March 1, 2013
By Vic Walker
Light is experienced in many forms—from the natural light of the sun and stars to manmade electric lights that are used every day. While the theory of light itself can be a rather complicated subject, this article will discuss some of the emerging lighting technologies related to the pool, hot tub, and outdoor industries.
While lighting has always been an important part of most commercial outdoor designs, recent advancements have allowed homeowners to create backyards that mimic some of the same features found in high-end outdoor designs. Many of these advancements have focused on new light technologies that provide more efficient and eco-friendly lighting options.
These include improvements in general, accent, and pathway lighting, in addition to lighting used in pools and hot tubs. As consumers look for more cost-effective, eco-friendly products for their backyards, outdoor lighting is receiving a makeover with the recent developments in light-emitting diode (LED) technology. In fact, these lights have become so popular in consumer products, they can be found on everything from automobiles to children’s footwear.
By comparing some of the more popular types of lighting (i.e. incandescent, halogen, and compact fluorescent lighting [CFL]), the importance of LED lights, and the impact they have on pool, hot tub, and landscape designs, can be better understood.
Incandescent is the oldest form of lighting. These bulbs are manufactured in a wide range of sizes, light output, and voltage ratings—from 1.5 to 300 volts. They do not require any external regulating equipment, have low manufacturing costs, and work equally well on either alternating current or direct current. As a result, these lights, which use a filament, are widely used in both household and commercial lighting products.
In the outdoor setting, these lights can be used as accent and/or pathway lighting, as well as functional lighting for patios and entertaining areas. For example, a typical outdoor ceiling fan or wall light often uses incandescent bulbs.
Another type of light that is popular in outdoor design is halogen. They are available in both high and low voltages as well as a wide variety of configurations. Many outdoor security lights use high-wattage halogen bulbs that are often tied to motion sensing systems that automatically turn on when someone approaches the light. Low-volt (e.g. 12-volt) halogen lights are often used in flower beds and walkways for accent lighting and are available in a wide variety of styles, including down/up lighting and spotlights. Most are familiar with these lights (sometimes called Malibu style lights) as they come in easy, do-it-yourself (D-I-Y) kits that are available at most home improvement stores.
One of the latest lighting technologies to become increasingly popular is fluorescent lighting. These lights last longer than incandescent lights and are more energy-efficient. Fluorescent lighting is commonly found in retail shopping stores and office settings. The latest generation of this technology are called CFLs. These bulbs have a twisted, coil-like appearance and are available for exterior use (e.g. decks/balconies and pathway/accent lighting for walkways or flowerbeds).
Although they are far more efficient than incandescent/halogen bulbs, CFLs have some drawbacks as they contain small amounts of mercury (Hg)—a hazardous material that has made disposing of old CFL bulbs an issue. Further, this also presents a problem should a bulb break, making clean-up a tedious process. Despite this, CFLs are still a great lighting option that consumers can use to create efficient outdoor living spaces.
LED lights are one of the fastest growing lighting technologies and even though they have seemingly popped up on the market in the last few years, they have actually been around for quite some time. Rather than emitting light from a vacuum (incandescent/halogen bulbs) or a gas (CFL bulbs), LEDs emit light from a piece of solid matter. In the case of traditional LEDs, this matter is a semiconductor. Stated very simply, an LED produces light when electrons move around within its semiconductor structure. The semiconductor is made of a positively and negatively charged component. The positive layer has ‘holes’ (openings for electrons), while the negative layer has free electrons floating around. When an electric charge strikes the semiconductor, it activates the flow of electrons from the negative to the positive layer. Those excited electrons emit light as they flow into the positively charged holes.
Today, there has been an influx of new designs aimed at replacing older lighting technologies. As such, LED lights are rapidly becoming popular in all areas including, automobiles, architecture, industrial, and all facets of consumer electronics. Further, the long-lasting nature of LED lights makes them a perfect fit for pool, hot tub, and landscape installations.
Thanks to the many benefits of LED lighting it was only a matter of time before this technology was designed for use in the commercial/residential aquatics industry. One of the most obvious benefits for pools and hot tubs is energy efficiency. Many large commercial pools and hot tubs have several large lights that need to operate for extended periods of time. Even smaller pools and hot tubs use one or more large lights. These lights can be anywhere from 250 to 500 watts in size. In comparison, an LED light with similar lumen output will operate at approximately 45 watts.
