As prices fall, use of cost-saving LEDs increases

| Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016, 9:00 p.m.

Ashley Jones and Ben Feder try to be energy-efficient in every aspect of their lives.

The Wilkinsburg newlyweds' apartment uses wind-generated electricity, which they buy from Green Mountain Energy, and a programmable thermostat that they can control from their cellphones and that automatically responds to the couple's usage. They limit how long they run water and use lights.

Still, they didn't invest in light-emitting diode light bulbs, or LEDs, until they saw them on sale about six months ago.

“They're still pretty expensive. We saw a deal and stocked up,” said Jones, 28, an organizational efficiency specialist at Noresco, an energy services company.

In 2015, a standard 60-watt equivalent LED bulb was $9.24, compared to $1.12 for a halogen incandescent bulb and $2.66 for a compact fluorescent light, according to Boulder, Colo.-based Navigant Research, a market research firm for the energy industry.

Jones and Feder are not alone in hesitating to buy LEDs because of the price. LED use quadrupled to 215 million units between 2012 and 2014, and their price fell 52 percent between 2012 and 2015, but they still represent only about 3 percent of lights used, and most of that growth has been in commercial and industrial uses, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

The department and conservation groups have promoted LED use, in part because they use less electricity, and federal laws began phasing out the sales of traditional incandescent bulbs. The price of LEDs has prevented many homeowners from switching.

The LED market is poised to take over residential lighting sales, though it will take several more years, industry experts said.

“Cost is a big, big driver,” said James Brodrick, project manager for the Solid State Lighting Program at the Department of Energy, noting only 77 million LED bulbs were used to replace incandescents in homes in 2014. “That's peanuts,” he said.

LEDs are becoming more competitive in the lighting market as their price falls, the color of the light they emit becomes more natural-looking, and consumers take advantage of the increased functionality that LEDs offer, such as controlling the lights via cell phones and computers, said Harry McGovern, a principal at LaFace & McGovern Associates Inc., a Bethel Park firm that markets lighting to architects and developers.

Five years ago, LaFace & McGovern did not push LEDs but now they make up 70 percent of its business, mostly for commercial and industrial projects, McGovern said.

“Energy and building codes require commercial spaces to be more energy efficient, which plays right into the use of LED systems and against more traditional lamp sources,” he said.

The company's residential business has grown over the past two years but mainly for large, high-end homes and upscale apartments, such as the Foundry at 41st in Lawrenceville and Bakery Living in the East End, said Tim Leonard, another at LaFace & McGovern.

LEDs have longer warranties than traditional lights — five years compared to one year — and can qualify for rebates from utility companies because of energy savings.

For example, West Penn Power's and Penn Power's commercial customers that replace four fluorescent light tubes with two LED tubes can receive a $15.55 rebate per fixture. Residential customers can save $5 per LED bulb sold at any of five stores, including Walmart and Target, through May 31.

Shadyside-based Walnut Capital, developer of the Foundry at 41st and Bakery Living, is putting LEDs in all of its residential projects, said CEO Gregg Perelman.

“Long-term maintenance-wise, it's better. Plus, it's better for the environment,” he said.

The average LED uses 25 percent to 30 percent less energy and lasts eight to 25 times longer than halogen incandescent bulbs, the Department of Energy said.

Still, consumers have resisted a push to switch. The federal Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 was expected to help herald widespread adoption of LEDs. Mandating that bulbs had to be 28 percent more energy-efficient by 2014, the law phased out the most popular type of household light bulbs — 40-, 60-, 75-, and 100-watt incandescents — but most consumers responded by simply buying modified halogen bulbs, said Frank Sharp, senior technical leader of the Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto, Calif.

Over the past five years, lamp manufacturers tinkered with wattage, light output and life to optimize the energy savings and efficiency of halogen incandescent bulbs and to allow time for compact fluorescent lights and LED bulbs to be developed, said Terry McGowan, director of engineering for the American Lighting Association.

Most people don't know they're not buying incandescent bulbs anymore, Sharp said.

Appalachian Lighting Systems in Ellwood City manufactures LEDs and sells them through its own distributors. Most of the 10-year-old company's work is in the commercial and municipal sectors, but it moved into the residential market about six months ago and it plans to start selling the lights online directly to customers, said Jim Wassel, founder and CEO.

The company plans to compete with big-box stores for LED light sales.

“We offer products with a higher quality and longer lifespan. Our prices will be very competitive to those already offered — either at the same price, if not lower,” Wassel said.

Tory N. Parrish is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-5662 or tparrish@tribweb.com.

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