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LED lights have taken the pool industry in bold new directions — and have done so in increasingly rapid fashion in only the past few years. In terms of sales, the new compact-LED fixtures have reportedly overtaken traditional incandescent lights, which are increasingly relegated to replacement sales.
According to James Carter, lighting product manager for Hayward Industries, "From an LED perspective, the rate of adoption is extremely high because the entire lighting industry has done a great job of educating the consumer."
Zack Pickard, product manager for Pentair, agrees. "For many years, pools were built with one large light niche in the deep-end wall of the pool, and that single niche provided all of the underwater light," he says. "Today, new pools are more commonly being designed with 1.5-inch fittings for smaller, plastic 12-volt LED lights. Even basic pools may have four to six lights. With more lights in more areas of the pool, lighting design can be much more dynamic."
Graham Orme, product manager for lighting and water features for Zodiac Pool Systems, agrees, but points out that the old-style lights still shine bright in one area. "Incandescent is still a big part of the market because there are so many existing pools that use incandescent lights and many people are content to replace their lights instead of switching over to LED. But in terms of units sold, LEDs do appear to have taken over and there's no question that trend is going to continue," he says.
There are a variety of reasons for LED's steady march toward market domination. Chief among them is the way the smaller fixtures facilitate a new way of approaching lighting design and the value they add for homeowners.
"Ultimately it's about leveraging that investment they made in having a pool in the first place," Carter says. "The ambiance is the big selling point. They're able to light all these different features, have uniform coverage in the pool and even the entire backyard. The ease of installation and cost are things that are important to the builder, but the consumer is motivated by the aesthetics."
In most cases, the pool sets the mood for the entire backyard. "It's the place where people gather, even if they're not swimming," Orme says. "They sit and talk and look out over the pool. We have these million dollar pools these days that people are hardly ever getting into. Pool lighting helps set the stage and create the feeling that owners want when they want to relax at night by the water."
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Nearly every type of design feature found in today's pools can benefit aesthetically from the new generation of lighting fixtures. Just as landscape lighting designers can highlight trees, prominent plantings and hardscape features, pool lighting can now readily illuminate beach entries, Baja shelves, attached spa spillways, vanishing edges, steps and benches, attached waterfalls, laminar jets and more.
"Back when pools were a rectangle and a kidney shape, lighting was an afterthought; put a light in the deep and end and call it good," Orme says. "But builders have now become much more creative with more custom designs. Customers have wanted pools that stand out and reflect more of their personality and their own tastes. They've wanted something more unique. Now we're seeing these intricate designs with islands, grottos, coves, vanishing edges — lighting can visually enhance all of those designs."
Carter sees the changes in pool design and pool lighting as going hand in hand: "There's a complete evolution of pool design and lighting has now become an important part of that development. We're seeing grottos beautifully lit with ½-inch lights, the same thing with custom rock waterfalls. All these little lights can be installed throughout the feature to create beautiful effects, to the point where the feature becomes far more interesting at night. There's really no end to what you can do."
The simple fact that LED fixtures can be made much, much smaller than incandescent lights has proven a major factor in their creative use.
"LEDs in general require smaller installation niches than older technology," Pickard says. "The smaller fixtures can be installed in both horizontal surfaces, like shelves and beach entries, or vertical surfaces like walls or stair risers, often in very tight spaces where other lights don't fit."
Orme highlights another practical advantage of LEDs. "Rather than one large light carrying the load for the entire pool, now you're seeing four or five lights that are providing much more even glow and light distribution throughout the entire pool," he says. "And you can achieve that for about the same cost as you would using the single large light."
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And, with LED lights, especially the 1½-inch and half-inch products, you don't have the niches or the bonding and grounding requirements, which is a function of the low voltage, not necessarily the LED technology itself, according to Carter. "But it just blows open the versatility of these products. It's really enabled people to get creative with where they put these lights and how many they use," he says.
More creative flexibility and possibilities, however, does mean builders need to develop new skills.
