James Benya Shares His Thoughts about LEDs, Lighting Controls, DC vs. AC Power, and So Much More

Photo courtesy: Enlighted

It has been said that to be good at your work, you must have a passion for it. James Benya, P.E., FIES, FIALD, principal of Benya Burnett Consultancy, Davis, Calif., is and does. During his 41 years in the business, Benya has helmed notable lighting design firms and shared his experiences during industry events and through publications. In addition, he has authored several books, including Lighting Design Basics and Lighting Retrofit and Relighting: A Guide to Energy Efficient Lighting, both published by Wiley & Sons.

An electrical engineer and computer scientist by education, Benya dabbled in theatrical lighting during high school and college and found his passion. “Lighting design as a profession really didn’t exist, particularly outside of the theater, when I decided to become a lighting designer,” he recalls. “It was an emerging field, which appealed to my sense of artistry. I sensed there was a need for good lighting in buildings that really didn’t exist when I first started. I really took to it as an alternative in my career and never looked back. It has been very good to me.”

Today, Benya is sought for his straight talk about the lighting industry and its emerging trends. For this reason, retrofit spent some time chatting with him about the overwhelming push toward LED lighting, the validity of wireless lighting controls and other initiatives we should consider while striving toward energy efficiency.

retrofit: the magazine receives so many releases about new LeD products every day, it’s difficult for us to keep up. is the marketplace being inundated? Do you anticipate a backlash?

Benya: I think everybody sees there’s an opportunity to change our existing infrastructure, so it has become a mad race. Manufacturers all over the world are licking their chops at the opportunity to sell a lot of stuff really quickly. LEDs are very easy and cheap to manufacture and they appear very easy to use. There’s a whole city in China that is doing nothing but making LEDs and LED luminaires by the billions of dollars worth for worldwide distribution. Of course, there’s a glitz to LEDs; they can do things that ordinary lighting can’t do.

However, LEDs today often aren’t everything they promise to be. The easy evolution of LEDs has led to a lot of less-than-perfect decisions and products. We’re right in the middle of ironing this out and it’s very dramatic and controversial. The U.S. Department of Energy, for example, promotes LED technology in general, so the public thinks all LEDs are good. Not all LEDs are good. Some have significant shortcomings that are being ignored; that’s really the dark side of LEDs the public isn’t aware of.

r: What are those shortcomings?

Benya: The No. 1 biggest problem is to make an efficient LED, we sacrifice color quality. This is caused by the spectrum of the LEDs. The risks are visual and physiological. Visually, poor color quality or inappropriate color temperature risk negative public acceptance. Like with compact fluorescent lamps, color-rendering index is not a good metric and we run the risk of LEDs getting the same poor reputation as CFLs. That would be too bad, and it is preventable right now.

Of perhaps even greater concern is the potential impact on the environment. I am presently contributing to a book authored by my partner, Deborah Burnett, titled Evidence based Lighting Design [Wiley & Sons, winter 2014]. Through her research, I have come to appreciate the wide range of human health and other environmental risks because of our carelessness involving light and biological response. The rush to create super-efficient LEDs has driven manufacturers to develop products with an excessive percentage of light in the blue end of the spectrum. Most folks don’t necessarily know this but it actually has been identified as affecting the human circadian system, the overarching biological survival mechanism that protects and coordinates all our metabolic processes. The primary impact is our ability to sleep. Quality sleep is critical for warding off disease, keeping us healthy, and providing us with the ability to think and age gracefully. In 2012 the American Medical Association issued an unprecedented policy change [AMA H-135.937], cautioning against the use of white light at night because of the emerging discoveries linking this type of light to breast cancer, diabetes, obesity and heart disease.

We have recently started to question what we call “color fidelity” because most LEDs are quite distorted relative to natural white light by being especially weak in cyan and red. Obviously, in retail lighting, color quality is tantamount. But in a more critical example, high color fidelity permits the rapid visual assessment of blood oxygenation, which is important in health- and senior-care settings where life-threatening conditions cannot be noticed with ordinary lighting.

About the Author

Christina A. Koch
Christina A. Koch is editorial director and associate publisher of retrofit.

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