The Next Generation Luminaires Solid State Lighting Design Competition was created to recognize and promote excellence in the design of LED commercial luminaires. Sponsored by the U.S. Deparment of Energy, the Illuminating Engineering Society and the International Association of Lighting Designers, the competition was launched at Lightfair International in May 2008 and attracted 68 entries from 29 lighting companies. Those demonstrating good lighting quality and consistency, glare control, lumen maintenance and aesthetics were selected as "market ready," or ready for specification in the commercial sector, with superior products recognized as "best in class."

The first qualification of being identified as "market ready" was the ability to meet the technical requirements in the Energy Star SSL luminaire criteria: undercabinet shelf-mounted lights, portable desk/task lights and recessed downlights. Applications were allowed for other general lighting luminaires such as cove lighting, valence lighting, pendants, wall washers, sconces, accent lights, refrigerated and non-refrigerated retail display case lighting, exterior architectural lighting, facade lighting, street and area lighting, and pedestrian pathway lighting. Some manufacturers submitted products that used an LED source inside a familiar package; others developed entirely new luminaire concepts built around unique LED advantages.

A panel of 14 judges, including representatives of IES, IALD and DOE, met last November to evaluate the products by assessing their color performance, lighting performance, visual appearance, construction, serviceability and submitted photometric data. The judges awarded bonus points for no OFF-state power use, features that minimized nighttime light pollution if applicable, and ability to adjust color temperature and beam spread.

Of the 68 entries, 22 were identified as "market ready," or about a third. Lighting designer Naomi J. Miller, principal of Naomi Miller Lighting Design and a competition judge, says the criteria were tough but that the LED industry overall could have done better, a sign that it is still suffering growing pains. "The competition was terrific in that it encouraged real-world evaluation of products, and we relished the chance to see these luminaires outside of product literature," she says. "Some of the products were so innovative they made us want to race home to specify them, but I was struck by the sense that too large a portion of the LED industry is pushing cute, small luminaires at the expense of adequate thermal design, maintenance issues and real photometric performance. It's affecting design dramatically in that we are all looking for good LED luminaire designs, and have come to expect them for many applications. But too often we are disappointed."

Lighting designer Avraham Mor, LEED-AP, partner, Lightswitch Architectural, Chicago, and a competition judge, agrees the criteria were stringent but notes that the competition was nonetheless limited to recognizing whether products are "market ready" which indicates that the product is ready to be specified in the commerical marketplace. In that light, he says the LED industry has a lot of work to do.

"I wanted products to be equal to what is on the market if not better when it came to all levels of performance," he says. "The fact that two-thirds of the products were disqualified shows the industry is doing poorly. Manufacturers are trying to force product on the market and are not listening to the design professionals."

Lighting designer Stefan Graf, principal of IlluminArt and another competition judge, believes some manufacturers are doing very well, but others are cutting corners in an attempt to bring products to market. "The competition demonstrated to me that this is still a very new technology and that while some luminaire designers really get it, many are rushing to market with products to just get established in the marketplace, without the time needed to do it right, or maybe not having a good understanding of the important issues," he says.

While agreeing that LEDs are the future, the designers believe the LED industry has a lot of work to do before that future arrives. Miller says color quality and consistency over time is still a large issue, and flicker is still an issue for many products, particularly during dimming-which is much more difficult, she adds, than claimed by most manufacturers. Mor believes there is a lack of true innovation. And Graf is concerned about the lack of warranty support over the rated life of the product, and calls on the industry to provide an extended warranty program beyond the five years required by Energy Star.

Speaking of which: even the Energy Star label for SSL luminaires, the designers point out, is no guarantee that the SSL product will perform well in the application, which is why the competition and its results are so importatnt to the lighting specifier community.

"Energy Star is just one criterion of performance and does not address heat sinking, accessibility, flicker, good color rendering, aesthetic appearance and so on," Miller explains.

It also does not take into account the appearance of the light, according to Mor. "There is an Energy Star-rated luminaire that all of the judges looked at and rejected as market ready due to the appearance of the light it produced."

Miller adds that this is why the Next Generation Luminaires Solid State Lighting Design Competition is so important, as the products are vetted by lighting professionals in a real-world evaluation. "The competition identifies the truly outstanding designs that rise above the minimum criteria of the Energy Star rating," she says. "I know that the products rated as 'market ready' have survived close scrutiny by some of the best lighting folks in the industry."

Still, Mor adds Energy Star is needed because there are issues like warranty, core temperature and other high-level issues that they review. "The two programs need to work in tandem. I found the competition results, for example, very useful. It pointed me in the right direction on a few products I was looking at, as well as giving me a baseline for products I'm reviewing on a daily basis," he says.

Graf says every responsible specifier should use the competition results to help them make informed decisions on which products may be considered ready to specify and which are not. "I certainly will," he says. "It is very difficult to get the information necessary to make informed decisions unless you are very active in education programs. This program has accelerated my learning curve tremendously."

Graf invites specifiers to check out a PDF document on his firm's website at www.illuminart.net, titled "LEDs: Rewards and Risk Management," that addresses many issues and concerns related to LED lighting.

Mor concludes: "If a product was not recommended by this group, you should think really hard before using the product."