"There's definitely a learning curve," Orme says. "When we were dealing with just the one light, there really wasn't much to it. But now builders are being forced to develop a greater understanding of lighting design in terms of managing glare, orientation and light distribution."
One of the hallmarks of LED technology is thatit increases options for colored lighting, which paves the way for innovative design and that ever-desirable "wow factor."
"When you look back to the time before LED lights came into the market, the only way to get color lighting into your pool was with halogen lights and color wheels or fiberoptic systems," Carter says. "Often times, the color you'd get would be a lighter color than what you would anticipate, based on the delivery method. As LEDs have become more efficient, more practical and brighter, you can now deliver an effect that you weren't able to before with the previous technology. You can achieve saturated blues, reds and greens, a broad range of colors. It's a unique ambience that we're not accustomed to seeing in typical swimming pools."
Carter adds, however, that greater flexibility and power in colored lighting does present a challenge in terms of educating homeowners, who don't always entirely understand the possibilities. "There can be some initial hesitation for some consumers because you say colored lighting and the first thing they think of are Christmas tree lights," he says. "They don't quite make the connection that it's not lighting a Christmas tree, but more like lighting the Empire State Building, where it's all lit up with this beautiful saturated color — that it brings this whole different effect to a backyard. The more people see it in their neighbors' pools and their friends' pools, the more likely they are to adopt it."
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LED's ability to deliver a wider variety of colors at greater saturation has also impacted control technology. "All of our automation systems make it very easy to adjust the light color, and move from color show to color show to enhance and set different moods," Pickard says. "For a Fourth of July barbecue, a few quick touches can turn a pool into a red, white and blue color show."
Although the possibilities for colored lighting have dramatically increased, LEDs also enhance white lighting. "Now that color is available to everyone, there's a move back to the white lighting, and even warm white light so that it matches the landscape lighting, where the landscape architects are trying to complement the green of the foliage. More and more architects are recommending that the pool lighting match that with an almost incandescent type of look," Orme says.
The longer service life LEDs offer compared to incandescent lights has also proven a strong selling point.
"Users definitely enjoy the long service life of LEDs," says Pickard. "Incandescent bulbs require much-more-frequent changes. Another selling point is that LEDs consume less energy."
That benefit has become particularly popular with commercial facilities, where large pools often have a multitude of lights that run for longer periods of time. "That's a big reason why LEDs do very well in the commercial market," Carter says."There's a strong ROI associated with the technology."
On the other end of the spectrum, LED lights have also brought creative lighting to owners of modest residential pools, a segment of the market that rarely utilized multiple fixtures or colored lighting. "We definitely see the trickle-down effect," Orme says. "We offer a service where builders send in plans and we provide recommendations where to place the lights, which lights and how many. The plans I'm seeing come across my desk are increasingly across the spectrum, it's not just the high-end custom pools. Even more-affordable pools are including things like Baja shelves and vanishing edges. So now those builders are also taking advantage of the technology."
Finally, LEDs have prompted the lighting industry to shift away from sizing and selection based on wattage, but instead on lumens, the measure of actual light output.
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"Overall measuring by lumens is what we should be using in benchmarking the performance of the fixture," says Carter. "We have tools for builders where we say if your pool is a particular dimension, then it's X-number of square feet, meaning you'll need Y-number of fixtures to generate adequate lumens per square foot. Many codes for commercial pools are still based on wattage per square foot and not on lumens, which is a much better metric to use, so we're still in the process of educating regulators about using lumens as the means for measuring light output."
There have been rumors that some areas might outlaw incandescent pool lighting all together. "Even though that hasn't happened yet, it's not outside the realm of possibility," Orme says. "Some of our OEMs that have supplied incandescent bulbs have said that they are no longer making them and that we'll have to find someone else to supply them."
For these and other reasons, the trend toward LED lights in pools shows no signs of dimming and is following the macro-trend in the lighting industry at large. "Fact is," Orme concludes, "the entire lighting industry is going away from incandescent to LED, and the pool industry is no different."
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