Budget LED luminaires: when things go wrong . . . or not

I want to tell you a story . . .

It started with a typical LinkedIn post – full of outrage and ‘what’s-going-on-ery’. But when I got wrapped into the discussion I decided it was high time to find out exactly ‘what’s going on’.

Here’s how our tale unfolds:

A school in the north of England is due for some refurbishment work, including replacement lighting. For whatever reason (I haven’t been able to get to the bottom of this one) the client specified a Philips LEDinaire IP65-rated batten.
And so it begins.

When the fixtures arrived on site, the contractor’s antenna started twitching; something wasn’t quite right. Perhaps it was the Russian documentation that came with the fixture, with the unfamiliar EAC Eurasian Conformity sticker on the housing; maybe it was the fact that it was a sealed-for-life fixture. After all, who knows what devilry exists inside those things?

EAC labelling – in three languages.

Whatever, the decision was taken to break open one of the fixtures and see what was going on inside. And this is really where the trouble started.

You can see from the photographs here why the twitch of an antenna shifted to a clanging alarm; mains connections clearly done by hand and an LED strip from an unknown company (FIN Electronics, known to us only via eBay!). This suggested that all may not be well within Philips/Signify world. “So” – the call came down the line to me – “what are you going to do about it, John?”
Sheesh: with friends like these . . .

Inside the LEDinaire batten

Meanwhile, back on site, the contractor had convinced the client to switch the specification to a more-trusted fixture. There – the first use of the magic word ‘trust’; it’ll be back again before too long. The Philips battens were returned to the wholesalers, Edmundsons in this instance, and alternative fixtures procured. The job was completed to the satisfaction of the client and all concerned. Apart from, presumably, Philips/Signify.

The first question had to be, ‘is it a genuine Philips fixture?’ Counterfeiting is a billion dollar business and this kind of fixture is ripe for rip-off. Did the contractor still have any of the original fixtures to hand?’ As it happened, the contractor had held onto a few of the villainous pieces; presumably, so that they could be used in future training sessions to terrify the young and inexperienced.

The fixture that had been broken open was sent to Philips/Signify for inspection. (The fact that it had been opened up, thus voiding the warranty, gave the inspectors immediate reason to tut, which was hardly the point.) And while we were waiting for them to come back to us with their report, a second fixture was sent to Richard Hayes, contributor to The Light Review and originally of design and test house 42 Partners. Richard now lives a more peripatetic life, tormenting any manufacturer or test house that might cross his path.

It also occurred to me that there was another player in this game.

The fixtures had been ordered from Edmundsons Electrical and, although there was no indication of any chicanery there, I thought it might be worth the effort to get hold of one of these fixtures myself, from a completely different source. These fixtures are readily available on the internet, so I bought one from any-lamp.co.uk (note the .co.uk suffix there). By a stroke of extraordinary coincidence, these guys are based in Eindhoven . . . what were the chances?

Anyway – while we’re waiting for the inspectors and testers to come back to us, what was our thinking at this point in the action?

The fixtures had been ordered on Edmundsons. In turn, Edmundson’s had to order them from someone else. It’s not beyond reason to suspect a wholesaler of buying from third party sources. In the situation that we were facing, two unsavoury options came to mind:

  • Edmundsons may have purchased from a non-EU source – a company operating in Russia, for example. I have no idea on the quality of Russian electrical build standards, but I’m sufficiently chauvinist to believe that they’re not as hot as our own dear EU standards. And probably significantly cheaper.
  • The fixtures could have been bought from a third party wholesale house, possibly in the Far East. That company could be selling counterfeit product, all badged and packaged to look all the world like a genuine fixture . . . until you look inside.

And so back to the story: the Philips/Signify inspectors came back first and tidied up a lot of our thinking. Yes, the product was genuine and satisfied all product testing requirements . . . and, by the way, opening up the fixture voided the warranty; please don’t do it again (I paraphrase). Also, the fixture that I had ordered from my new friends in Eindhoven proved to be exactly the same as the fixtures delivered by Edmundsons. That effectively closed off the more lurid speculations, and with a single bound, the wholesalers were in the clear.
Thank goodness.

