Every day more and more customers, both residential and commercial, contact us about LED lighting. The LED media buzz has been so pervasive that virtually everyone has heard about LEDs and feels compelled to at least give them a look the next time they buy lighting.
LED replacement bulbs are usually the first experience with LED for most consumers. Because light bulb manufacturers have built direct replacement LED equivalent bulbs to match the most common incandescent, halogen and fluorescent bulbs, the LED experience usually starts here.
The use of LED replacement bulbs that screw or plug into the same traditional sockets and that look mostly like the traditional bulbs they replace has been the early wave of both commercial and residential LED technology adoption.
The next wave, well underway in the commercial new construction and remodel sector, focuses on specifying or replacing traditional light source fixtures with dedicated LED fixtures. In this post, we'll examine one important piece of information a buyer of an LED fixture should understand before a purchase.
New LED Fixtures Do Not Use LED Light Bulbs
LED fixtures often have similar housings, lenses and reflectors as traditional fixtures. The similarities end there. Inside the fixture you will not find the same LED bulbs being purchased today to replace existing incandescent, halogen or fluorescent bulbs. Instead you will find an LED array that looks more like a printed circuit board than a light bulb.
When manufacturers design LED fixtures, they have several options when it comes to the LED light source. Typically manufacturers do not simply install a conventional (and often bulky) light bulb socket that will accept LED replacement bulbs. Instead, they choose from a couple other options.
They can custom design and build the LED array to fit the housing, optics and the light output requirements for their fixture. This approach has the advantage of allowing a compact LED array that fits the unique requirements of the fixture. The disadvantages are the need for expertise and the cost of building custom LED arrays and connecting them to drivers and heat sinks.
Rather than custom built, the manufacturer can use pre-built LED integrated arrays and modules (an LED array, driver, optic and thermal control assembly) manufactured by Cree, Sylvania, Philips, GE and others specifically designed to fit different types of fixtures with different photometric requirements. This approach eliminates the cost of custom design and allows the customer a relatively easy way to replace the LED module if necessary. The limiting factor for fixture manufacturers becomes finding a module that matches the physical, electrical and photometric requirements of their specific fixture.
Either way, what ends up in the LED fixture is not a light bulb in the conventional sense of the word. Instead of shopping for replacement bulbs every couple of years, customers may order a new LED array or module every 10 years or so, if necessary. By that time, a new LED fixture may be the preferred purchase.
LED Technology Improvements May Drive LED Array Replacements
While there are benefits to customized LED arrays for fixture manufacturers, they also recognize that these arrays may need to be replaced or upgraded as technology improves. The pace of change with LED has been extremely rapid as both efficacy improvements and cost declines make last year's LED light sources, if not obsolete, at least behind the curve very quickly. Therefore, LED fixture manufacturers, for both cost reasons and as a hedge against technology improvements, are moving toward the replaceable LED array or module approach. Practically this means the original LED array in the fixture can be switched out with a new array or module – analogous to changing a light bulb.
The bottom line for consumers - find out if the LED array can be replaced. If so, how easy is it to buy the new array (knowing it could be years away) and install it? These questions have not been necessary for traditional fixture purchases. With LED fixtures, a replaceable array may not be be required, but it's important to know your options.
To learn more about the lighting industry's effort to standardize LED light modules for fixtures, go the Zhaga consortium web site.
Since this post was originally written in 2015, the LED lighting industry has tended more towards manufacturing disposable light fixtures than offering replacement LED arrays. There are a few reasons for this.
LED lighting technology has continued to evolve and improve. Every year or two, manufacturers discontinue entire lines of LED bulbs and fixtures in favor of newer, more efficient products. This means that the old LED arrays are no longer in production at all, so old fixtures using those modules do not have replacements available at all.
With newer generations of LED chips and modules, they may have different circuit boards, sizes, and connectors than the previous generations. This may make it impossible to replace an older LED array with the latest generation. It may simply not fit in the old fixture.
This tendency towards manufacturing disposable LED fixtures makes it more difficult on homeowners and consumers, who have no choice other than to replace an entire fixture. That often requires unscrewing the entire fixture, disconnecting wires, and wiring up the replacement fixture. This is often much more work than unscrewing a light bulb, and some consumers may not feel confident replacing an entire fixture.