What you lose by going with cheap LED lighting

April 20, 2016

An LED is an LED, right? Actually, unlike with other types of commercial light fixtures, LEDs of different models and brands can have vastly different levels of quality, and thus, prices. But is one LED fixture that is 25% more expensive than another fixture really 25% better? That depends. Below, we share with you a few considerations to keep in mind when choosing between commercial LED brands, as well as how to estimate the true lifetime cost of your LED fixtures.

LED Light Fixtures are Different

In the past, a light bulb made by one company may not have been altogether different than that made by another. For example, incandescent and halogen bulbs rely on heated filaments to produce light, and the main physical components are the filament and the glass enclosure. Fluorescent lights produce light by ionizing mercury vapor within a glass tube, the main physical components being the tube itself and the electrodes at either end. These relatively simple forms of lighting have long dominated the industry and have shaped our collective views on lighting, namely as a commodity with little variation from brand to brand.

LED light fixtures are vastly different. If older lighting types are horse-drawn carriages, LED luminaires are a wide range of vehicles with multiple components that vary from brand to brand. If you recognize the quality difference between a Mercedes and a Toyota, then you should also notice the difference between different brands of commercial LED lighting. There can be vast differences in both the quality of individual components and the overall performance of the fixture, but understanding these differences isn’t difficult. Read on to find out where these differences arise, as well as what to look for in an LED luminaire.

LED Components Matter

What exactly goes into a commercial LED fixture varies from brand to brand, as well as between different fixture types. For example, there are vast variations in the quality and packaging of the light-generating diodes themselves. While some brands attempt to package a one-size-fits-all diode into a variety of different fixture types, other brands differentiate the diodes they use between canopy, area, and wall pack fixtures.

But what’s the difference? Can’t you simply add more of the same diode until you reach the desired light output for a certain fixture type? Not exactly. In order to type more effectively, you wouldn’t add more keys to your keyboard. In the same way, the best, most efficient LED fixtures use diodes that are specifically designed to achieve the correct light output for the area they’re intended to cover.

Another component to keep in mind is the driver. Drivers work alongside diodes to prevent them from failing over time, and are an important part of an LED fixture. While a company like Cree designs its drivers to optimize the performance of each fixture type, other companies may take a less-focused approach to sourcing their drivers, leading to a higher failure rate.

And when it comes to packaging all of these components into a single fixture, sometimes you don’t know what you’re getting. For example, Cree provides truly top-to-bottom LED solutions, designing, manufacturing, and packaging every component of its luminaires in-house. Many other manufacturers source their components, such as diodes and drivers, from different companies, and sometimes use multiple manufacturers for sourcing each component. This means it’s possible that, if you buy multiple fixtures of the same type, they may not all share the same brand of every component. And often, the manufacturer won’t advertise the source of its components, and won’t disclose them unless you ask.

Where You See the Difference

Color Temperature

When undergoing an LED retrofit, you will want to either match or improve your current color temperature using LEDs that put out truly white light, rather than unnaturally blue or yellow light. Take canopy lights, for instance. Many cheaper LED canopy light fixtures come in 35K (yellow), 45K and 65K (blue) color temperatures, while the metal halide fixtures they replace have color temperatures between 50K and 60K. Cree canopy fixtures come in a 57K color temperature, which looks and feels similar to the crisp white light given off by metal halides. However, unlike metal halides, the light output from LED fixtures won’t gradually shift in color over time.

Shadows and Evenness

Some LEDs use components that are better at throwing light over a large area than others. This comes in handy when trying to light a large area with canopy fixtures or security lighting. When these types of fixtures are designed with the right components and end use in mind, you can achieve a brighter, more even quality of light around your building. But if a company uses the same components to manufacture several types of fixtures, you may find that some fixture types create more hotspots and shadows.

Failure Rate

In general, there are two types of LED lighting failures: out-of-the-box failures and long-term failures. While cheaper LED fixtures come with a much higher rate of out-of-the-box failures, the difference in failure rate is most impactful in the long term. When deciding between LED brands, it helps to find out when you will have to undergo your next retrofit. You can find this out using the L70, a measure of the amount of time it takes for a fixture to output only 70% of its full capacity. You may find that low-end commercial fixtures end up being more expensive in the long run than high-end fixtures if you have to replace them twice in the same amount of time.

Long-Term Service

While you may think that differences in companies’ warranty periods and coverage, as well as customer service, don’t necessarily have anything to do with fixture quality, these factors are all closely related. Naturally, lights that last longer will have longer warranty periods, but it’s also important to find out what fixture components a warranty covers. Who will you have to call if one of your fixtures burns out? The installer? The driver manufacturer? The diode manufacturer? (In case you’re wondering, we at Joule Energy handle all of our clients’ warranty paperwork, and deal directly with Cree, in order to provide fast and hassle-free customer support.)

Because Cree designs and manufactures all of its components, its industry-leading 10-year warranty covers every component of its fixtures, even the finish. And when every component of a fixture is designed to work with the other components in that specific fixture, it lasts longer and performs better over time. So rather than burning out in the 11th year, the majority of Cree fixtures can last up to 23 years under normal circumstances.

Want to see the difference for yourself? Call our office or sign up for a free Lighting Discovery. We can provide fixture samples and lighting designs to clearly illustrate differences in lighting quality, as well as let you know what you can save by upgrading your facility to LED lighting.

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