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From Incandescents to LEDs in Commercial Lighting and Beyond

by Margot Carmichael Lester, Staples® Contributing Writer

It wasn’t that long ago that our best source of light was an actual flame. Even as recently as the Victorian era, business owners illuminated their workspaces with candles and oil lamps. In 1879, though, Thomas Edison created the first commercially viable incandescent light bulb, enabling office workers and shopkeepers to see more and for longer than ever before. How have things changed since then? Let’s take a look at the evolution of commercial lighting and how light bulb history has paved the way to the future.

Incandescents

Though incandescent light bulbs changed the world (and the history of light bulbs), the science behind them is pretty basic. “Place a resistance coil of wire inside a vacuum-tight glass enclosure, agitate electrons through that coil by applying proper voltage, and the restive coil gets white hot — so hot that it produces light,” explains Brad Bonneville, owner of Bonneville Electric, an electrical contractor in Carrboro, NC. “The more resistance, the brighter the light.”

Incandescents generate most of their energy heating that coil, making them effective but inefficient. They put a lot of heat into a room and have a relatively short lifespan, but their low commodity price keeps replacement costs low and for some can offset the higher cost of operation.

This simple bulb served us well for decades in home and office lighting. And today, vintage incandescent bulbs are trending. But, Bonneville says, “one-hundred-year-old technology must eventually be replaced. It’s taken a long time to replace this great invention, but it’s finally happening.” In fact, by the end of 2014, incandescent bulbs will no longer be manufactured in the U.S.

CFLs

The first contender to replace the incandescent bulb was the fluorescent light, which works by driving an electric current through mercury vapor, “exciting” it to produce a short-wave ultraviolet light that makes a special coating inside the bulb glow. Fluorescent light bulbs have been in wide use commercially since hitting the market in 1938. They’re used most frequently in large commercial spaces and require special fixtures.

The real difference-maker came in 1980, when Philips introduced the compact fluorescent lamp (CFL), enabling anyone with a traditional fixture to take advantage of this more efficient, less expensive energy source. “CFLs can last anywhere from 7 to 25 times longer than traditional incandescent bulbs and can save as much as 80 percent of the energy,” says Todd Manegold, director of product and marketing management for Philips Lighting. “This leads to lower energy costs over the bulb’s lifetime and reduced maintenance costs due to less-frequent bulb replacements.”

The technology was a boon for business owners wanting to lower energy costs while meeting government standards and local building codes. Today, there are billions of tubes and CFLs installed in offices and businesses around the country. But as companies focus on employee safety and greener operations, CFLs have come under scrutiny because of the dangers associated with mercury. Fluorescents require special disposal and are considered hazardous if broken.

LEDs

The latest buzz in lighting, light-emitting diodes (LEDs) illuminate by sending an electrical signal along a semiconductor to create electromagnetic radiation that we see as light. LED lighting became technologically viable around 2006, but didn’t become popular commercially until recently when dramatic reductions in cost and functionality made it more cost-effective and versatile. In fact, between 2011 and 2012 alone, global sales of LED replacement bulbs increased by 22 percent, and the cost of a 60-watt equivalent bulb dropped by nearly 40 percent.

“LED lighting has transitioned quickly from a novelty to a reality with innovations like improved color rendering; quality, no-hassle maintenance; and impressive paybacks, enabling thousands in cost savings for business owners large and small,” says David VanSpybrook, director of sales enablement for Cree, maker of LED light fixtures, bulbs and components.

LEDs require significantly less wattage to produce the same amount of light, and as a result, they cost less over the long term. “An LED light source only requires four to five watts of energy to produce 450 lumens, for example, while an incandescent bulb requires 40 watts to produce the same amount of light,” VanSpybrook notes.

Multiple Benefits for Business Owners

The evolution of commercial lighting creates tangible value for business owners, including speedy ROI, low total cost of ownership and high-quality illumination, making office lighting a cinch. “But we’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible,” VanSpybrook attests. “With this evolution, businesses no longer need to look to outdated technologies for a comprehensive lighting solution.”

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