Current Trends: LED Lighting

by | Aug 14, 2015

One of the fastest-growing trends in production and environmental technology right now is LED lighting.

Whether you’re at a concert, a mall, a wedding reception, a restaurant, or a church, chances are excellent you’ve seen the environment-creating effects and colors of LED, and this isn’t just a feature of high-end environments. Over the past several years, the cost of quality LED lighting has dropped significantly, and the capability has only increased. Why is this such a popular trend? Here are a few reasons:

1. Excellent color capabilities: More than probably anything else, this is what has dramatically increased the popularity of LED, and why those ubiquitous colored lighting washes are showing up in so many places. LED does an excellent job not just of creating light, but of shaping environments. And its ability to do color well is the reason. Unlike conventional incandescent lights with colored gels or filters, LED lights are highly efficient. In a conventional light fitted with a colored gel, a large percentage of the light is lost in the filter and converted to heat. In LED, this is not the case, so colors are vibrant, intense, and rich, with few of the downsides.

2. Limitless color mixing: LED fixtures usually contain multiple different colored LEDs working together. The simplest of these are Red-Green-Blue (RGB) fixtures. Others may add a white (W) or amber (A) element, and some have all of these and even an ultraviolet/black light element (RGBAW-UV). Any or all of these primary color elements may be mixed together in any combination to produce any color imaginable at any intensity, and since the fixtures are usually remotely-controlled, this can be done easily from the lighting board, without having to access the fixture to change gels or color filters.

3. Low heat output and high efficiency: If you’ve ever been close to a conventional 500-watt stage light of any kind, you know that those fixtures put out a LOT of heat. In fact, it’s very easy to burn yourself or even start a fire! Decorations, fabrics, and set pieces must be located a good distance away from a conventional fixture for these reasons. And if you’re using colored gels or filters, a good percentage of the light output from the fixture is basically converted into heat to produce the color. Additionally, conventional stage lights require a LOT of power, especially when you are dealing with lots of lights. This means high power consumption and electricity costs, increased heat load on air conditioning systems, and the expense of high-capacity specialized electrical circuits. By contrast, equivalent LED fixtures use an average of 20% of the electrical current of their conventional equivalents for the same output. This means a lot less heat, far less electrical consumption, and much less electrical infrastructure required.

4. Built-in control: Conventional lights require external dimming systems to switch and dim the fixture, and you need one light (and one dimmer channel) for each simultaneous color you want to use. LED lights have dimming built in, and as we discussed above, color mixing is limitless and accomplished right at the fixture.

5. Long life: Most good-quality LED lights are conservatively rated at 50,000 hours or more of fixture life. The average incandescent stage fixture uses lamps that last 250-1000 hours, depending heavily on the usage cycle. In average church use, this means that conventional lamps last a year or two at most. With each conventional lamp costing $15-$25, multiplied by the total number of fixtures in the system, these replacement costs, and the labor and time needed to do the work add up quickly!

LED lighting has a lot going for it. But on the other hand, there are some challenges with LED lighting that must also be considered:

1. High relative cost: Good, commercial-quality LED stage fixtures cost around 5 times as much as their conventional equivalents. It’s possible to buy cheaper DJ-style fixtures, but the reliability and dimming stability of these lights is much lower (most of the cost difference is not actually in the LED element itself, but rather in the power supply and control circuitry).

2. High directivity: Depending on the system needs, this can be an advantage or disadvantage. Unlike conventional lights, LED lights are inherently highly directional. This makes them problematic for wide-angle or close-range wash applications, requiring the use of diffuser filters and similar techniques, which adds cost and reduces efficiency.

3. Inferior white light quality: On a dollar-for-dollar basis, LED lights still remain inferior to conventional incandescent lights when it comes to the “naturalness” of their white light output and lower color temperatures. Ironically, as much as they are superior to incandescent lights when it comes to color, they are equally inferior when it comes to white light! It’s possible to get a great-looking LED white light, but those fixtures are significantly more expensive. This is a growth area for LED- one in which they are still catching up. At Somerset Media Group, we still install quite a few hybrid systems where LEDs are used for colored lighting, and conventional fixtures are used for white “face” lighting.

4. Additional wiring complexity: Although a relatively minor issue, the elimination of centralized dimming and control with LED fixtures requires that separate power and control wires are run and chained to each fixture. This means double the wiring and double the potential points of failure. Good-quality installed control wiring is essential to a successful LED lighting system.

5. Dimming inconsistency at low levels: Except for the most expensive fixtures, all LED lights struggle to exhibit smooth dimming at low (less than 20%) light levels, and many cheaper fixtures (and almost all cheaper residential-grade replacement LED bulbs) flicker at lower light levels. If your lighting scheme requires lots of operation at low output levels, investing appropriately in better-quality fixtures is a must.

Trying to discern whether an LED lighting system or upgrade is the right choice for you? And as always, we’d love to assist in any way possible, from answering any questions to helping design a great lighting system for your facility, so please contact us and let us know how we can help!

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