Lara Cordell, LC, LEED-AP is director of technology for national lighting distributor Wiedenbach-Brown Co., Inc., for which I produce an annual lighting magazine for large corporate end-users called ENLIGHTEN. I had the pleasure of interviewing Lara, who is a lighting designer by training and one of the most knowledgeable people you’ll meet, for an article about the 2009 SSL Next Generation Luminaires Design Competition for TED Magazine, which will be published in this electrical distributor magazine’s July issue. Lara was part of a prestigious panel of judges that included lighting lighting designers and other representatives from the industry.

Sponsored by DOE, the Illuminating Engineering Society and the International Association of Lighting Designers, the NGL Competition was launched in 2008 to promote excellence in the design of energy-efficient LED luminaires for general lighting in commercial applications.

Here’s how the program fits: Industry standards define how product performance should be tested and reported. The Lighting Facts label is a voluntary program for reporting this data in a consistent format for easy comparison. ENERGY STAR recognizes products that exceed minimum performance criteria. The NGL Competition takes this one step further, recognizing product design excellence using a broad list of criteria, with lighting designers and other professionals as judges.

Here’s a transcript of the interview:

TED Magazine: How would you characterize the criteria for being recognized as a “recognized winner” SSL luminaire?

Cordell: The criteria focus on lighting quality and application, including Color Appearance (CCT), Color Rendering (CRI), Appropriate Illuminance, Appropriate luminance, Application Effectiveness, Aesthetic Appearance & Style, Serviceability & Replacement. Bonus points were available for fixtures that demonstrated no off-state power use, dark-sky friendly optics, adjustability, and LM80 product depreciation data.

TED Magazine: What problem in the industry does the Next Generation Luminaires Competition solve? Why is this program needed?

New LED luminaires are flooding the market daily, from manufacturers we know and many we don’t recognize. It’s impossible for specifiers to review at this pace, so the NGL provides a resource for fixtures, vetted by industry peers, to a high standard of quality. The more we support good fixtures, the more clients will have positive experiences with LED, and the further we’ll push the industry as a whole.

TED Magazine: How would you characterize the judging criteria? How strict do you believe the criteria were for recognition? Did you see it as a high bar, encouraging excellence, or a bar of minimally acceptable performance, on par with average conventional products?

Cordell: The judging criteria emphasized a visual, hands-on review. With so many products to judge, we were limited to a couple minutes per fixture. PNNL did a great job at weeding through the supporting documentation to ensure all proper data was submitted, so we could focus on reviewing the illuminated fixtures. Armed with illuminance meters, luminance meters, color meters, and color swatch charts, our standards were definitely high. How could they not be with so many lighting designers on the panel?

The 2009 NGL Competition judges. Back: Melissa Hertel, Dan Blitzer, Chip Israel, Bob Berger, David Brumbelow, Nancy Clanton Middle: Barbara Horton, Mary Matteson-Bryan, Lara Jacobson,Ruth Taylor Front: Jeff McCullough, Melanie Taylor,Avi Mor, Jeff Brown, Kevin Houser

TED Magazine: About double the number of products were recognized as winners, but double the number were entered in the competition, meaning about the same percentage are not market-ready. Based on the results of the competition, how well do you believe the LED manufacturing industry is doing, and how is this impacting contemporary lighting design?

Cordell: LED luminaire manufacturers are producing more fixtures in more product categories than ever before, but they’re not proportionately doing a better job at designing them! I feel they’ve abandoned everything we know about good fixture design in favor of LED shortcuts. For instance, architectural luminaires with low surface brightness, glare shielding and accessories, have been invaded by direct view LED products, with high surface brightness and little to no shielding. This is not helping market adoption as Specifiers refuse to compromise lighting quality. As awareness is raised for quality LED products, I expect Specifiers will feel more and more comfortable with the specification of white-light LED products.

TED Magazine: Based on the results of the competition, where do you believe the LED industry is making the biggest improvements, and what is the impact of this on contemporary lighting design?

Cordell: I see that more market segments and product categories are being addressed, lumen output and efficacies are increasing, and color rendering is getting better. All of these characteristics are making white light LED more attractive in general ambient applications.

