Since its start nine years ago, the annual LEDucation expo has grown dramatically, as has the popularity of LEDs. The show, intended mostly for lighting and design professionals, has been a mecca for cutting-edge commercial lights such as replacements for linear fluorescents, strip lights (the kind that you’d put under kitchen cabinets), and recessed lights. As an architect who also designs light fixtures, I’ve always been a bit disappointed by the lack of decorative offerings.
But not this year.
As I walked the aisles, I encountered a greater number of lights that I could see using in a home. Some were LED interpretations of conventional fixtures. But, increasingly, I spied designs that took advantage of the fact that LEDs are inherently different from incandescent or fluorescent bulbs and created types of lights that couldn’t be done previously.
These weren’t dramatic, flashy designs using color-changing LEDs (though there were a few of those in the very expensive range). They were white LEDs in inventive forms, some of which rethink the idea of lighting. And they weren’t the cold and dim LEDs you may have seen, and hated, in the earlier generations. (Sound familiar? Compact fluorescents started that way, too, until they improved and became – somewhat – more desirable. LEDs have already surpassed CFLs in that respect.)
Not that LEDs are without issues. One that I hear about a lot – and experienced in one of my own projects – is dimmer compatibility. This is a problem that fluorescent bulbs have had, too. Dimming LEDs is not as complicated as fluorescents were (and are), but we have to bear in mind that this is still a developing technology. Though there are many installations that dim just fine, you have to make sure the fixture and dimmer are recommended together and, even then, problems may arise: dimming that doesn’t work well or lights that flicker.
A different type of issue was written about by Treehugger Lloyd Alter. As LEDs have gotten cheaper and better, pretty much following Moore’s law, Lloyd’s post discussed whether they were an example of Jevon’s paradox: the theory that as energy efficiency increases and prices decrease, usage goes up. (Here’s a rebuttal of Jevon’s paradox.) Exemplifying this, we’ve seen LEDs on everything from cool designs on cars to giant billboards.
What we haven’t seen, though, at least until now, was much usage of them residentially. Recessed lights and undercabinet lights, as mentioned earlier, were probably the first infiltration of LEDs into our homes. But now we can find LED fixtures everywhere from simple closet lights to way cool dining room pendants.
Is this a good thing? My response is: What’s not to like? Prices, which were sky high only a couple of years ago, are now approaching the point where they are competitive with their energy gobbling predecessors. Especially when you count the fact that they use less energy and last much longer than incandescents – which I call toasters because they work the same way the filament that heats your bagel does – and longer even than fluorescents. The light quality, too, has become so much better.
And the icing is that, as evidenced by what I saw at LEDucation, light fixture design is both improving and being reinterpreted.
What’s next? That’d be OLEDs, super thin flat panels of evenly distributed light. (Here’s a 2009 Treehugger post on OLEDs and a more recent one about a kinetic OLED light.) Though I only saw a few OLED designs at LEDucation, the technology, perhaps even more so than LEDs, will result in entirely new lighting concepts. Just give them a couple more years.
Jevon’s paradox or no, bring ‘em on.
(Full Disclosure: I’m on the executive board of the organization that founded and hosts LEDucation.)