LEDs aren't enough to make hotels 'sustainable'. Here's what we really need to do

If the lighting industry wants to get a feel for how well its products are performing, it might like to go out and buy a hotel chain. If ever there was a sector where equipment is pushed to its limit, it’s this one: 24/7 operation with little acceptance of failure or high maintenance demands; and a high expectation that products should work way beyond their quoted lifetimes.

There is a strong parallel here with the principal demands of sustainability. One of the main planks of that philosophy is to keep material, in the form of product components, in play for as long as possible, without having recourse to the smelter or landfill. Yes, components fail, but that shouldn’t require a wholesale replacement of the luminaire. When my bike has a puncture, I don’t replace the bike or the wheel, I just replace the part with the hole in it.

A 50,000-hour life is five years and 280-odd days – about the same time it takes me to find my car keys”

The hospitality environment demonstrates that a 50,000-hour life isn’t much to shout about. I make that five years and 280-odd days. Maybe it’s just my age, but that feels like about the same time it takes to find my car keys. I’d like to suggest we give more care and consideration to the specification of light fittings before we commit our clients to refits of entire installations. To do otherwise just seems careless – and unprofessional.

I’m not proposing that we stay trapped in the current limbo of retrofit LED lamps. There will, inevitably, continue to be decorative elements of the hospitality lighting specification that mean exactly that; at least until product designers get to grips with what ‘LED lighting’ might mean in the context of decorative lighting. Can we see product design that fully exploits the essence of LED? 

But coming back to retrofit, the important thing to remember is that LED lighting is different. The landscape has been turned upside down and the old maps don’t work. If that’s the case we must do some things differently: the way we sell light fittings and then forget about them, for example. There is a world of difference between a light fitting that lasts 20 years but needs new lamp every few months and a light fitting that has to be replaced entirely every five or six years. And I’m not convinced that the Zhaga option does the job adequately, mainly because I suspect that the heat transfer from LED module to luminaire heatsink is not something that can be dealt with on the basis of an old-fashioned lamp change.

As LED chips become more efficient and even smaller, this heat problem will only become more acute. I suspect that module changes will have to become a workbench procedure, dealt with by qualified people. So I want to see a strategy in which light fittings fitted into a hotel ceiling can be maintained according to an approved strategy, where there is a relationship between maker and user, and that ensures only failed components are replaced. The rest of the luminaire body remains in use, meaning minimal waste of component material. If we’re really clever, we can continue to improve LED performance and still fit the later generations into current module housings. I think it’s called product development.

How else can we improve the sustainability of the hospitality sector? I guess there’s one aspect of lighting use that’s staring us in the face: hospitality is a 24/7 operation. The question we have to ask is: does that have to be true? Is there a design solution that responds to this usage demand? We can accept that a hotel’s doors are always open to guests, but does that mean the hotel lobby has to sparkle at 3am in the same way that it sparkles at 6pm? Does the lighting of corridors have to be constant? To what extent can controls adjust illuminance to guest traffic? We’re doing this in offices, roadways and petrol station forecourts, so perhaps we should be looking for creative ways to do it in hospitality.