This article is my contribution to the January 2016 issue of tED Magazine, published by the National Association of Electrical Distributors (NAED). Reprinted with permission.

The ubiquitous troffer is the most common luminaire serving commercial building general lighting applications. A sizable minority of luminaires, however, are mounted suspended from the ceiling. Over the past five years, the LED source has captured significant market share in this category, offering the benefits of energy savings and longevity plus greater control and design flexibility.

“Five years ago, we would have said that suspended lighting was a stable to shrinking market,” says Jerry Mix, CEO, Finelite, Inc. “Today, it is absolutely expanding. LEDs are the enabling technology that is making this growth possible.”

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Suspended luminaires may be architectural linear suspended or decorative pendants. Decorative pendants are used to make a particular aesthetic statement. Linear suspended luminaires (the focus of this article) are more geared to function, but well suited to spaces with higher ceilings and where the owner is looking for an upscale appearance and feel.

“As we continue to work with leading architects, we see a shift toward open ceiling concepts,” says Sam Grebe, Director Strategic Accounts-Commercial and Hospitality, GE Lighting. “Open ceilings enable more creativity for designers and an inviting atmosphere to tenants. Particularly in the Class A office in major metropolitans, the percentage of open environments enabling suspended luminaires is now more of the norm than the exception.”

“Outside of all the typical LED ‘value-prop’ benefits, suspended luminaires provide a great way for clients to add value to their workspace and their brand above and beyond a space illuminated with recessed troffers or downlights,” says Brad Garrett, Director of Marketing-Architectural Products Group, Eaton. “Continuous linear applications take luminaire brightness and evenly distribute along a continuous row, eliminating any concentrated glare that you may get with recessed downlights, high-bays and troffers. The value is in the look and feel of the space—walls and ceilings are luminous, and spaces visually feel larger.”

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These luminaires typically emit light both up toward the ceiling and down toward the task. In retail spaces, the uplight portion may be quite small, as retailers want light on products. In office and other spaces, the portion of uplight may be much greater to emphasize the ceiling plane and create a softer distribution of light in the space for visual comfort.

“With the advent of solid-state technology in this category, the split of ‘indirect’ versus ‘direct’ has been mostly downlight and the balance uplight, Garrett says. “However, LED components have become more affordable, and product designers are now able to switch the industry back to accommodating a greater array of uplight and downlight variations, which is preferred.”

Five years ago, Mix says, the category was “stuck in neutral.” Fluorescent offered energy efficiency and good lighting quality and not much more. Luminaire design had matured. Applications were repetitive. The emergence of the LED source produced a shakeup that is breathing new life into product design and stimulating fresh demand.

“LED technology lets luminaires be tailored to the architecture of the building,” Mix points out. “For today’s projects, you can choose the watts, lumen output, color temperature, lengths to 1/16 of an inch and configurations to meet architectural needs. Well-designed LED luminaires let the lighting system be part of the building structure with an expected lifetime of 30 to 50 years. When architects understand this is possible, they want to use these luminaires on every job.”

Mix says LED suspended luminaires can deliver up to 120 lumens per watt compared to the best available fluorescent operating at 80-100 lumens per watt. According to GE and Eaton, depending on the product and design, energy cost savings can reach 50 percent compared to fluorescent.

Tim Miller, Senior Product Manager-Indoor LED, GE Lighting, adds that LED suspended luminaires can improve luminaire aesthetics over base fluorescent units in retrofits and the white goods segment of the market.

“In the white goods segment, users can actually improve the look of a ceiling by using LED suspended luminaires,” he notes. “In the specification segment, there are many options for uplight/downlight as well as the use of sensors and controls.”

Image courtesy of Eaton.

Image courtesy of Eaton.

According to manufacturers, top product trends in this category include:

• dramatically reduced design boundaries—luminaires can be specified in any length, light output and with a variety of color temperatures;
• multiple configurations, including squares, pentagons, luminaires running through walls;
• white-tunable lighting;
• very slim profiles;
• high color rendering, including high R9 (red) values;
• features promoting quicker installation;
• relatively low glare with a cleaner, non-pixelated light appearance; and
• integration with sensors and wireless lighting controls.

“The year-over-year efficiency and cost improvements in mid-power LED devices have had and continue to have a large impact on luminaire design and cost,” says Matthew Bugenske, Technology Manager-Indoor Fixtures, GE Lighting. “More-efficient LEDs have allowed for lower-cost thermal management systems, higher use of more economical PCB substrates and a lower need for exotic optical solutions. These changes have allowed luminaire efficiency and cost to reach a tipping point where LED luminaires are not only a logical choice for new building construction but also provide attractive paybacks for replacing or retrofitting traditional lighting fixtures.”

Mix sees the retrofit market for suspended luminaires as a significant opportunity, with LED options providing a 30-50 percent improvement in energy efficiency with greater control, flexibility and longer life.

“The reasons to light spaces with LED suspended luminaires have never been more compelling,” he sums it all up. “Today, you can have it all. You get energy-efficient, high-quality light that is affordable, ships in 10 working days, and is tailored to your requirements.”