I recently had the opportunity to interview Daren Hatfield, Director of Marketing – Digital Lighting Components, Acuity Brands 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. Transcript follows.
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?
Hatfield: The opportunity for distributors to sell LED drivers is not only strong but necessary. As the industry sees solid state lighting continue to move through its complete life-cycle, markets will expect and demand that LED lighting maintain the value of longevity by providing the ability to service in the field. Field-replaceable drivers are a practical, economical, timesaving, and environmentally responsible means of achieving that value. There are considerations involved with replacing a driver both from a regulatory, electrical, and compatibility perspective, but these are not insurmountable to the electrical distributor.
DiLouie: As background, what is the LED driver and what does it do?
Hatfield: At the primary level, the LED driver manages the electrical input delivered to the fixture and converts it into a DC voltage and current that is appropriate for the LED load. The driver will also interact with connected control protocols to enhance the performance of the LED lighting as desired by the application or occupant, such as diming and sensor control for aesthetics and energy conservation.
DiLouie: What are the major types of LED drivers found in the market? How would you categorize this equipment?
Hatfield: Driver designs are often distinguished by output wattage, output current, dimming and control capabilities, and any additional application needs such as suitability for outdoor use, form factor, IP rating, and temperature ratings. Categorization can vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, however.
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?
Hatfield: There are two primary fail modes: end-of-life and premature failure. Internal components such as the driver’s electrolytic capacitor will eventually expire causing the driver to reach end-of-life. The warranty on a driver component is typically 5 years which is based primarily around the life expectancy of the electrolytic capacitor. Operating at the capacitor’s maximum thermal spec, the driver’s estimated runtime would be about 50kHrs. But this is the most extreme condition – under nominal conditions, you can expect drivers to last much longer. Other factors, such as over-voltage and surge can cause stress on the components and contribute to premature failure. In either case, the driver is likely to fail before the connected LED load does, simply because the driver is a more complicated component with a more demanding duty. LEDs generally won’t be considered a failure until the foot candles diminish beyond an acceptable level. With LED performance continuing to improve, a driver failure will most likely be the reason for a system (fixture) failure.
DiLouie: Is there a retrofit opportunity as well as maintenance?
Hatfield: Individual fixture maintenance is likely a more common opportunity when it comes to LED driver replacement. The intent of driver replacement maintenance is to ensure that the luminaire system continues to operate as intended with a suitable ‘like-for-like’ alternative. Retrofit opportunities, on the other hand, imply some manner of improvement or upgrade across multiple fixtures which would often impact more than just replacement of the driver. But retrofit opportunities are a possibility depending on the scope of the project – for example, an LED driver replacement might deliver more efficiency and performance on the older installed fixtures, thus initiating the desire for the replacement of multiple LED drivers in a facility.
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?
Hatfield: In some cases, fixture designs still allow for installation of a driver in a suitable compartment space just like a fluorescent ballast, however miniaturization brought about by LED technology has seen the spaces and designs becoming significantly smaller and not always accessible from below the ceiling, such as we see in some flat panel designs. Some mechanical designs purposely provide a box or enclosure to access the driver component.
DiLouie: What is the process of replacing a driver? What steps should electrical distributors take when servicing customers with replacement needs?
Hatfield: Before an LED fixture is shipped from the manufacturer, the internal driver has been programmed to meet certain performance requirements. To replace the driver in the field, the electrician would follow these general steps:
1) Turn off the incoming AC power and gain access to the driver compartment.
2) Identify the driver specifications and other pertinent factors such as size or IP requirements. The original driver specifications and programming can be determined either by specifications printed on the label, contacting the driver or fixture manufacturer, or in some cases by digitally reading the programming with an external device.
3) Select a suitable replacement driver. A replacement driver, which is not necessarily the same brand or model, must be both classified as suitable for field installation (UL Class P) and programmed to match the original driver settings.
4) Program the new driver. Depending on the manufacturing design, the programming of the driver may require connection via a cable to software on a computer or a specialized programming tool. The desired programming settings are entered into the computer or device and programmed into the new driver.
5) The new driver is then physically wired into the fixture. AC power would then be restored and the electrician would confirm the fixture is operating properly.
DiLouie: What role do programmable drivers play in the replacement market?
Hatfield: Programmable drivers not only bring longevity to the installed fixtures, but also offer unique service opportunities to distributors and contractors. Where once a failed driver may have necessitated replacement of an entire fixture, a distributor may have been limited in the ability to service a call due to no access to stocked fixture SKUs. Replacement drivers expand the capabilities of a distributor to solve a wider range of customer needs. The nature of programmable drivers means a minimum number of drivers SKUs service a wider range of fixture specifications instead of having to stock extensive fixture or driver inventory. Additionally, distributors can differentiate themselves with the ability to deliver cost-effective and time-saving repairs at the component level by quickly understanding and adopting field-programmable driver competencies.
DiLouie: Are there any special steps distributors should take when lighting controls are involved or when the driver dims the connected lights?
Hatfield: The expansion of controls and dimming are a significant advantage of solid-state lighting and must definitely be factored into the process. Any replacement driver must accommodate those features at the programming level. Installers will need to validate that any control systems (digital or analog) and compatibility requirements such as Dim to Off capability, Title 24, or required dimming performance match the capabilities of the replacement solution. Having an understanding of the different dimming and control options on the market will help distributors identify the best replacement drivers to stock.
DiLouie: What can distributors do to ensure they take full advantage of this opportunity and generate sales?
Hatfield: Knowledge is power! Distributors must be prepared to shift from fixture-replacement behavior to a component-replacement perspective. This may require some investment of time and training to understand fully what LED drivers do, how they function within a system, what regulatory classifications are required for replacement, and the variety of approaches driver manufacturers have when it comes to product offerings. Working with a reputable manufacturer will help develop this understanding, as well as put together a solution program that supports the product and service levels the projects require.
DiLouie: If you could tell the entire electrical industry just one thing about selling to the LED driver replacement market, what would it be?
Hatfield: Ultimately, much of the success of the LED driver replacement market will depend on the synergies between the distributor and manufacturer. A distributor’s ability to bring a project to a successful conclusion will be directly impacted by a manufacturer’s ability to provide a solution that is effective, easily understandable, and as comprehensive as possible. If the manufacturer provides a replacement driver solution that reduces the amount of SKUs to be stocked, provides them with access to tools and resources to help them make the right decisions the first time, and is able to limit the amount of time their employee has to spend on a ladder for servicing, then the distributor, customer, and the manufacturer all win.