I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Scott Roos, VP Design, Downlight, Accent and Trac Products, Acuity Brands Lighting. The topic: trends in LED downlights. I’m happy to share his responses with you here. The interview informed an article I wrote for the March 2018 issue of tED Magazine.
DiLouie: How would you characterize the downlight lighting market in terms of size, and current demand for downlights?
Roos: When characterizing the downlight market, it is helpful to segment it into Residential and Commercial applications. Residentially, downlights continue to be a preferred fixture for providing general and accent lighting throughout the home. A home that incorporates well placed recessed lighting simply looks more spectacular and drives up both the resale value and quality of living for the homeowner. And LED technology has enabled smaller scale, highly efficient fixtures which makes downlighting an even more desirable amenity.
Commercially, downlighting is seeing increased use throughout the variety of applications from hospitality and retail to corporate, municipal and healthcare interiors. Downlights have always been an important commercial lighting technique with their unique ability to provide general, accent and wall wash illumination from an inconspicuous recessed source.
The expanded capability of LED technology to pack higher lumen packages into increasingly smaller diameter fixtures while controlling aperture brightness has made them even more useful and versatile. Downlighting is clearly one of the larger luminaire categories with estimates in the $2+ billion range for all market segments.
DiLouie: In what key areas have LED downlights improved over the past three years, and what benefits do these improvements offer?
Roos: Improved LED technology and luminaire designs have enabled smaller aperture, higher lumen downlights with more beam spread options and better control of aperture brightness…all while pushing the efficacy envelope to as high as 130 delivered lumens per watt. The comparison to previous generation LED and legacy technology downlights is remarkable. Consider that 6” or 8” aperture compact fluorescent downlights delivered only 35-40 lumens per watt, with 4” CFL downlights nearer to 25 LPW. And achieving 4,000 or greater delivered mean lumens for higher ceilings required extremely bright, larger diameter 8”-12” aperture downlights. Today there are 4” LED downlights that can deliver 8,000 lumens at 130LPW while maintaining extremely low aperture brightness!
Another interesting way to look at the greater versatility that today’s LED downlights afford is recognizing that the historical 20-30+% efficacy tradeoff to achieve the more upscale look of downlights versus the more utilitarian look of 2X2 or 2X4 troffers no longer exists. Today’s higher performance LED downlights equal or exceed the efficacy and lumen output of both fluorescent and LED troffers.
Yet another area of improvement for LED downlighting over the past few years is the greater range of higher color rendering choices up to 97 CRI along with the ability to specify Warm Dimming, Tunable White and Tunable Spectrum to further enhance interior aesthetics and support improved health, well-being and productivity.
LED downlights that take advantage of the latest LED, thermal management, driver and optics technology are head and shoulders better than both earlier generation LED and legacy technology downlights and can more optimally solve for a broader range of applications.
DiLouie: What are the top 5 trends in LED downlight design?
Roos: The top 5 trends in downlighting are:
1) Smaller, quieter apertures: 3”, 2” and even 1” aperture sizes have moved from specialty to mainstream. Lower-brightness reflector options and bevel style trims and mudded-in trimless installation have all become more common place. These small aperture fixtures are also available in surface and pendant mount cylinders for use in the increasingly popular open ceiling formats. And this miniaturization is enabling new linear format downlights with the lumens spread across multiple low brightness cells, some with the capability of individualized optical control and aiming.
2) More granular optical control: It is now possible to produce a wider range of beam angles and choose from either smooth, feathered distributions for uniform illumination or tighter distributions with high center beam punch with minimal spill outside of the main beam to achieve high contrast non-uniform downlighting and accent lighting. LED recessed wall washers are available that provide unprecedented top to bottom and side to side uniformity from apertures as small as 2”.
3) Higher Lumen Outputs: 4” downlights exceeding 8,000 delivered lumens, 6” downlights to 15,000 lumens and 8” downlights up to 20,000 lumens, combined with extremely long LED service life, have transformed high ceiling downlighting in spaces like atriums, auditoriums and convention centers.
4) Warm Dimming, Tunable White & Tunable Spectrum. The ability to dynamically change the appearance of a space by replicating the warm dimming characteristic of incandescent lighting, changing the color temperature for different times of day or events or even adjusting the hue and saturation to optimally light interior finishes and art has added new dimensions to downlighting and recessed accent lighting with impressive impacts on aesthetics and the productivity and well-being of occupants.
5) Low profile housings and surface mount downlights: Plenum space, especially in multi-story buildings, is more valuable than ever and shrinking. Lower profile recessed housings are therefore finding increasing applications. 1” thin surface mount downlights are available as a practical, cost efficient downlight alternative in concrete and fire rated ceilings where recessing fixtures is not practical.
DiLouie: How would you characterize progress made in ensuring compatibility and integration with controls?
Roos: Regarding compatibility and integration with lighting controls, there have been quantum improvements over the past few years. The performance and reliability of economical phase dimmable LED downlights has improved in terms of reliability, minimum dim levels and flicker, although you still need to validate dimmer compatibility with the luminaire manufacturer. 0-10V is still the most prevalent commercial lighting protocol, and you can now choose from a variety of 0-10V drivers with linear dimming down to 10% or 1% or logarithmic dim to dark to suit the aesthetic and budget needs of any project. DMX drivers are also now more widely available for downlighting in specialized applications such as theatres and auditoriums where the general lighting is being controlled as part of the theatrical lighting system. And economical and simple to commission plug and play Ethernet cabled and wireless protocols are available to enable individual fixture control, grouping and zoning independent of their placement on the electrical circuits.
