Let there be light—but what kind?

When you’re trying to decide about the lighting for your retail or restaurant chain, there’s only one thing you should never do: blindly follow the conventional wisdom.

By Donna Miller, Wayfind June 6, 2016

After years of experimentation and pricey first-generation products from off-brand suppliers, LED lamps are finally mainstream. Every major lighting manufacturer is now invested in the production of LED luminaires, with LED lamps brightening everything from holiday displays to year-round restaurant and retail establishments. The promise of LED is tantalizing: dramatically lower energy use, longer lamp life, and a full spectrum of color possibilities.

But if you’re thinking about converting part or all of your facility lighting to LED, you should approach it the same way you’d think about any disruptive technology. Ask questions, take a close look at your actual needs, and consider the pros and cons of large-scale changes.

The Pros

Less impact:

LEDs are the most energy-efficient light source on the market, requiring less energy per lumen than incandescent lamps or even compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs). LED lamps last longer, with a lamp life of up to 50,000 hours. And unlike their closest competitor, CFLs, LEDs don’t contain toxic mercury, which means no costly hazardous waste disposal, less harmful exposure for your employees and customers, and less potential exposure for your chain if a lamp should break.

Bigger savings:

The greater efficiency of LEDs can save up to $400 over the life of each lamp. And that’s before you factor in rebates and other incentives available from the federal government, state governments, utility companies, and retailers. Also, LED lamps provide a more directional illumination than incandescent or CFL lamps, eliminating the waste of energy and illumination. Incandescent lamps and CFLs throw much of their light—up to half—where it’s not desired, like the ceiling or back into the luminaire.

Control, CRI, and lumen output:

Because an LED lamp is a semiconductor, modifications to the semiconductor material and current flow through this material allows for greater control and color rendition. Restaurant customers may be more enticed by lower color temperatures—meaning warmer colors that make skin tones more attractive. The retail experience is more complicated, as some merchandise, like clothing, is better served by warmer colors while other kinds, like jewelry, are better served by cooler ones that heighten contrast with a preference for higher light levels.

An additional advantage of LED lamps: high color rendering index (CRI). Rated on a scale of 0 to 100 (with a higher number producing a better color quality), CRI is the ability of an artificial light source to produce colors that would have identical color qualities in a natural light source. LED lamps can produce light with a CRI of approximately 90. Fluorescent lamps have a CRI in the range of 60-70 (incandescent lamps have a CRI of 100).

Temperature tolerance:

LED lamps also adapt to changes in the ambient temperature better than CFLs or high-intensity discharge (HID) lamps. Due to the nature of the operation of CFL and HID lamps, cold temperatures affect the ability of these lamps to produce the rated illumination. LED lamps are not affected by cold temperatures and produce an equivalent amount of illumination in all temperatures. This characteristic, along with the directional control, explains why LED lamps have become so popular in exterior applications. Providing a properly illuminated exterior environment allows your customers to feel comfortable and secure while visiting your retail establishment after dark. You also have many options with LED fixtures, which can be manufactured to meet unique illumination requirements.

The Cons

Higher upfront costs:

Even though prices have dropped in recent years, LED lamps are still more expensive than incandescents or CFLs. (And the savings you’re looking forward to could take up to 25 years to accumulate.) You will likely need to replace your existing fixtures with LED fixtures either to accommodate the newer LED lamps or to prevent theft: Outdoor LED lamps housed in older compatible fixtures have, in some cases, proven to be attractive targets of theft. In that case, you’ll want to weigh not only the cost of the materials and labor, but also how the changeover might disrupt your chain’s operations.

Big variables:

Fixtures come in many shapes and styles, but the most common LED lamp—A19—only works with standard household shapes. You’ll also want to decide how important it is to be able to dim your lighting, since it’s harder to find dimmable LEDs than dimmable incadescents and CFLs. Finally, not all manufacturers stick to the highest standards of lumen output and color rendition, so you’ll have to do your homework before selecting a lamp.

The Questions:

  1. Where do I have the greatest lighting needs and challenges?
  2. How long can I wait for the investment to pay off?
  3. How would my chain optimize the greater flexibility and control that LED lamps offer?
  4. Since it’s such a big, long-term investment, am I confident that this is the once-in-a-generation lighting change I’d recommend for my chain, or do I think that we could see another lighting revolution within the next, say, decade?
  5. What is the most important experience I want my customers to have?

Many see LED lamps as the future. And LED is a great choice-but that doesn’t necessarily make it the ideal choice for you. That’s why the best way to decide if LEDs are right for your chain is to consider both the pros and cons, and to approach it with your eyes wide open.

-Donna Miller, is vice president of engineering at WD Partners. This article originally appeared on wdwayfind.com. WD Partners is a CFE Media content partner.