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Editorial: LEDs: Avoiding the CFL Debacle

January 06, 2010
January/February 2010
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2010 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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The lighting efficacies of LEDs have been rising steadily and are poised to overtake CFLs. Fluorescents and CFLs still outshine LEDs with respect to general applications and cost of light, but LEDs are already superior for some niche applications and offer many new exciting illumination opportunities. Now we need to ensure that the reputation of this new energysaving lighting source won’t be undermined by a tidal wave of shoddy products. Tests for quality, efficiency, and durability of LEDs have been mostly established but it’s still a jungle out there in the marketplace. Here’s what a recent DOE report wrote about one LED:

Product 09-65 is sold in big-box retail stores and home improvement stores, but includes blatantly misleading product labeling, claiming to replace 40W incandescent lamps. In fact, initial testing (per LM-79) reveals that it only produces the light output of lower performing 15W incandescent candelabras. Longer-term testing reveals that it depreciates to a level of negligible light output after 1000 hours of continuous operation, negating all cost-savings claims on the packaging because they are based on 30,000-hour bulb life.1

This is incredibly valuable information (indeed, the whole report is excellent) but wouldn’t you like to know who manufactured that LED? Sorry, that’s not exactly confidential, but it does take further research. If a consumer buys Product 09-65, do you think that she will soon buy a second LED? Not very likely. Does this sound like the history of CFLs? This leaves organizations eager to promote energy-efficient lighting in an awkward position. They want to promote purchases of energy-efficient lights with endorsements, incentives, and tax breaks. But in a scenario similar to CFLs, these actions will only accelerate a race to the bottom in quality… and in efficiency. These groups desperately need to attach minimum levels of quality, performance, and efficiency to the incentives before the market is awash in LED junk. We need to take strong action now to protect the reputation of future LEDs. In fact, a second DOE-sponsored report describing the lessons learned from CFLs recommended:

Be aggressive about dealing with technology failures that affect main benefit claims.2

OK, let’s be aggressive. Let’s name (and shame) manufacturers and retailers of shoddy LEDs (and CFLS for that matter). Third-party testing should play a crucial role. At the same time, we need international action to quickly establish temporary performance specifications for LEDs. Europe, Japan, Australia, and China are also confronting underperforming LEDs, so the action must be global. LEDs are particularly attractive replacements for kerosene lamps and candles, so we want good lights in Africa, too. An informal global agreement could create interim specifications that would fill the void until the standards organizations and regulatory agencies catch up. These interim specifications won’t be perfect, but they will be far better than none. A simple quality mark must appear on all complying products. Consumers will buy more energy-efficient LEDs sooner if they are confident that the lights have consistent reliability, efficiency, and quality.

1. http://apps1.eere.energy.gov/buildings/publications/pdfs/ssl/cfl_lessons_learned_web.pdf
(page 25).

2. http://apps1.eere.energy.gov/buildings/publications/pdfs/ssl/cfl_lessons_learned_web.pdf
(page iii).

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