Reality Check: Designing reliable solid state lighting isn’t rocket science… is it?

Gordon Routledge, lighting expert and publisher of Lux Review, tackles another lighting myth

Compared with the world of space science, the lighting world is a rather simple scientific backwater. This was brought home to me when I first visited Thorn Lighting in the early 1990s. Back then the business was led by a robust character called Terry Smith. At the time Thorn was being turned around after the break-up of the EMI group. Terry had focused on what was important for the business, and unnecessary R&D work was often cut down with the phrase: ‘We are not building f****** rockets.’ Well, perhaps it’s now time to re-evaluate the efforts of those who do build rockets.

Building owners are acutely aware of failures. In many cases it’s their own reputations that are on the line”

Last month the Voyager 1 spacecraft became the first man-made object to leave the solar system. When it was being developed, mission planners calculated that the probe would last for five years. Well, a staggering 36 years later it is still working, and is expected to keep going until 2025 when its generators will no longer be able to supply enough power. Voyager contains more than a million individual electronic components, a self-repairing computer system, data storage and sensitive scientific instruments. During its life it has been subject to huge extremes of temperature, the stress of a rocket launch and huge doses of radiation, and yet it still sends its data back to Earth.

This month I have been on quite a journey myself as part of the judging for this year’s Lux Awards – not perhaps clocking up as many miles as Voyager, but still taking in world heritage sites, supermarkets, warehouses, shopping centres and leisure venues. I’ve met
people at the coal face of energy use reduction and those that live with the lighting industry’s efforts, good and bad. They have shared the often quite extensive value propositions used to justify an energy-efficiency upgrade and the specific challenges of each installation.

One of the set questions for all entrants is: ‘Have you had any problems with the lighting system post installation?’ Another is: ‘What warranty arrangements do you have?’ These are important questions, because the value proposition for the investment hinges on the lighting kit doing what it says on the tin. Having to continually revisit a system that has not performed can quickly blow the value away – especially when it involves hiring access equipment.

We touched on warranties in last month’s Lux magazine, and my continued experience is that they fall in to two camps. Ones that are essentially window dressing to support the sales process, which vanish as the project makes its way through the specification and construction process. Then there are those that are offered direct to the building owner.

These are essential to justify the investment in a new technology – I call them ‘real’ warranties. Building owners tend to remember the warranty as they live with the lighting system day by day, so they are acutely aware of failures and what they were promised. In many cases it’s their own reputations on the line if the investment in new technology fails.

As the LED and controls revolution unfolds, the warranty is going to become a big differentiator. It demonstrates the confidence a manufacturer has in their system. We are already starting to see real warranties move from five to 10 years, and why not? If complex 1970s electronics can last in deep space for 36 years is it unreasonable to ask for a lighting system to last five or 10? It can be done. Yes, it comes down to the price and the amount invested in R&D, and to the time to prove out the warranty. Today we see products at all price points offered with five-year warranties, Tomorrow we will see whose products last the distance.


Follow Gordon on twitter @gordonroutledge