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  • Writer's pictureJacqueline Hosford, ASID

LED light fixtures: Green and not-so-Green

Updated: Mar 9, 2022

Yes, absolutely, everyone and every building should be converting to LED light sources. The cost savings for energy use are tremendous and in many jurisdictions required in order to reduce overall energy use. So what's the down side?

Green light LED light bulb overlaying an integrated LED 5-light chandelier
Integrated LED light: how green?

Before investing in lighting for your building or home, it's important to have a bit of knowledge about sourcing appropriate LED light fixtures. Importantly, be aware that any fixture identified as an “integrated” LED may not be what you expect. In today’s market, fixtures with integrated LED arrays are ubiquitous. The integrated LED light source is found in basic utility lighting to high-style decorative fixtures which you can find everywhere from Home Depot to Wayfair and beyond.

Yet, more and more we're seeing integrated LED light fixtures at higher-end prices. A case in point (among many) would be—which has a reputation for quality and good style—selling lighting with “integrated” LEDs at a cost of $500-$600 apiece! Now, this might work in a residential setting where 50,000 hours translates into years and years of use for a fixture used a few hours every day or so. But for your multifamily building where hallway lights are on 24 hours a day, 50,000 hours is only five years.

So what does “integrated” mean? It means that the LED module (called an array) is fully built into the structure of the light fixture. It means that there is no opportunity to “change the light bulb.” It means the after the LED light array dies, the entire fixture must be replaced.

The added costs here are self-evident: new light fixture versus new light bulb; the cost of removing and installing a new fixtures versus changing a light bulb. We don't know of any co-op building shareholders or condo owners who think this recurring expense makes sense. To boot, the amount of new junk these "disposable" light fixtures will produce is actually shocking.

So for those of us needing to change or upgrade the lighting in our buildings, which approach is more cost-friendly? Which is more energy efficient? Which is more environmentally friendly?

Clearly consuming less wattage to light your spaces by using LED is a no-brainer from both a cost and an environmental standpoint. But “integrated” LED light fixtures pose a series of issues from both those perspectives and more:

Fiscal & Utility Costs:

  • There is no opportunity to simply “change the bulb”—which is usually the less expensive option.

  • Consider the increased costs of new replacement fixtures and installation instead of a new “light bulb.”

  • Even if the decision is to go with an integrated LED fixture, finding the exact same replacement fixture when the time comes may well be a problem. After the typical longer lifespan of the LEDs, manufacturers will have moved on and will be producing different light fixtures.

  • And there is the related issue of fixtures “dying” at different times, which wreaks havoc with trying to maintain an even light distribution (and color temperature) throughout the space being lit, especially if five years down the road you can't find an exact replacement for the fixtures.

Environmental Costs:

  • Tossing out an entire light fixture is a sheer waste of all the energy, labor and raw materials — basically everything that goes into making the fixture in the first place.

  • Throwing out a fixture rather than a bulb adds significantly to our landfill heaps.

  • Even recycling of fixtures (if that in fact gets done) poses an environmental-ethical issue. Increasing the volume of waste we produce is the utter opposite of what we ought to be doing to our planet.

Pyramid of waste management tactics

Recycling your fixtures may be possible, but the strategy of recycling your now defunct light fixtures is not the optimal strategy on the green/sustainability pyramid.

Re-use of a product is the next most sustainable waste reduction strategy, which suggests that finding a light fixture that can be re-lamped with a new LED light bulb when needed might be a better option. That’s is what we recommend typically.

To sum it up, here are some thoughts on selecting the appropriate LED light fixtures for your project needs:

—Retrofit your existing light fixtures with LED retro-fit light bulbs, or look for new light fixtures that take LED retrofit bulbs. There are a slew of LED retrofit bulbs for almost every type of older-fashioned bulb base and light source (halogen, incandescent, fluorescent, etc.) or are both good resources.

—Look for LED fixtures that have replaceable LED modules. They do exist, although right now they are more typical of a higher-end commercial architectural fixture. Also, replacing an integrated LED array is not as simple as changing a bulb—you may need to disconnect the entire fixture to do so. The work also requires a level of technical expertise which building staff may not have. Click here for more info from the pros.

—If your building is doing an extensive renovation of the common spaces and your budget permits, then you might want to consider adding a lighting designer to the design team to create an entire new lighting scheme.

P.S. There is so much more to know about selecting appropriate LED lighting for specific interior design functions, but that is a great subject for another blog—

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