A revolution in outdoor lighting is happening right under our noses.
Over the past few years, light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, have almost totally taken over the landscape lighting market from the previously popular low voltage incandescent and halogen systems, said Thomas Reindl, commercial lighting manager at Northwest Electrical Supply in Mount Prospect.
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In the past, people used low voltage lighting outdoors because the wire can be safely buried directly in the ground at low cost without the risk of electrocution, Reindl said.
"But low voltage lighting had its problems. When it was strung long distances there was often a voltage drop off and lights would appear dim the further they were from the main power source," he said.
With the new LED lighting systems the load is lower, so smaller wires and transformers can be used. "Interestingly, while the fixtures themselves are more expensive with LED systems, the other parts are cheaper and they consume very little energy without having concerns about voltage drop," Reindl said.
Homeowners' earlier complaints about the bluish tinge they got with LED lighting have been largely solved. Today's LED landscape lights try to mimic the light given off by halogen bulbs.
Color temperature is measured by a unit called the Kelvin. As the color temperature increases from a dim yellow to a bright white, the Kelvin measurement increases.
"When examining a residential lighting system, most people prefer one that is as close to 2950K as possible," Reindl said. "Many LED lights now achieve 3000K, which is a good substitute for low voltage halogen. And you want the color rendering index (CRI) as close to 100 percent as you can find. Most are now above 85 percent."
High-end companies generally offer products with tighter tolerances so that you get more consistent light between two different fixtures. You might see a rating of 3000K plus or minus 50 or 100 with an expensive fixture, while with a bargain fixture you might see a rating of 3000K plus or minus 500 or 1000. Reindl said that is when you could get great variance in light color, or intensity, between two fixtures that are right next to each other.
"With the high-end companies, you are actually paying for what you aren't buying," he quipped. "They destroy the fixtures that don't meet their strict standards and that costs money. But when you buy multiple fixtures from them, they will all match."
Those who have worked with a professional landscape lighting company know that in the past, many would install a blue filter over their halogen or incandescent bulbs in order to better illuminate foliage and make it an even richer green. Since LED lights tend to naturally produce a stronger blue spectrum, those blue filters are no longer necessary to make foliage "pop," Reindl said. But with LED lights, amber lenses are often installed to make the browns in stonework look better, which wasn't necessary with the older lighting systems.
"You can still buy the bulbs for those older landscape lighting systems because they are still more energy efficient than most types of older lighting. So the government is not discontinuing them," he said. "But those systems are definitely being phased out."
Last year, Kichler Lighting, a very big name in landscape lighting, announced it had released its final incandescent landscape lighting system and the company was true to its word. This year they are only offering LED systems.
The solar landscape lights that you often see in big box stores are basically toys, Reindl believes. They offer poor color and low battery life and are unable to cope with the vast temperature fluctuations that we naturally experience in this part of the country.
"If they ever made really good ones, they would be horribly expensive because good batteries, LED chips and solar panels are all very expensive," he said.
LED lights are also making inroads in outdoor security lighting, especially for fixtures put at the peak of a roofline where the bulbs are very hard to change. LED lights have much longer lives, which has a lot of appeal to homeowners.
Among the other innovative uses for LED lights that Reindl has recently encountered are glass windows in which the perimeters are lit by LED lights, injecting microscopic prisms of light into imperfections in the glass so that the whole panel illuminates like a flat panel of light.
"It is an interesting up and coming product that I can see increasing in size and use in the years to come," Reindl said.
He has also seen the beginnings of organic LED lights from Philips which have a high light output to energy consumption ratio. These organic panels project light across arrayed sheets cut in custom shapes that can be attached to a wall or ceiling as a decorative element.
"It is really cool stuff that will probably be used commercially at first, but I can see residential uses down the road," he said.
Northwest Electrical Supply is located at 600 E. Rand Road, Mount Prospect. For more information, call (847) 255-3000 or visit www.northwestelectricalsupply.com.