TED Magazine: Based on the results of the competition, where do you believe the LED industry is still seriously lagging and needs to make improvements, and what effect are these problems having on contemporary lighting? If these problems are addressed, how would these advancements affect contemporary lighting design?

Cordell: My number one complaint is the lack of glare shielding. I think the down light manufacturers have done a great job at regressing the LEDs and using diffusion lenses, etc., but other applications need to follow suit, especially in the exterior and industrial market segments.
I’m still wary about the variations we see in CCT and CRI. If you use more than one LED fixture manufacturer in one space, there’s no way to ensure similar CCT and CRI until tighter ANSI standards are pushed.

I’m also wary of the “Mercury Vapor” effect, where LEDs don’t die. This is a maintenance nightmare in the long term, with liability implications in exterior environments. This is also an issue in retail where product light levels affect sales. I’ve been asking manufacturers for intelligent drivers to shut the fixture off at L70 (based on lumen output, not hours operated) but to date, have not found a manufacturer that can do so.

Lastly, price is still an issue.

TED Magazine: Beyond lighting designers, how useful is this program to the larger electrical industry? How can electrical distributors use this information to improve their service and business opportunities?

Cordell: As a distributor, and former lighting designer, I see the value from all sides of the industry. Our common goal is to support the LED products that will satisfy our clients, the end-users. Distributors can promote the NGL list of products and feel comfortable that their clients will be satisfied with the result, if used in the right application (NGL can’t tell you how to use the fixtures properly!), on day one. What we all hope, is that good quality design indicates quality thermal engineering, because one thing NGL does not do for us, is indicate how well the fixture will perform over the long haul! For that we all need a crystal ball, fast-forward 50,000 hours….

Subsequently, what people don’t realize is that distributors partake in the liability in selling subpar LED fixtures. Whether it’s in the direct recommendation of a product or simple pass-thru of someone else’s specification, distributors will be held responsible for warranty processing, and in a worst case scenario, the labor to reinstall new fixtures under a warranty claim. At this point there is little we can do except drill the manufacturers about their thermal testing and stand behind those that provide a solid, performance based warranty that explicitly describes “failure”. Failure is not only no illumination, failure can be accelerated lumen depreciation or excessive color shift, problems previously relegated to the lamp manufacturer that are now inherently the fixture manufacturer’s responsibility. We are dealing with capital investments expected to last 5 – 10 years, with paybacks expecting 2 – 3 years minimum, and we must do our part to protect them as such.

TED Magazine: Were any of the products in your view game changers—products that either 1) advance LED products by enabling lamp replacements, or address some other common problem, or 2) offer unique benefits, either creating new applications or blowing conventional technologies out of the water in familiar applications? Which products fit this criteria, and why?

Cordell: I was very impressed with the Stratus linear wall-grazer as it’s a phenomenal application for high ceiling heights of 30’. At these heights, linear fluorescent doesn’t work, so specifiers typically use grazers with halogen or metal halide lamps at 6 – 9” O.C., resulting in 40 – 75 W/ft. Stratus is still 20 W/ft., but this can reduce the energy from incumbent sources by 50 – 75%, which is a great story. As a categorical whole, I think LED task lights, undercabinet lights, and refrigerated display case lighting offer similar energy saving stories.
I think Cree’s DR100 efficacy of 87 LPW is AMAZING! This is a product category dominated this past year by 40 – 50 LPW, and to see Cree pull away with a 30+ LPW increase in a single generational upgrade is exceptional.

I think the field-changeable optics on the LSI track head is unique.

I also appreciate the Evolaire streetlight which offers intelligent drivers that continually adjust the current to maintain the same lumen output across L70 and can be programmed for midnight curfew and dimming.

TED Magazine: If you could tell all distributors one thing about the NGL competition, what would it be?

Cordell: The LED fixture market is the Wild Wild West! Use the NGL winner list as a resource for top performing products.
Other advice – The DOE has many initiatives and programs in place to make your job easier, so use them! Get familiar here. Join the SSL Quality Advocates to support truth in labeling and always request LM79 reports.