I recently had the opportunity to interview Chris Holstein, VP Product Management, Pricing, Marketing for Universal Douglas for an article I’m developing for the May 2023 issue of tED Magazine, the official NAED publication. The topic: opportunities for distributors serving the LED driver replacement market.
DiLouie: In a nutshell, how would you characterize the opportunity for electrical distributors to sell LED drivers to replace drivers that fail in the field?
Holstein: In general, I believe this market will continue to grow and eventually be just like the days of the old 2-lamp 32W ballast.
DiLouie: As background, what is the LED driver and what does it do?
Holstein: To start, think of the LED driver as the ballast. The ballast would light the lamp and regulate the current to ensure the phosphors stayed illuminated. The driver is the same but a little different; the driver is also an electrical device, it differs in that it’s primary function is to regulate the power or current to an LED module (think lamp) or a string of modules (or string of LEDs).
DiLouie: What are the major types of LED drivers found in the market? How would you categorize this equipment?
Holstein: Removing manufacturer-added features like dimming and programmability, the main types fall into two broad categories: constant current and constant voltage. Constant voltage is the easiest place to start, most likely providing either 12V or 24V in a fixed output. Constant current is the most common type for normal lighting situations; these will regulate the current supplied to the modules to keep a constant current to the module that would regulate the light output. These need to be matched to the module, the module being designed with a required max current rating.
DiLouie: Why do LED drivers fail, what is typical life expectancy, and how common is it that there will be driver failures before the LEDs fail due to lumen depreciation?
Holstein: LED drivers have the same limiting factor as a ballast: the electrolytic capacitor. Depending on the quality of device used in manufacturing when this device moves outside of its design parameters, the device will fail. You should expect failures to occur outside of the published warranty period for your driver.
DiLouie: Is there a retrofit opportunity as well as maintenance?
Holstein: The retrofit opportunity would be the ability to add a more intelligent driver but would require all fixtures to be changed out. You could do this to add a driver with additional auxillary power to provide power to an sensor or other appropriate device.
DiLouie: In the traditional lighting era, ballasts were available in standardized form factors with the ballast easily accessible below the ceiling for replacement. What is different or similar in the LED era?
Holstein: Early drivers had nontraditional form factors, and several offshore fixtures come with a driver that is not in a can [think a board that is housed in a concealed spot on the fixture (touch safe)]. Most major OEMs that produce LED drivers now use common form factors, much like the old ballast days, which allows for field-serviceable fixtures.
DiLouie: What is the process of replacing a driver? What steps should electrical distributors take when servicing customers with replacement needs?
Holstein: When replacing an LED driver, I tell distributors to walk down this path: First, identify if it is a constant current (CC) or constant voltage (CV), as discussed earlier. CV is straight forward; identify the voltage, then match form factor. If it is CC, you will need to know the following information:
>>> Tuned level
Good to know:
>Minimum dim current
>Full bright control voltage
>Minimum dim control voltage
>Dim to Off
Yes, it seems like a lot, but the must-know you can use to identify a good replacement driver, for the tune level, many drivers have a tuned current that is less than the max the driver can do–generally, these are placed as labels on the product. Armed with the information above, a competent distributor can find a viable replacement. We have developed an app specifically to do all of this, it asks you all the questions then tells you what driver you need as well as allowing you to program the parameters–it is called Touch To Tune.
DiLouie: What role can programmable drivers play in the replacement market?
Holstein: These will be required as stated above many OEM’s program to a level that is below the max current. A distributor needs to have a line (like ours) that allows you to carry a small number of tunable drivers and an easy way to tune them quickly and safely.
DiLouie: Are there any special steps distributors should take when lighting controls are involved or when the driver dims the connected lights?
Holstein: Nothing special here–my comments for field replacement is if you have an appropriately programmed driver, it should produce visually the same light as fixtures around it. Here is where a programmable driver is helpful; lets say you install it and turn it On and it’s too bright. With a tunable driver, you could turn the power Off reduce the current level and try again until it is indistinguishable–and this could happen if a driver is tuned but not marked by the OEM.
DiLouie: What can distributors do to ensure they take full advantage of this opportunity and generate sales?
Holstein: I recommend that distributors have an expert on staff that knows the process and understands what to look for to provide a proper replacement. Also, I think having some amount of product on hand is good so your contractors will think of you as the go-to guy and you are not waiting for stock to arrive from your supplier. Take care of the issue now and correctly.
DiLouie: If you could tell the entire electrical industry just one thing about selling to the LED driver replacement market, what would it be?
Holstein: It will come, no doubt about it. Understand and be ready before your customer comes to you; you want to say “Yes, I know how to help you,” not, “Let me call my manufacturer…”