Playing What If: The End Of Light Bulbs

by Randy Murray on January 13, 2014

On Friday I offered a Writing Assignment about predicting the future. Here’s me taking my own medicine.

Let’s ask, “what if.” These thoughts are my own, traveling far outside and beyond the current topics of LED or CFL.

Now that the production of incandescent light bulbs has been largely phased out I’ve been doing what a lot of other people have been doing: trying to figure out what bulbs to replace them with.

But I’ve also been thinking, “What if we didn’t have ‘bulbs’ at all?”

I’m not talking about going back to candles and oil lamps. I’m looking at the current LED technologies and wondering if there’s a time coming soon when LEDs or something like them have a virtually unlimited lifespan. Right now we’re removing burned out bulbs and screwing something else in place every few months to a year, but how small could a light fixture be if it didn’t have to be serviced at all?

Look at the ceiling fixture near you. A big part of the structure is designed to allow someone to open it and replace the bulb. Another big part is to handle the large amounts of power necessary for legacy lights. Now imagine a light fixture that had an effective lifespan of one million hours. That’s over 100 years, longer than the useful lifespan of current light fixtures and wiring. Why make it modular at all? You could make the entire light and fixture a single, very small unit. It could also be much cheaper.

Take a can light (also known as “recessed light”), for instance. Have you ever looked at one of these things? They’re huge, but most of it sits buried in the ceiling. While the part you see might be six inches across, the can extends almost a foot into the ceiling with other attached gear and a thick electrical wire. The light itself is huge. You could replace it with a single six inch LED disk that might simply stick to the ceiling.

In addition, if, as LED lights do, it requires much, much less energy than incandescent lighting, then how might that change how we wire buildings? Maybe wireless power. Or conductive paints. Or maybe just a lower grade of wire. The same goes with switches. It is entirely likely that lights and switches could be linked wirelessly, eliminating the need for wiring to switches.

Thinking about something simple like this could change how we build and light spaces. It could dramatically reduce construction and operation costs. And we could light in very different ways. We’re not stuck with lighting buildings the way we’ve been doing it for over a hundred years.

We just have to ask one question.

What if?

Playing What If: The End Of Light Bulbs by Randy Murray, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Murray Johnston January 15, 2014 at 8:48 am

The industry is moving at “light speed” (pun intended) and already offer some of your ideas. Do a search on “light panels” and you’ll see there are already 2′x2′ and 2′x4′ panels to replace overhead lighting. There are also decorative light panels available. One of the biggest drawbacks however (and this will sound too familiar) is standards… no USB connectors. And since LED technology works off a direct current model, it seriously ties the power source to the application. How many lights of a particular current drain can you light before you have to add another “driver” which is kind of a hybrid transformer/ballast for the DC world. The last thing I’ll mention is that ideas and product introductions are outpacing the consumers’ and distribution channels ability to absorb them. It seems you buy something and it’s obsolete before you get it home. 5-10 year replacement guaranties are abound, but those same products won’t be around in 2 years. It’s a cluster****, just like EDI and just about the time you think you’ve got it sorted out something like XML will come along.
Your friend,


Randy Murray January 17, 2014 at 9:29 am

I thought that you might have something to say about lighting!

As you mention, it will take years for the construction industry to sort things out. It’s a fascinating, frustrating time.


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