Ethan Biery
Ethan Biery ebiery@lutron.com What makes LED technology such a “disruptive” force in the lighting industry? Many reasons: new players unfamiliar with the lighting industry, new sales channels, and loads of new and innovative products (some high quality, some not). One of the aspects that sometimes gets overlooked is the systems nature of LED products. By “systems nature”, I mean that lighting products can no longer be looked at as individual components, stocked and sold piecemeal. Instead, the selection of one LED component now strongly depends on the selection of other components.

Sure, lighting manufacturers, specifiers, and distributors had to deal with this before: incandescent bulbs had to be the right size and wattage for a fixture; low-voltage lamps had to match the transformer; fluorescent lamps had to be the right size and wattage for the ballast. However, those choices were very simple and finite: match the specs from a limited number of choices, and it just worked.

With LEDs, things are different: “compatibility” is the new buzz word. The LED driver needs to be compatible with the LED load; the control needs to be compatible with the LED driver. It’s not sufficient to look at simple electrical specifications (voltage/power) anymore. Yesterday’s lighting professionals (specifiers, reps, distributors, contractors) needs to become today’s “lighting sommeliers”, matching the lighting fixture to the lighting control, LED driver, and LED load to meet the expectations and ensure the satisfaction of the end customer.

This change is not only due to the complicated nature of LEDs. The use of lighting controls has greatly increased, driven by code changes and increased customer desire for energy savings, flexibility, and comfort. Although most LED products claim to be “dimmable”, there is no industry-standard definition of that term, so the lighting professional is the one on the hook to make sure the product’s dimming performance meets the needs of the application and the expectations of the customer.

It’s not always obvious when professionals have a choice on dimming compatibility and performance, and when a choice is being made for them. The most common example of this is what’s marketed as retrofit products (predominately screw-in lamps, but may also include retrofit kits) versus fixtures targeted at new construction. Products targeted at retrofits, like screw-in lamps, have the driver selected for you (it’s an integral and inseparable part of the product). For new construction fixtures, there’s often a choice of driver: from non-dimmable to simple 10% dimming to specification-grade 1% (or less) dimming.

While the choice of driver may not seem important, it is the driver that is the sole determination of best-possible dimming performance: will it be smooth and continuous to low light levels to meet the customer’s expectations? Will it be compatible with the selected dimming controls? If you can’t answer these questions well, you must be ready to take on the risk of having callbacks, field problems, and replaced products.

This world of LEDs can be scary to the traditional, established players. It requires a whole new skill set, more detailed information from manufacturers, closer relationships, and more risk-taking. Today’s lighting distributor should ensure that the LED lighting loads they’re selling (including screw-in lamps and/or fixtures) are compatible with the lighting control products they’re selling (including dimmers and occupancy sensor switches). Unsure? Work with your manufacturers: today’s control and luminaire manufacturers should be able to provide you with information on driver and control compatibility. Rely on the knowledge and tools provided by those manufacturers who offer not only a wide range of control compatibility testing, but also products which meet a variety of control strategies. Any distributor or contractor that is not properly doing their homework is taking on the risk of field problems and unhappy customers.

Today’s (progressive) distributor may even wish to do basic compatibility testing on their own, for times when manufacturer guidance is unavailable. Simply connecting up a demonstration control to the desired LED load may provide the customer with the confidence to move forward with a new product. Such a value-added service is a great way to differentiate from your competition, making you the go-to source for LED fixtures and controls, fostering repeat business, and resulting in increased sales.

Traditional distributors will continue to sell components. On the other hand, distributors that want to make it to the other side of the chasm created by the creative destruction of LEDs must increase their knowledge and provide new value to their customers by doing their homework and using available resources. Working with knowledgeable manufacturers and viewing LED products as systems rather than components must be a key part of that strategy. http://www.lutron.com

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