Eveyone knows about LED panels, they have skyrocketed to be one of the most popular items in commercial LED lighting. The market perceives them as ‘sleek and sexy’ like a state-of-the art flat screen TV. These are recessed lighting fixtures, not entertainment devices. Unfortunately, not all are created equal, market pressure has driven down prices, and forced the Chinese manufacturers to sacrifice on quality to keep cutting costs.
First let’s get it straight - there is rarely a need for a ½ inch thick recessed fixture. Once it’s in the ceiling, no one notices it’s ½” thick (although most are really closer to 2-3” with the driver). In order to make the ‘magic’, very thin LED’s are mounted on the edge of two sides of the aluminum frame. Light passes through the LGP or laser etched light guide plate which is against a reflector sheet behind the frame and has a diffuser sheet underneath. This LGP is the highest cost item in the unit. Good quality ones are made from non-yellowing acrylic and are typically referred to as PMMA (Polymethylmethacrylate) and lower cost and lower quality ones are made of either PS (Polystyrene) or MS (Methylmethacrylate-styrene) - a blend of the other two.
Despite the fact that most white LED’s create little to no UV, the effects of heat and blue light wavelength (part of the ‘white’ light spectrum) can actually turn the lower cost materials yellow, with some low cost flat panels showing yellow lines down the middle in under one year of use. Another cost cutting move has been to reduce the thickness of the aluminum frame and LGP. As a result, the change from the popular 2835 or 3030 LED to the much narrower 4014 LED had to be made. These cost cutting moves also make the fixture less rigid and more fragile and without proper protection, the narrow 4014 LED’s can actually get damaged from the LGP heat expansion or shifting during handling. These really are not ‘state-of-the art’ in any way except value engineering to lower costs.
On to the subject of drivers - Back in the heyday of fluorescent lighting there were a handful of ballast manufacturers and most ballasts sold in the U.S. were of good quality from reputable manufacturers with U.S. presence. Fluorescent dimming was a seldom used specialty item with high cost dimming controls and ballasts. In today’s market, there are now hundreds or more driver manufacturers, most of which are unknown to the U.S. market and have no domestic representation. Since the majority of LED drivers are dimmable, there is now a much bigger issue with compatibility of drivers and dimming controls. Let’s keep in mind that a fluorescent dimming ballast had a cost of well over $30 and today there are complete LED fixtures being sold for that or less. The engineering design, adherence to standards, and quality is just not there.
Companies like Lutron sell very high quality architectural dimming LED drivers for more than the cost of many flat panel fixtures. You must be thinking, there has to be a difference and the answer is, there is! The specifiers and purchasers should realize that they are NOT going to get the smooth and reliable dimming performance and control compatibility from these low cost fixtures that are available from the major companies like Philips, Osram, ULT and other well known brands. Remember the goal of these low cost products is to be ‘good enough’ to hopefully last through the warranty, NOT highest quality and performance.
We are not saying that all imported LED lighting is bad, we are saying that many of the products such as flat panels have set customer expectations very high and the products are not designed or built to meet those expectations.
LED’s will not last forever, drivers will not last forever, not much does last forever, but high quality Made in USA fixtures are available and typically designed to be more than ‘good enough’ and should provide higher quality, longer service life, with technical support a phone call away, not on the other side of the planet!
You get what you pay for!