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Avoiding a Motor City Mess, Part II

Avoiding a Motor City Mess, Part II

In the wake of Detroit’s mass city-wide replacement of lighting fixtures by LED provider Leotek, distributors share their experience with low-cost products.


In early June, the City of Detroit’s Public Lighting Authority began replacing nearly one-third of its LED streetlights only a few years after they were first installed because of defective equipment. While products from several LED manufacturers have been successfully installed in the city, the Authority noted that more than 20,000 LEDs from low-cost provider Leotek Electronics USA have caused premature dimming and failures; the city has since filed a federal lawsuit against the manufacturer on the grounds that the defective lights have put the struggling city’s revitalization progress “in jeopardy” and will cost millions of dollars to fix.

In this second part of a special two-part series, several veteran distributors share their experience with low-cost LED providers and explain why “you get what you pay for” when you invest in them.

A Cost-Focused Market?

Charles Dix, lighting segment manager at Cottage Grove, MN-based Werner Electric said that a lot of lighting users are unfortunately influenced by cost. “A majority of customers do look at the lowest price with the flawed belief that all products use equal components and all LED technology is equal between manufacturers, but that’s not the case at all,” Dix said. “Quality differences between LED chips, drivers, and heat sink technology can create a wide variation in pricing. In addition, major lighting manufacturers spend enormous amounts of money on testing and quality control to ensure that their products meet the specifications, which adds cost but also delivers peace of mind to customers. I believe that many customers fail to realize that price really is an indication of the quality, performance, and warranty guarantee of the fixture,” he said.

“Sure, there are still end users who price shop, though it’s not as prevalent as it once was,” contended Stephen Shepps, LC, construction solutions manager at Harrisburg, PA-based Schaedler Yesco Distribution, adding that his firm spends a great deal of time educating customers on the LED category. “At one point there were so many new LED fixtures being introduced that we were asked to write a white paper for the state of Pennsylvania that they then shared with municipalities who were considering conversion to LED technology,” Shepps said. “The paper outlined the benefits, expected performance levels and standards, and potential pitfalls when converting to LEDs. Because many of our customers look to us for a complete solution,” he said, “we show them the importance of using reputable manufacturers over low-cost, second-tier manufacturers or importers.”

Robert (“Bud”) Belviso, lighting designer at the Tinton Falls, NJ-based Lighting Design Center at Warshauer Electric, noted that manufacturers are increasingly working to help customers evaluate between products and make more informed decisions based on their resources. “Lighting budgets are usually grossly underestimated on smaller retail/restaurant projects and customers are often seeking more cost-effective lighting solutions,” Belviso said. “The good news is that there are more and more products available to accomplish that objective and many manufacturers, even the more architectural companies, have started offering a ‘good, better, best’ strata to accommodate as many budgets as possible.”

“You Get What You Pay For”

Based on his experience, Belviso said that “cheap” LEDs are just that. “What you generally get with this kind of product is lack of consistency, poor performance, and inaccurate color temperature and CRI,” he confirmed. “Since diodes are only as good as their housing for heat dissipation, I would suspect that the life expectancy of cheaper products is also greatly compromised.”

Shepps concurred. “When it comes to product quality and technology, you really do get what you pay for,” he said. “Reputable manufacturers with longevity have R&D teams focused on product development; they consider conditions, employ new technologies, and test the heck out of their products to ensure that they meet industry standards and customer criteria. Low-cost brands seldom manufacture their own products, so the R&D and testing just isn’t there — one of the many sacrifices made to keep the cost low.”

Shepps knows this from hard experience. “Unfortunately, we had a few situations involving lower-cost products that caused pain for our customers,” Shepps said. “The spec sheets we were provided had all of the right data and on paper, they looked like good products at a good price, but in the end, the products simply didn’t perform to the specs provided,” he said. “A few months ago, Acuity hosted an informative webinar about this very topic and performed standard testing on several low-priced brands, which revealed that even the basic standards weren’t being met. I think that this is the kind of information that needs to be shared,” he said.

While he feels that the industry is proactively trying to weed out lower-grade products and that the DesignLights Consortium’s stringent testing and more informed buyers will certainly help, Shepps believes that avoidance of these options remains the best strategy. “At Schaedler Yesco, low-quality products just aren’t in our offering,” he said. “We have a reputation for providing successful solutions and you need high-quality products to do that. We’d rather lose an order than risk our customer’s project with poor quality or a brand that won’t stand behind their product if an issue occurs.”

Dix feels that the challenge is in balancing a lot of variables when it comes to cheaper LED fixtures. “Some of our largest and most established lighting manufacturers offer inexpensive or value-line products, but they’ve learned through their years of experience and extensive quality control processes that you can offer a quality product with quality components at a value price,” Dix said. “What we run into more frequently is a customer who’s found a product online offered by a company that’s been in business a few years or less and simply buys the cheapest components, does the most rudimentary quality testing (if they do it at all), and then brings the product to market. There are good products on the market today that are low-priced but offer good performance,” Dix argued. “The challenge as a distributor is to find those suppliers who offer good products at a value price, have undergone a quality review, and have performance data to back up their spec sheets.”

Tips for the Trade

Our experts offer the following tips to help distributors avoid the situation that happened in Detroit:

  • Field Test – “I would advise any city/customer to go through a field-testing process and set a specification/performance requirement for the LED solution they’re seeking,” Werner Electric’s Dix said. “For any sizeable project, the customer should set up a trial program and collect data to evaluate the products. Only through a rigorous process of field-testing and requesting testing data for the fixtures can the customer make an informed decision.”
  • Hire a Qualified Consultant – For large projects, Dix believes that cities/customers should hire a consultant who’s a Certified Lighting Professional and have them assist in the specification-writing and field-testing processes. “Quality manufacturers with proven performance will be able to handle all of these requirements and the ones that can’t will be quickly identified and eliminated,” Dix said.
  • Consider Compatibility – “After quality, we review compatibility with other systems,” Schaedler Yesco’s Shepps said. “It’s critical to look at the big picture to ensure that all of the parts work together to create an efficient and operable system.”
  • Be Diligent – “Do the due diligence on whatever’s being specified by investigating the manufacturer’s track record, energy savings claims, and level of support once the sale has been made,” Warshauer Lighting’s Belviso said. “Stay away from cheap companies that are very new, as many of these companies won’t be around when 50 fixtures fail. That’s when the alleged savings that were once viewed as an advantage turn into a financial liability.”
  • Reference Other Projects – According to Dix, “a manufacturer should be able to provide case studies involving the product for customers to reference.” Shepps agreed. “We talk through our experience with similar projects because being able to reference other projects we’ve done using the same fixtures and systems is very reassuring,” Shepps said.
  • Invest Wisely — According to Shepps, there’s a lot at stake when it comes to city-wide lighting upgrades or other large projects. “A municipal project is a big deal and a bad product choice can be devastating for a city as well as the person who chose the product!” he said. For that reason, Belviso confirmed, “we only offer products from companies that have a proven track record and back up their warranties and offer.”


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Susan Bloomis a 25-year veteran of the lighting and electrical products industry. Reach her at susan.bloom.chester@gmail.com.

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