Blog Post

Can A Pending Standard for LEDs Prevent Another Lighting Debacle?

LED light quality is still not very good, but a new California standard could change that, and prevent another CFL-style consumer rejection.

Cree's TW Series LED Bulb provides impressive 93 CRI light quality yet costs less than $20.Photo Credit: Cree

LEDs provide some of the most efficacious lighting available today, with some products offering over 100 lumens per watt, or lpw—an incandescent bulb is a paltry 15 lpw. Unfortunately, as consumers know from compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), which have never been fully embraced, energy efficiency can come at the cost of light quality. Unless something changes, LEDs could become the next CFL, offering energy efficiency at relatively affordable prices, but with poor color and durability and limited dimming ability.

In this month’s Environmental Building News, we look at two products, Soraa’s MR16s and Cree’s TW Series LED Bulb, that offer innovative LEDs with demonstrably superior light quality to standard products (see Soraa: New LED Technology With Improved Color Quality). These lamps, however, are an anomaly in an LED industry where light quality plays second fiddle to efficacy.

Current standards

There are now thousands of LED products available, and the number is growing by the day, as computer chip makers and other manufacturers—many with no previous lighting background—enter the LED market. Most of these LEDs have a color rendering index (CRI) of about 80: the standard set by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and Energy Star for CFLs, and also the standard used for rebate programs involving LEDs. (Color rending index uses a scale from 0–100, with 95–100 similar to natural light or incandescents.)

Why 80 CRI?

The origin of the 80 CRI standard traces back to when fluorescents were first adopted for office use, according to Michael Simnovitch, energy efficiency director at the California Lighting Technology Center.


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 “80 CRI is just enough color to see white, and the minimum color that is acceptable in an office space,” he told me. Yet that same standard was then applied to CFLs used in people’s homes. Eventually, “Forces were set up to drive down the cost of fluorescent technologies,” claimed Simnovitch, “and at low price points, there is not much you can do to promote color quality and longevity.”

As a result, CFLs’ green glow, flicker, and other quality problems caused a backlash that the lighting industry is still trying to manage.

“Race to the bottom”

California has invested heavily in marketing these CFLs, but this effort has resulted in less than 20% adoption, according to Simnovitch, and light quality is largely to blame. To keep history from repeating itself, some industry experts are starting to demand higher-quality light from LEDs.

“Everyone is saying that 80 CRI is OK,” said Jim Benya of Benya Lighting Design. “It isn’t. It is a very distorted light source.” He stated, “We have to get away from this race to the bottom.”

In high-end retail spaces, where sales of consumer goods require quality lighting, retailers have already shifted over to 90–95 CRI LEDs, or are still using inefficient 95–100 CRI halogen lamps. Yet people question whether the difference between 80 and 90 CRI in LED is noticeable to the consumer in the home and is worth the added cost and energy penalty.

Simnovitch responds that the real issue is whether consumers notice the difference between the 100 CRI that they are used to in an incandescent lamp and an 80 CRI LED that doesn’t have a full color spectrum; people definitely notice that difference.

Soraa's Vivid MR16 LEDs provide a full light spectrum at 95 CRI. Note parts of the visible spectrum are missing from other light sources particularly CFLs. Photo Credit: Soraa

The California Energy Commission’s new standard

Concerns over light quality have prompted action, and in late December 2012, the California Energy Commission (CEC) agreed on the Voluntary Quality Light Emitting Diode Specification for residential LED lamps. The CEC standard will be used to determine rebate eligibility for LEDs in California and includes tougher light quality standards of 90 CRI, a 4-step MacAdam ellipse for color consistency, noise- and flicker-free dimming from 10%–100%, and a minimum 5-year warranty.

The CEC is giving the LED industry through 2013 to catch up, but in 2014 the state’s rebate program will be tied to these tighter standards.


The CEC’s action is not taken lightly. There are reasons the DOE and Energy Star chose 80 CRI as a standard: it saves energy, and bumping the standard to 90 CRI will result in less efficacious lighting (LEDs lose 2 lpw for every 1-point increase in CRI above 80).

Benya argues that the tradeoff in efficacy is worth it. “We are simply going to have to give up some efficacy to gain light quality,” he said. “Until we start having this discussion, we are going to be making crappier and crappier LEDs.” And Simnovitch agrees, adding, “Our world is still at 15 lpw, so even if we move to 30 lpw [with wider adoption] it would be the largest energy saving leap in history.”  

Fortunately, the efficacy of high-CRI products is improving, and the cost is even coming down. Cree is now offering 93-CRI lamps that meet the new CEC standard, providing 13.5-watt (60-watt equivalent, 800 lumen, 59 lpw) and 8.5-watt (40-watt equivalent, 450 lumen, 53 lpw) light for less than $20, and less than $10 in some areas with rebates. These lamps are not as efficacious or inexpensive as the company’s 80 CRI versions, at 84 and 75 lpw for their $10, 9.5- and 6-watt products, respectively, but 59 lpw is still impressive.

This balance between cost, performance, and market conditions is not an easy one, however, and not all manufacturers are capable of engineering a high-performing bulb at a reasonable cost. Even Philips has succumbed to pricing pressures, quietly ceasing production of its L-prize winning, 92 CRI, 100 lpw LED lamp—the darling of the industry for a year or two and a BuildingGreen Top-10 award winner—replacing it with a less expensive 80 CRI version.

A bright but tenuous future

LEDs are at a crossroads. They are the future of lighting, consumers are starting to notice them on store shelves, and they are affordable to more than just early adopters, but are manufacturers going to continue to bet that 80 CRI is “good enough”? And will consumers care? California placed these same bets on CFLs years ago and lost. Will the new CEC standard change the odds for LEDs?

Published October 16, 2013

(2013, October 16). Can A Pending Standard for LEDs Prevent Another Lighting Debacle?. Retrieved from

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