Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Failed Promise of LEDs & The Bright Future of LEDs

The big problem with implementing LED technology is that we are still at a stage where we are replacing "bulbs" with LED lighting, and it doesn't work very well.

When my Swiss ancestors came to America, they went to work for the Steinway family on their Long Island estate.  So the story goes, my Great-Grandfather was the gardener, and my Great-Grandmother the upstairs maid.  They met and married and moved to Little Silver, New Jersey, bought 100 acres of farmland, built a mansard-roofed house and settled down.  The Steinways gave them a piano as a wedding gift.  How nice.

The house was originally plumbed for gas lamps.  And when I say Great-Grandfather built the house, I mean he built it, by hand.  So all those gas lines he ran by himself, not hiring someone to run them for him.

But the gaslight era was drawing to a close, and soon electricity came into the fore.  He converted the gas light fixtures to electrical ones by running the wires through the old gas pipes, which was easier than trying to snake them through existing walls.   Old fixtures were "updated" as electric ones, with mixed results.   But the job was done and they were electrified.

The same thing is happening today as we switch from incandescent bulbs to LEDs, with a brief detour through CFLs.   The problem today was the same problem for my Great-Grandfather - we are converting existing lighting systems to a new technology that does not lend itself well to old configurations.

The "light bulb" produces a bright light from a single point source.  Perhaps this is a throwback to the gas lamp flame or the flame of kerosene or whale-oil lanterns, and before that, candles.   LEDs, individually, produce little light, so to create a "light bulb" effect, you have to gang several together into a small housing, along with driver electronics.   Yes, even the voltage and current types used for incandescents are really useless for LEDs which usually run on DC power.  Sometimes the heat from concentrating several such LEDs into a bulb housing can cause the electronics to fail.  Some "bulbs" cannot be put into enclosed fixtures, or they overheat.

So we are trying to force a square peg into a round hole here.  Instead of using the LED to its best natural advantage, we are trying to make it into a "light bulb" doppelgänger with very mixed results.

Some new types of LED lighting abandon the pretense of the "light bulb" entirely and take advantage of the inherent characteristics of LEDs.  Strips of LEDs can be bought inexpensively and literally stuck up with adhesive and run with a 12V DC power supply.  They can be made to change color, or you can adjust color - even with an RF remote control.  Since they are spread out, what little heat is generated dissipates.   And you can create entirely new kinds of indirect lighting effects.   No longer are we chained to the tyranny of the "bulb" and the "lampshade".  We can make light come from anywhere.

In one of our condos in Florida, we had crown molding installed in the bedroom.  We had the installer lower the molding by about 2" so it was 2" below the ceiling.  We installed rope lighting in the V-shaped channel behind the crown molding.  The result was an eerie and soothing indirect lighting as the light from the rope lighting illuminated the ceiling, which in turn indirectly lit the room.   We did a similar thing on our screen porches, installing LED rope lighting behind a plastic channel used on the wainscoting.  It illuminates indirectly and creates a warm low-key glow.

THIS is where LED lighting can really shine (sorry!) in the future - by creating new types of lighting that are more indirect and less point-sourced.   The "lamp fixture" or "floor lamp" may go by the wayside in favor of whole-room lighting - entire ceilings that are studded with LEDS and light in an even manner and provide a shadow-less lighting effect.

But in order to do this, we first have to let go of the past and put the "lamp" to rest.   I think the next generation won't even know what a "light bulb" is and look at "lamps" as some sort of weird curiosity you find in an antique shop.   Lighting will be different and take advantage of the inherent features of LEDs.

For example, even if you had a "lamp" with concentrated lighting, it likely would not have a "bulb" but LEDs hard-wired in place, as there would be no reason to replace the LEDs, as they can last a decades.   When the LEDs burn out, you throw the lamp away.   The cost of a screw base and socket are just unnecessary expenses.

(UPDATE:  The screw base of a traditional light bulb is called an "Edison" thread, as it dates back over 100 years to his early DC bulbs.   This is how backward-compatible we are trying to be!   Maybe it is time to simply get out a new sheet of paper and start over from scratch).

To reach this next level of lighting technology, we have to let go of the past and let go of "conversion" bulbs that convert exisiting fixtures to LED technology using ersatz "bulbs" shaped like something hand-blown from yore.  The LED "light bulb" is holding back LED technology, even if it is a bridge to conversion.

Maybe in the future, light bulbs will be artisnal!