently, became disappointed when these “miracle” devices didn’t live up to their hype.

Today things have settled down. There are now accepted measurement standards for lumen depreciation for LED devices (LM-80 and TM-21) as well as LED luminaires (LM-84 and TM-28). The cost of LED products has dropped in accordance with Haitz’s Law, and LED lamps that cost $50 back in 2010 can now be purchased for $2. It is much easier to make the case for conversion to LEDs and unrealistic claims appear much less often in today’s lighting marketing literature.

Expectations for Today’s Customers
So, what are today’s lighting customers looking for in terms of LED lighting? The list is long:

Reasonable Price. As LEDs first came on the market, price was a major shock. Who would pay $50 for an A19 LED lamp which replaced a $0.50 incandescent one? Similar for street lights, down lights, etc. Today, however, I would say that the expectation of reasonable price is being met as LED pricing has moved into the commodity range. However, while customers are happy, there is growing pressure on manufacturers as lower prices are putting increased pressure on manufacturing margins. I believe that some lighting manufacturers are at risk, and mergers will continue to be a factor to try to offset the commodity pressure.

Reliability. This is something that has been a customer expectation from day one. It was one of the two main reasons for installing LED products, long lifetime. Unfortunately, some products initially fell far short of this expectation. In addition, it took a few years for standards to be developed. Today I believe that for the most part, lifetimes listed by manufacturers for their products will be the lifetimes that customers experience. There are, of course, exceptions and the adage “you get what you pay for” certainly applies in this situation.

Dimmability. Customers are familiar with dimming. A vast number of Americans have at least one dimmer in their home— typically in the dining room—and those dimmers worked reliably independent of which manufacturer’s incandescent lamps were installed. Then along came LEDs with their associated drivers and suddenly reliable operation went out the window. Commercial customers are more familiar with problems with dimming as those issues are common with fluorescent fixtures. Today, the expectation of reliable dimming operation can still be hit or miss depending on the application and choice of products. Forward phase cut dimmers are still the most common type in residential applications and still the most likely to cause problems due to incompatibility. For commercial customers 0 to 10V dimming is probably the most common, but issues can still crop up with this approach as well. Things are getting better, but I don’t believe that this expectation will be completely met until digital controls become the norm in a few years and replace the phase cut and 0–10V approaches.

Color Stability. While customers are familiar with and accept color shifting of metal halide, fluorescent and CFL sources, their expectations change when it comes to LED technology. They expect no color shift, in part, I feel due to the over-hyping of LED performance initially. Although this is their expectation, it is not the reality. And unlike lifetime, there is currently no way to predict color shift. This is an area where a gap will exist for some time between expectations and reality.

Dim-to-Warm. This is a relatively new expectation and can be traced back to the evolution in expectations for dimming. Initially customers were satisfied if their LED fixtures and lamps would just respond properly to analog dimming controls. Then a couple of manufacturers added combinations of red or red/amber to their white LED fixtures to allow the color output to mimic the response of a standard incandescent lamp which its shift to warmer color temperatures as the lamp was dimmed. Now pretty much every lamp manufacturer offers a dim to warm lamp.

Color Tuning White. Within the past two years, manufacturers have begun to offer the capability of shifting the color temperature of white LED lamps and fixtures. The experience manufacturers gained in offering dim-to-warm devices made the jump to color tunable white relatively easy. At the same time there is growing research in the effect of lighting on the human health. Take for example the numerous reports on lighting and the human circadian cycle that have been recently published. Research has indicated that increasing or decreasing the amount of blue content in the light, can cause a response in the ganglion cells at the back of the retina, which in turn causes the body to release or suppress the production of melatonin. The presence of melatonin in the bloodstream causes the body to relax and become sleepy, something desirable at night; not so much during the day. Color tuning is popular in residential as well as educational settings and customers are growing to expect this capability in their lighting. 

Lighting Controls. While not a universal expectation (apart from dimming capability), a growing number of customers— particularly in the commercial sector—expect products to be offered with some degree of controls either as part of the product or easily added. This expectation is being driven in large part due to more restrictive energy codes which are increasingly requiring daylight harvesting and occupancy/vacancy/motion sensing. Without the effect of building codes on the markets, I believe that the lighting controls part of the industry would be growing very slowly. The reason simply is that most of the heavy lifting of energy savings has already been achieved by switching over to LED technology. I’ve seen estimates that about 85 percent of the total potential energy savings is achieved by switching to LED lamps and fixtures with the remaining 15 percent potential savings due to controls. With that ratio it is harder to achieve an acceptable ROI.

Simplicity. To me the philosophy of simplicity is the expectation that will make or break tomorrow’s lighting leaders. From those who have already experienced the difficulties of lighting controls such as architects and specifiers, contractors, facility managers and end users, the message is clear: give us simple and easy to understand lighting systems across all the necessary disciplines (e.g. design, installation, operation). Particularly in the installation and commissioning of lighting projects, contractors and facility managers would like to get back to the “good old days” where you didn’t need an advanced degree to install or turn on your lights.

Control Over Environment. Millennials are rapidly becoming the largest portion of the workforce. Consequently, their attitudes and expectations are being studied and analyzed worldwide. One recent report lists characteristics of millennials work attitudes which include1
  • Valuing experiences and freedom over money;
  • Doing something they feel passionate about;
  • Feeling empowered in the workplace;
With that approach to the workplace, it is easy to see why expectations about the ability to adjust the workplace environment are changing. The ability to adjust work area temperature as well as the color and light level of the individual workspace and doing that from one’s smartphone are becoming the norm.

Compatibility. This expectation is more applicable to projects rather than products. With the large number of manufacturers offering components (controls, fixtures, sensors), specifiers, contractors and facility managers are looking for the ability to mix and match components in their lighting systems. The reality today, however, is limited compatibility at best. At a recent Department of Energy (DOE) workshop, the number one complaint at a session on controls was incompatibility among system components. As long as there are closed system offerings, this expectation will remain unmet.

Final Thoughts
Expectations are usually based on previous experience and the lighting industry is no exception. Customers have used electric light for almost a century and a half. So, there are many expectations that are based on that accumulated experience. And as new features and products come into the market (IoT, PoE, etc.) expectations are initially set based on marketing and advertising. It will be important to cautiously set these new expectations and avoid the mistakes made when LEDs were first introduced with the “last forever” marketing approach.  

Millennials and Work, Betsy Wecker, Department 26, 2017.

Jack Curran is President of LED Transformations, LLC. Jack is a regular LM&M contributor. You may reach Jack at jcurran@ledtransformations.com