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High-Tech Home Lighting Innovations: Cooler, Colorful, Cleaner

by Bob Sanders
Thursday Sep 20, 2012

Silicon Valley is having a revolutionary effect on the home lighting industry in the type of products offered and how they operate. The results are cleaner and more efficient lighting units, bulbs, and systems. Consumers will benefit both in terms of aesthetics and the environment.

New government regulations are also having an impact. Over the next two years, the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 will effectively phase out incandescent household Edison-base bulbs that produce between 310-2600 lumens. The mandate exempts certain specialty items, including appliance lamps, "rough service" bulbs, three-way bulbs, colored lamps and plant lights. Put simply, the bill insures that the way your folks lit the bright, energy-wasting suburban family room you knew in high school will soon follow the paths of videotape, Pac-Man and the mimeograph machine.

The industry response has been a dramatic increase in design and production of light-emitting diodes, or LEDs. These cool, low-wattage, green-friendly bulbs and lamps have become universally accepted, despite right-wing blathering about "Obama's $50 lightbulb."

The truth is otherwise - and not only because the bill was signed into law during the Bush administration.

In the1960s, when then-nascent high-tech design made track lighting popular, urban design pioneers placed emphasis on warm and controllable blends of ambient, accent and task illumination. Fast forward 50 years: Custom installations have made huge technological advances that are changing the way the world lights its homes, public spaces and workplaces.

LEDs Come of Age

The first specialty LEDs hit the market around 1962 and were largely confined to electronics. In 1996, blue LEDs were coated with a phosphor that emitted white light, and the scope of practical use increased. The success of LED lighting strips in 2000, such as those used in commercial airline cabins, opened the door to more sophisticated products for the home.

Those early LED systems, however, bathed everything in a slightly unnatural light and were expensive - if you could even find them. Only in the past few years have LED systems become popular for the home. Household LED lamps use far less power (measured in watts) per unit of generated light (lumens) than incandescents. A 40-watt incandescent bulb with output of 450 lumens has a life expectancy of about 1,200 hours, whereas an LED bulb with an equal lumen capacity requires only about five watts and can be expected to last for 50,000 hours.

When I renovated my Manhattan tenement apartment three years ago, I hired New York City architect Steven Fehler, who has worked on homes, and public and commercial spaces for a well-known fashion designer. Steve suggested LEDs; I have yet to replace a single bulb, and my electric bills are lower. I can adjust colors as I please, lending a different mood with each change. The lights are cool, soothing and beautifully orchestrated. I became a true believer.

"Starting around 2008, my clients began specifying LED lighting, but then it was only on the high end of the market, and for very particular products," Fehler told me. "Only a few companies got the color rendering correct. The technology has really progressed since then, and now, whether for high-end installations or everyday common uses, we’re seeing LEDs everywhere, from strip and cabinet lighting to replacement bulbs, lamps and flashlights."

As a sales specialist at Bulbtronics in Manhattan, one of the largest retailers of lightbulbs in the country, Brian Johnston is in a front-row position to spot the Next Big Thing. On his lively blog, Dragonfly Lighting, Johnston cites the LED industry’s own version of Moore’s Law, which holds that microprocessor speeds double every 18 months, shrinking digital devices and costs. Haitz’s Law theorizes that "LED lighting doubles in capacity every 18 months as the technology gets better," Johnston says.

There’s a big difference between digital devices and interior design, however: Because we need lights to be only so bright, there’s no market pressure to make them brighter.

"Though the prices for now are remaining stable, with each generation you’re seeing more wattage and even more efficiency for each bulb," Johnston says. "Incandescents waste about 95 percent of their energy on heat. These bulbs wind up paying for themselves." He notes that LED strip lighting and under-mount lights (which have moved from kitchen cabinets to every other room) are becoming more popular.