These new, high tech pool lights use special super-bright LEDs with wide viewing angles to increase light output. They last longer than traditional lighting options and the bright vivid colours they provide are a nice upgrade to any pool installation. Further, LED lights have also replaced fibreoptic lighting systems as the product of choice for pool and landscape designers/builders thanks to their low-cost operation, durability, and ability to provide multicolour lighting options.
Most of the larger equipment manufacturers in the pool and hot tub industry now offer a full line of LED lights for new installations and retrofit kits for older pools. These lights are easy to install and can spice up the installation of a beautiful inground pool and hot tub. Many companies provide complete LED light systems with automated controllers to co-ordinate everything from yard, pathway, and accent lighting to pool and hot tub lighting via one central location.
In addition to replacing and enhancing traditional lights, LED lighting has also allowed designers/builders to create dramatic water effects in pool and hot tub designs. Many companies have created lighting systems that allow designers/builders to add multicolour lighting options to traditional features. For instance, a traditional waterfall can now be installed with an integrated, multicolour LED-light system, which can produce dynamic light shows and be synchronized with other landscape features.
As the price for the LED products continues to drop, consumers will be able to add lighting features that, until recently, were only found in high-end commercial designs.
One of the products that have benefitted greatly from LED lighting technology is the portable hot tub. Originally, hot tubs used small 12-volt incandescent bulbs in the footwell to illuminate the interior. Coloured-plastic lenses were used to change the colour of the light; however, the light was not really considered a design element of the hot tub.
When outdoor fibreoptic lighting became popular in the pool industry, many hot tub manufacturers added this feature as well. For example, the fibreoptic cable was used to create ‘points of light’ around the bar-top of the hot tub. These lights could change colour and provided added ambiance to the hot tub design; however, manufacturers found that even though consumers liked the lighting option, the technology was not suited for hot tubs. The optic cables were often difficult to work with and the main light box created unwanted heat.
A few years later, manufacturers started leveraging LED lighting technology into their product designs. LED manufacturers were also quick to see the emerging markets and many companies built specific lighting systems for the hot tub market.
First, manufacturers used LED lights to replace the main hot tub light. These light systems, which incorporated up to 24 LEDs, used an array of red, green, and blue (RGB) LEDs. Many of these systems were actually designed so they could be easily retrofitted on older hot tubs. These systems typically had five-to-nine colours as well as several ‘light shows’ that created a multitude of lights in a colour-wheel effect.
Today’s LED lighting systems use smaller processors and heat management systems, along with a multitude of RGB lights. Once installed they completely change the esthetics of the hot tub’s interior. While these lights are more expensive than the incandescent bulbs they were replacing, the added ambiance, low-power consumption, and longevity has made them a perfect fit for the hot tub market.
When LED manufacturers developed a single point RGB light, hot tub manufacturers were quick to install them around the inside of the hot tub, creating the same look and feel that was previously accomplished using fibreoptic lighting. This lighting technique has been used to illuminate everything from the hot tub water and air (jet) controls to water features and other items.
These lights are installed in small, clear lenses and are mounted at the bar top of the hot tub. This new design concept is tied to the main hot tub light and all of the lights change colour in sequence. Today, manufacturers are creating their own unique lens designs and are using this lighting technique underwater. For example, some hot tubs include as many as 50 or more points of light that are distributed on the various walls of the hot tub.
Once single points of light were introduced, many other options became available. For instance, one area that benefitted was the hot tub exterior. Before LED lights, hot tub manufacturers did not consider using any type of accent or decorative lighting on the hot tub cabinet as there was not really a system designed to enable this.
Now, manufacturers can create plastic housing designs that attach to the exterior of the hot tub where single-colour or RGB lights can be added. These lights can be operated independently or co-ordinated with the hot tub’s interior lights.
As LED lighting technology continues to evolve, outdoor living and outdoor products will continue to benefit from the new opportunities. New designs will last longer, provide more light, operate efficiently, and be easier to control. Soon entire outdoor systems will be able to communicate with each other and to devices like smartphones and/or iPads. Further, these lighting systems will play a large role in helping homeowners lower their overall energy usage and at the same time add the benefit of colour to their backyard.
Vic Walker is the product design and marketing manager for Custom Molded Products Inc., a manufacturer of components for the swimming pool, hot tub, and aquatics industries in Newnan, Ga. He has almost 20 years experience as an industrial designer and more than 15 years experience in the pool and hot tub industry where he has been awarded more than 15 patents for his contributions. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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