The Hidden Cost of LEDs

LEDs last a long time, but they don’t last forever. And when it’s time to procure replacement products or components, owners face a special set of challenges, as LD+A columnist Norma Frank, describes in her October column. An excerpt follows:

With traditional lighting, standardized components are installed in a luminaire that provides a housing, optics and electrical connections. When lamps and ballasts fail, a replacement can be pulled from replacement stock or easily procured through a local distributor from multiple vendors.

With LED lighting, the light source, driver and luminaire are typically manufacturer-specific. If the light engine and/or driver can be replaced, it must be replaced by the same component or one approved by the manufacturer. If components aren’t serviceable, the entire luminaire may need to be replaced.

Of course, this becomes even more challenging because product cycles have become dramatically compressed due to ongoing source development. Product cycles that used to last as long as decades have shrunk to one-to-two years or even less. The higher cost of LED products, coupled with owner perceptions about LED product longevity, often means few or no spares are purchased. On the other side, some owners opt for lower-cost LED products that feature lower-quality components likely to fail sooner. In both cases, the product or its components may not be available in the future. In the latter case, the manufacturer may no longer be in business.

So when a component fails, it falls on maintenance personnel to track down replacement parts or complete luminaires, which can be extremely time-consuming and present the owner with an unexpected maintenance cost. Unfortunately, this cost is typically not included in the warranty, as warranties typically cover product replacement but not labor.

The problem of non-standardized drivers becomes exacerbated due to the customization trend in LED lighting. Specifically, programmable drivers. These drivers are programmed to a maximum output (typically current) for its LED load, resulting in a precise light output and wattage. Programming may occur at the factory, though some products allow the installer to do it in the field using special tools.

Replacement can be very time-consuming. LSD 74-2016, a guide to LED driver replacement published by the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA), recommends that a photo be taken of the driver label and LED module. The label should provide information about the system and driver replacement. The manufacturer should also print the programmed current label on the label or a second label. If the same driver manufacturer is used, the driver can be replaced if it’s available. If a different manufacturer, NEMA recommends consulting the luminaire or LED module manufacturer to determine the module’s rated current and then obtain a list of suitable replacement drivers. However, programmed values often do not translate between manufacturers, and tuning can be difficult to imitate exactly. This can cause the replacement luminaire to appear visually brighter or dimmer than neighboring luminaires. Unfortunately, field tuning may require tools and processes unique to the manufacturer.

COMMON-SENSE STEPS
All of the above service can be costly and challenging. What follows are several steps that owners, specifiers and the industry can take to mitigate this problem:

Owners and specifiers should understand that despite the longevity of LED lighting, components may fail and need to be replaced. They should also understand that the level of maintenance is related to the quality of the luminaire and its components. And they should understand that maintenance can be costly if products are manufacturer-specific and/or not available in the future, not field-serviceable and not easily serviced. Specifiers should educate their clients about these issues.

Owners and specifiers should ask questions such as: What needs to happen if something goes wrong? Are the products field-serviceable? Are parts interchangeable? Will luminaires and components be available in the future?

Owners and specifiers should prefer vendors that are likely to be in business in the future, use high-quality components and keep their promises.

LED luminaires should be field-serviceable (serviceable below the ceiling) with features facilitating service, such as quick disconnects for drivers. Fortunately, the industry appears to be moving in that direction. Specifiers should show a preference for these products to best serve their clients.

The industry should encourage standardization initiatives such as Zhaga and the Module-Driver Interface Special Interest Group (MD-SIG), which aim to provide the lighting market with standardized, multivendor interfaces between LED luminaire components.

Owners and specifiers should demand warranties that cover labor as well as product replacement.

LED maintenance may be minimal, but it can be costly. By carefully vetting products and vendors, preferring field-serviceability and standardization, and demanding maintenance-friendly warranties, owners and specifiers can be better assured of smooth maintenance operations with fewer surprises.

October 2016

Contributor(s)

Norma Frank

Norma J. Frank

Norma J. Frank, LC, CLMC, is CEO of Colorado Lighting (www.coloradolighting.com), a lighting management company providing energy management solutions for clients across the U.S., and chair of the IES/NALMCO Maintenance... More info »