Halogens Turn Down the Heat

Halogens are notorious for their high heat output and resulting energy waste. Even so, they’ve long been considered "cool" lighting for commercial displays and in lamps and chandeliers in the home, largely because of their superior color rendering. Johnston points to Soraa, a new product being touted as the first full-spectrum color-rendering LED bulb and that he says may supplant halogens.

Designed to replace standard 50-watt halogen lamps and with a CRI (color-rendering index) of 95, Soraa’s newly developed VIVID lamp line delivers rich, saturated color rendering and excellent color stability. Soraa bulbs offer the equivalent light output of halogens, as well as a single, crisp shadow, improved beam and light distribution, and, as with all LEDs, extended performance. The VIVID lamp uses three-quarters less energy than halogen lamps.

"Museums and galleries are particularly excited about Soraa," Johnston says. "Although with halogens you can get up to 100 CRI, Soraa could fill the gap and reach the same level of performance."

LEDs for Every Use

LED strip lighting is now available in many formats. It can be rigid, encased in lightweight aluminum configured in tape or sold in ropes. The practical and decorative applications range from accent lighting to work stations, refrigerator displays to bars and bookcases, steps to cabinets. Installation is relatively simple, and there are several choices in color schemes. The ultralong operating life, cool beams and wide surface coverage area mean more beauty and lower electric bills. My own apartment uses tape strip lighting in the cabinetry and window valences.

While there’s nothing new about LED flashlights, Johnston cites AELight’s Emergibulb. It operates as a standard bulb, with the same lumen-output of a 40-watt incandescent, but an extendable hand-held base and an internal lithium battery mean it won’t run out in an emergency. Best of all, you aren’t rifling through all your "junk drawers" trying to find it: It’s in plain sight, screwed into a nearby lamp.

Home LEDs have advanced to the point that an Italian designer has come out with an interior system that replicates the natural cycle of outside light. A striking sculptural trio of LEDs, Luminarium is mounted on gears and suspended from the ceiling. It aspires to nothing less than imitating the arc of the sun, thus helping with the interruption of natural biorhythms that has plagued us since humans began using candles.

According to the manufacturer, in Luminarium’s 12-hour cycle, an indirect emission changes color temperature throughout the day. "A warm and relaxing morning light slowly becomes cold until reaching a peak in the beginning of the afternoon, turning warm again to mark the natural sunset. As color temperature changes, a dynamic LED spotlight describes a subtle movement in the environment, a light halo describing imperceptible changes in the surroundings." Exposed gears make it into a piece of kinetic art.

With Innovation, Controversy and Costs

Why not sensor-operated handbag lights? Acolyte, whose many graceful projects include The U.S.S. Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, offers multiple variations of wireless microlighting. But it was the company’s bag lights that got me. Acolyte makes internal modular illumination - dubbed "SmartLytes" by company founder JR Guerrieri - for "personal effects containers" like gym bags. The small light is not only bright enough to illuminate the interior of any jumbled bag but uses a proprietary mechanism that senses when the bag is opened (light goes on) and closed (light goes off). The on-board computer also switches the light off if the bag is left open.

At the highest end of innovation, Crestron offers applications that can be custom integrated to achieve light and shade variables in any room. A designer can customize the company’s products to a full array of energy-efficient LED lighting installations. You can even control the whole thing on your iPad. Predictably, anything this new comes at a cost. A Crestron system can carry price tags ranging into the high five figures.

Like other cutting-edge technologies, LEDs have provoked controversy and blowback - not all of it from conservatives who see energy conservation as part of a takeover by the United Nations. There are questions about whether LED factories pollute more, with such misinformation as an increase in mercury releases.

Speaking from experience, I bask in the amber glow and controllable colors of my drapery and millwork tape lighting, and I love the soft white illumination of my recessed ceiling lights. My microlight flashlight is right next to my keyboard, so I can be quick on the draw when inevitably stumbling around under my desk to check my tangled computer wiring. (Next up for inventors: a single computer wire for all devices!) But the real satisfaction comes when I receive my monthly gas and electric bill.


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