But it didn’t settle the issue fully to our satisfaction. Was this fixture any good? Let’s wait and see what Richard comes back with.
Let me quote him:

“I have to say that if I was working for Philips I would be quite happy to defend that luminaire.  In some ways it is a very elegant piece of design.  One piece co-extruded body, nice end caps.
It has one compromise – the manual soldering of the Power components on the LED board.  I can’t say anything about the quality of the actual LEDs, but we can say the board runs pretty cool therefore I would expect even cheapo LEDs to last.  I suspect if there is a problem it will be with the power end.
Most of the big boys in this industry have made worse in the past.”

So – a genuine fixture, supplied by a reputable wholesaler and originating from a global giant of our industry. What does that leave us with?

The LED revolution has created degrees of paranoia throughout the industry. The all-consuming Chinese dragon has caused disruption and uncertainty across manufacturing and specification sectors and the massive growth in counterfeiting is further damaging trust at all levels.

And that has to bring me back to the source of the issue – the makers. Philips/Signify has left itself open to criticism here. There are two weasel terms used in their literature and documentation:

Sealed for life: this is a symptom of the LED era. A fixture that’s rated to IP65 and with a rated life of 50,000 hours is meat and drink for dodgy business. If you design a fixture that doesn’t need to be opened (and the LEDinaire has an extremely elegant solution to the way that the fixture is wired) then you can get away with anything going on inside the housing.

Entry-level luminaire: this is how Philips/Signify describe the LEDinaire fixture. There is no such thing as an ‘entry-level’ luminaire. The batten that I bought is now installed in my garage. It will be lucky to see more than 100 hours of use on a year. With a rated life of 50,000 hours that promises a practical life term of 500 years; making that an ‘impractical’ life term of 500 years.
Under no circumstances can that be considered ‘entry-level’. It can, however, be considered as a ‘budget’ fixture – designed and built to suit a particular price point (and assisted by that ‘sealed for life’ design).

Mr Hayes has asked me to point out that life terms measured in tens of thousands of hours are generally nonsensical. He points out that you can’t erect an economic Maintenance interval of 50K hours no matter how good the LED. The RSMF and LMF alone will take you down into MF 0.6 territory long before you arrive at the minimum acceptable L** figure (in our case here, Philips state L65 as 50,000 hours, or around the year 2519CE if you’re standing in my garage.)

Manufacturers need to help specifiers and contractors to have trust and confidence in their products. It would help if they could put themselves in the position of an installer, faced with a fixture that they can’t access, that comes with Russian documentation – and should you break one open you find the most basic DOB circuitry and an unknown LED manufacturer, not even a Philips branded light source.

Yes, what I’m asking for will put up the price of these ‘entry-level’ items, but it will help in the on-going argument against poor quality (sealed-for-life) luminaires and assist in the argument towards decent specification. And it will instill a lot more trust in the people who carry the can for the ultimate quality of an installation.

At the end of our tale, everything was as it needed to be but, in truth, hardly as everything perhaps should be.

Just to finish off, let’s go back for a moment to that original LinkedIn post. In 1984, as imagined by George Orwell, everyone was obliged to take part in a ‘two-minute hate’ session. It was, of course, a ruse dreamt up by the government to keep everyone’s mind off what was really happening in the UK in that 1984.  Sound familiar?

LinkedIn serves a similar service; it is Outrage Central. It’s an easy way to have a bit of a rant, feel better about yourself because you’ve made your point . . . and then go on with life. And everything stays the same.

Outrage can be a powerful generator for change, provided the energy is put to practical use. If you’re pissed off with something, what can you do to change it? Don’t just fire off another post – work out a strategy. And I’m not suggesting that anyone is going-off on one for no real reason (well, not everyone). But there’s too much heat and not enough light (sorry).

Our story can have enormous value if we can convince manufacturers to see that higher production values can actually help them not to lose business (and their good reputation). And we can also help to convince buyers that raising their deplorably low technical standards will improve project outcomes and, we hope, shift us away from this race to the bottom.

The struggle continues, my friends!

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