Green Beat: A World of Promise

LED lighting gains new ground

LED is heralded as the future of lighting. The mighty lamp has practical hurdles to overcome, however, before it can become the go-to light source for multifamily.

To better appreciate LEDs, let’s reexamine traditional bulbs: incandescent bulbs require a filament that’s wasteful when converting electricity into light. Much of the energy is lost because it is emitted as heat. Frequent heating and cooling then causes the filament to deteriorate and eventually blow out.

LEDs, or light emitting diodes, work without a filament. They are illuminated by a tug-of-war between electrons in a semiconductor such as aluminum-gallium-arsenide. The electrons’ movements generate little heat, making them more efficient and less prone to blowouts.

Quality LEDs last 50,000 hours or more, drastically reducing replacement costs. Such longevity helps property manager Kristen Daddow avoid several 900-mile commutes each year.

“We manage properties in Michigan,” Daddow says. “We use LEDs not because of the environmental benefits—though those are great—but because the lights last for so long. We are currently living near Atlanta so providing our tenants with a pack of LED bulbs keeps us from having to visit the properties for minor occurrences.”

Longevity is one of many benefits. LEDs can provide a higher quality of light than other lamps. Better still, LEDs’ efficient conversion of electricity into light translates into cash savings: a 60-watt incandescent bulb can cost as much as $300 of electricity each year; a comparable LED requires less than $50.

Today’s LEDs are incredibly versatile and no longer require the “warm up time” that annoyed early users. High-quality lamps can be dimmed, produce different colors of light, and offer various warmths. These qualities make LEDs the lamp of choice for high-end chandeliers, pendants, sconces, and accent lighting.

When selecting LEDs, James Youngston, IALD, LC Principal at Gabler-Youngston Architectural Lighting, recommends a quick look at the specs.

“Look for the CRI, that’s the ability of the light to represent colors accurately. In a residential setting you want to get upwards of 90 out of 100 CRI,” he says. “Color temperature is an indication of how warm or cool the light is. A higher number is bluer; a lower number is a more yellow. Traditional incandescent lamps sit at 2,700 degrees kelvin and halogens at 3,000 degrees. Those are numbers that people are comfortable with in residences.”

Are LEDs worthy of the hype?

LEDs pose numerous disadvantages for multifamily professionals including pricing, heat damage, and quality consistency.

With a lifetime of 50,000 hours or more, quality LEDs yield ROI within four to six years in new construction. Lamps used in retrofits rarely fulfill their marketed potential since heat shortens the lifespan of LEDs. Youngston explains, “Retrofit lamps are rated for 50,000 hours, but that’s based on turning them on in sockets by themselves, not actually putting them into fixtures that are in a hot ceiling.” Premature lamp failure in retrofits decimates ROI. When we consider that quality LEDs can cost 28 times more than incandescent bulbs, investing in an LED that might fail is a tough call for owners of existing properties. Steep upfront costs deter owners of new construction as well.

Due to their high costs, most lighting designers recommend quality LEDs only for select interior applications. Julia Dudley, senior associate & architectural lighting designer at Newcomb Boyd, suggests, “It’s a good idea to use LEDs in fixtures that are hard to access such as high ceilings, over stairs, and in corridors that remain illuminated 24/7.” LEDs are also recommended for community spaces such as leasing offices, laundry rooms, recreational spaces, daycare centers and game rooms.

Affordably priced LEDs encourage widespread use, yet decreased costs indicate compromised lighting integrity. Most budget-friendly LEDs do not provide the quality and variety of light offered by higher quality versions. Such bulbs offer fewer lumens, resulting in less light. These bulbs do not perform well when dimmed, either. Dudley and Youngston avoid using LEDs in residential spaces that require dimming. Rather than providing visual warmth when dimmed, cheaper LEDs provide less light with no change in the color.

“Some manufacturers have designed dimmable LED fixtures that provide warmth as they dim, but they’re too expensive to apply in every application,” Dudley admits.
Consistency is another issue. Incandescent, halogen, and fluorescent lamps are similar among most manufacturers. LEDs don’t offer the same assurance, meaning that multifamily firms may be stuck with one supplier if they want consistency across their projects.

“With LEDs, there is very little standardization in sources,” Dudley says. “Even if they look the same on cutsheets—the same light output, color temperature, and color rendering index—they may not necessarily be the same.” Dudley reviews samples of LED fixtures from each manufacturer and tests them before specifying them on a project. This step may add 30-50 percent more time to the design process.

The future of LEDs

Organic LEDs (OLEDs) are the next frontier. A flexible organic semiconductor allows engineers to bend lamps and displays. Though the technology is still in development, it proffers limitless applications.

“If OLEDs live up to their potential, we’ll have a window that’s a window in daytime and a light source at night,” says Youngston. “In the daytime it’s a column, at night it’s a light fixture. OLEDs can be a game changer.”

Multifamily may also offer poster-thin, built-in televisions and control panels for tech-savvy residents.

A sample OLED product today costs thousands. Within the next decade, however, OLED leaders Konica Minolta and Verbatim will strive to offer products for commercial use.

To comment, e-mail Diana Mosher at