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Future Design's David Clements||
Future Design's David Clements
04 Jun 2014

Future Designs' David Clements on LED adoption

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Price may be the biggest barrier to the adoption of LEDs, but specifiers should look at the possible harm the alternatives can do, says David Clements of Future Designs

Lighting is frequently one of the most debated, considered and controversial factors in a building project. This is because it impacts upon so many key objectives – health and safety legislation, corporate sustainability targets, aesthetic design requirements and, of course, the fundamental fact that we all need light and we can all see it.

Lighting is also the most visible form of energy use within a building, accounting for up to 50% of the total energy bill. While computers and HVAC equipment might also use substantial amounts of energy, nothing is as visible as a lit lamp. So when governments begin to talk about global warming, reducing emissions and reducing mankind's demanwds on the earths dwindling natural resources it is little wonder that the way we light our homes and places of work are continually up for debate.

We are now in a phase of mass adoption of LED lighting fixtures, an even greater leap than that of moving from incandescent lamps to fluorescent ones in the 1950s and 1960s. The reduction in carbon usage comes not only from operating an LED, but also in the manufacturing process and disposal of the used components.

As LEDS become a more attractive propostition for domestic households and commercial buildings alike, the switch from CFL (compact fluorescent lamp) bulbs could have some hidden environmental dangers. About four years ago, the government phased out the good old fashioned light bulb – the tungsten GLS lamp – because it was considered to be harmful to the environment due to the energy it consumed.

 " In the change from CFL to LED, we must remain acutely aware of the components we are replacing and ensure that any switchover is managed correctly "

This is all well and good if you only take into consideration the energy usage relating to its light output, but the fuller picture reveals that CFL lamps are harmful on other levels.

CFL bulbs contain a small amount of mercury (about 4mg), and Chinese workers involved in their manufacture have several times been reported by state media to have suffered mercury poisoining due to over-exposure. If broken, the bulb releases that mercury into the environment, and while unlikely to cause harm, it still needs to be disposed of very carefully; it is effectively hazardous waste.

Studies have also shown that CFL bulbs emit high levels of ultraviolet radiation. The European Commission's conclusion is that "some single-envelope CFLs emit UV-radiation in amounts that can exceed the recommended limits set to protect from skin and retinal damage if they are used in close quarters and for extended periods of time. Lamps with a second glass envelope emit much less UV."

The irony is that the encouragement to use CFL was based on its low energy consumption, yet no account was taken of its embodied energy – the significant carbon used in its manufacture, largely due to the fact that it has so many components.

It is convenient at the moment to keep this information under wraps and prevent public outcry, but these dangers will eventually become common knowledge once LED lamps become the norm.I hope this goes some way to explain why LED is so appealing. It uses little energy to manufacture, and there aren't any harmful components, chemicals or gases that can harm the people who either make them or use them.

It is my opinion that as the economy improves and organisations are able to make long-term decisions once more about their real estate, every new project or refurbishment will comprise an LED solution. The increase in lamp life coupled with the reduction in maintenance costs equates to a payback period of three to five years.

The biggest downside to LED adoption, cost, will reduce with wider adoption. In the mean time, in the coming change from CFL to LED, we must remain acutely aware of the components we are replacing and ensure that any switchover is managed correctly.

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