Efficacy Improvement of Commercial Grade LED Recessed Downlights Slows But Benefits Remain

recessed downlights in commercial building with escalator

The rate of growth in LED lighting technology can easily be overwhelming. Almost as soon as the “ink” cries on the specification sheets for a line of LED fixtures, the next generation is only a matter of months away. It may take only six months for manufacturers to offer fixtures with a 10% improved efficacy – lumens/watt – compared to the previous version.

While this trend in improved performance may be true for many categories of commercial grade LED fixtures, it is surprisingly less so with LED recessed downlights.

CALiPER Report Tracks Downlight Performance Trends

The U.S. Department of Energy CALiPER program evaluates long term performance of LED products – lamps and fixtures. In July of 2017 they released another evaluation of LED recessed downlights – both retrofits and new construction.

One of the more interesting results in the recent CALiPER update on downlights notes that while efficacy (lm/W) improvements in LED downlight fixtures made significant leaps annually a few years ago, in the last 20 months the efficacy has increased by just 8 lm/W. Generally, the average efficacy of LED downlights is lower than other LED fixtures.

DOE speculates that “the lower performance of LED downlights relative to other luminaires is at least partly due to different optical requirements in downlights, but the relatively low performance of conventional halogen and CFL downlights provides less incentive for continued efficacy gains in LED downlights, compared to luminaire types competing against linear fluorescent or high-intensity discharge incumbents.”

In other words, there seems to be little incentive in the market for manufacturers of LED downlights to improve on the current 70 to 80 lum/W efficacy. This compares to CFL efficacy at 50 to 70 lm/W. The moderately more efficacious LED downlights alone might not provide a market advantage to LED but the significantly lower maintenance costs resulting from operating a 50,000 hour LED vs. 10,000 hour CFL make the difference for many buyers. The ease of dimming and strong color characteristics of the illumination provided by LED downlights also gives it an advantage over CFL.

In contrast, LED troffers and LED high bay fixtures must compete with 40,000 hour (or higher) rated life fluorescent fixtures. With a lesser advantage in operational life, manufacturers of these categories of LED fixtures rely on continually improving the efficacy of their products so they can be a competitive option.

Mature Commercial Grade LED Downlight Product Offers Strong Case Vs. CFL

In addition to a significant reduction in maintenance costs, commercial and architectural grade LED downlights offer the same quality materials and construction, low glare, flexible wiring, universal 120-277V and most of the same installation options of traditional halogen and CFL downlights.

While it is true the performance advantages of LED downlights have not improved significantly in the last couple of years, that does not change the overall advantage compared to halogen and CFL. With five times the rated life, a modest advantage in efficacy (compared to CFL), quality construction and a range of installation options, commercial grade LED downlights, whether for new construction or retrofits of existing fixtures, offer significant, long term advantages for building operators.

Shop Commercial Grade LED Recessed Downlights

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Dave Burtner

Dave has been active in the lighting industry since 1994. Formerly a member of the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America and certified by the National Council On Qualifications for Lighting Professionals, Dave now writes blog posts, lighting tips and provides lighting product assistance for the Topbulb website.

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