One of the questions we've heard recently is, "Why are lead times for ultraviolet germicidal bulbs and ballasts so long?"
In this article, we'll try to explain some of the reasons for this.
Huge Increase in Demand
When the pandemic hit, there were waves of buyers of UV equipment and components.
First, the early adopters and doomsday preppers purchased most of the equipment that was sitting on shelves.
Handheld UVC devices were some of the first to go, as lead times went from 48 hours to ship a unit to 4 weeks to indeterminate amounts of time due to component shortages.
But everything else quickly followed as people bought up existing stocks of ultraviolet air and surface sanitation fixtures, and others began buying germicidal bulbs, UV ballasts, and lampholders, attempting to retrofit existing fluorescent fixtures to work with UVC (not an idea we recommend).
As most businesses shut down, medical centers began putting in orders for all sorts of fixtures -- and big orders. This created a backlog of orders that needed to be prioritized, because UV manufacturers had to work on medical orders first in order to stay open at all.
The increased demand scooped up every common in-stock bulb, ballast, and fixture out there.
UVC fixtures are relatively simple, but they use a list of components. If any of those components are unavailable, then the UVC fixture can't get built. There may be several dozen or hundred ready to go once that one component comes in, but that doesn't solve the shortage problem.
In the last few months, we've seen waves of component shortages. These include specialty UV ballasts, special lampholders and sockets, specialty germicidal bulbs, wiring, louvers, sheet metal, and more.
Manufacturers have attempted to adjust, building whatever they could in the volume they can handle, but some production lines shut down as components were used up and production paused.
Manufacturing Shut Down
Some of our lighting manufacturers are located in Europe, where plants were almost completely shut down for weeks.
During the time they were closed, orders (mostly for UV bulbs and ballasts) came in at record rates, but production could not keep up.
Thankfully, we are seeing lower lead times now from UVC manufacturers. Supply is starting to adjust to demand, but demand has also dropped slightly in the summer.
For manufacturers with production or supply lines in China, they may be waiting until August or September for existing orders to be fulfilled, with at least one shutting down a very popular non-UV production line until 2021 because of component shortages.
Demand Going to Early Adopters
We talk to people everyday who are shocked that lead times are three weeks to five months for some products. We can relate!
But people who placed orders in March waited until May, and orders placed in June may take until July or August to arrive.
The number of orders overall and the quantity of UVC bulbs, ballasts, and fixtures ordered has been historically high.
It's been first-come, first-served for a while now on UVC. This has resulted in people having to change their designs to accommodate "whatever's available" in terms of bulbs and compatible ballasts.
Thankfully, we've helped people make it work in many cases, matching lamps and ballasts. But it gets harder everyday to find what's still in stock and shipping.
One final factor disrupting the ultraviolet lighting market is that companies that have components may not be sending them out.
If a company has bulbs and ballasts, even if they sell them individually, they may pause those sales for now if the bulbs and ballasts are used in fixtures they manufacture.
Companies make more money selling complete fixtures, and it makes sense for them to hold onto bulbs and ballasts.
This is a symptom of the overall shortage of components. If companies start selling the bulbs and ballasts again, that could be an indication that the demand and supply are matching each other.
An Uncertain Future
We continue to source UVC bulbs, ballasts, and sockets from different suppliers, but many are simply out of stock and waiting for more production.
It is possible that there is no "Second Wave" of COVID-19 in the fall, and no further shutdowns of public gatherings of businesses. If that's the case, then UV supply should adjust to a higher overall level of demand. It may take several more months to fulfill outstanding orders, but lead times should become more reasonable.
However, a second wave could throw another monkey wrench into a supply chain and production system that have already been majorly disrupted since February in the United States and earlier in China and Europe. If that happens, expect lead times to stay where they are -- three weeks to three months for some items.
As always, it makes the most sense to plan ahead, get your order in now, and be ahead of the curve before flu season starts in the fall/winter.
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