DiLouie: What are typical benefits of upgrading existing downlights with LED retrofit kits? What’s the market opportunity?
Roos: The benefits of upgrading legacy technology downlights with LED retrofit kits include extreme energy savings and lower maintenance costs with rapid ROI paybacks. And if done thoughtfully, an improved quality of light can be achieved that improves the image that the building projects for the owner and the productivity, enjoyment and wellbeing of space occupants. The downlight retrofit market opportunity is huge, as the installed base of legacy technology downlights is orders of magnitude larger than new construction projects, and conversion of the installed downlighting base to LED is still in the early stages.
DiLouie: What are the main attributes of an LED downlight that electrical distributors would be looking for? How do they confidently select a quality product?
Roos: First, work with reliable manufacturers that you know and trust have invested in the sound development and thorough testing of their products and will stand behind them in the event of a problem. Be sure to compare luminaire efficacies, as there is currently a surprisingly wide range of performance spanning 60 to 130 delivered lumens per watt. When possible, specify multi-volt fixtures so you don’t run into surprises with the wrong voltage on a job site. Make certain that the right color temperature and CRI is specified to match other fixture types being used on the project. And most important be sure to pick the most appropriate good, better or best quality downlight in terms of price, efficacy, distribution and below the ceiling appearance to suit the needs of each project. A back of house installation versus lighting a lobby or boardroom in corporate interior call for two different categories of fixtures. When in doubt, ask your local sales representative for design assistance and advice.
DiLouie: What listings are important for downlights and why are they important?
Roos: Of course, a safety listing from UL or another accredited lab is table stakes. Being Energy Star listed offers some assurance that the product meets minimum performance and design standards. Above and beyond this look for the manufacturer to offer a system compatibility certification to demonstrate that the downlight/driver/controls combination has been designed and tested to provide consistent color appearance and out-of-the-box compatibility with simple commissioning.
DiLouie: What are value-added features distributors should be selling, and for what applications or problems are they ideally suited?
Roos: There are a lot of performance and design differences between LED downlights, even within the portfolio of a single manufacturer. Installation features or restrictions, fixture height and housing size, ease of replacing the light engine to name a few. The appearance of the trim and reflector are also important considerations, including when appropriate, the use of extremely low brightness reflectors that create a “silent” ceiling effect and mudded-in trimless bevel apertures, both which can provide a higher level of aesthetics and drama by placing the emphasis on what is being illuminated while making the downlights virtually disappear from the field of view. Look for other special value added features such as an optional lumen depreciation indicator that can trigger maintenance when the light engine depreciates past 70% of its initial lumens.
Another important consideration is the completeness and consistent appearance/performance throughout a line. For example, having all aperture sizes and a wide range of lumen packages available in new construction, remodeling, retrofit or surface cylinder housings ensures that you can solve for any installation condition. The availability of downlight, wallwash & adjustables, different beam spreads and a wide range of CCTs, CRIs, warm dimming, tunable white and tunable spectrum light engines throughout the full range of housing types and sizes ensures that you can solve for any functional and aesthetic requirements.
And finally, an emerging consideration new to the lighting industry is giving the option to your customers to specify downlights, and other luminaires, with embedded data collection and communications capability. Even if they don’t need this capability today, at some point in time it is likely that they will want to utilize their lighting system as a gateway to the Internet of Things to collect data and enable cloud-based functionality and analytics such as asset management, security, space utilization, wayfinding or occupant/customer engagement. The nominal cost to add Bluetooth or Visual Light Communication(VLC) into a luminaire can future proof their investment in a new lighting system, much like having a smart phone in the early days provided a platform for the plethora of applications that rapidly emerged. It is an exciting time for downlighting and well worth the distributor’s inside and outside sales staff’s time to become familiar with the breadth/consistency and specific features available in different manufacturers’ products so they know the easiest lines to work with and the best opportunities to add value beyond just filling a hole in the ceiling with the least expensive product, both to improve their own profit margins and the quality of lighting on the discretionary projects they control.
DiLouie: What impact is the proliferation of LED products having on electrical distribution business practices in general?
Roos: The wide range of available downlights, most with LED integrated directly into the luminaire, the rapid pace of change and the variety of color temperatures, CRIs and dimming protocols has certainly made it difficult for distributors to keep downlights in their inventory. And the lack of standardization, features, designs and performance of different manufacturer’s products of course makes it challenging to know which manufacturers’ products to use on various projects.
DiLouie: If you could tell the entire electrical industry just one thing about LED downlights, what would it be?
Roos: Anyone can specify an LED downlight to dump light into a space. Not anyone can specify LED downlighting that truly optimizes the appearance and functionality of a space. With current technology, we can create nuanced and stunning aesthetic executions and positively impact productivity, health and wellbeing… all with low lifecycle costs in terms of both energy and maintenance. Having well-trained lighting specialists on your team that can select and thoughtfully apply the best LED downlighting for each application will separate you from your competition and earn you more business.