There is no short answer to the question; both product segments have their own optimal use environments. We may consider the subject from the cost perspective, encompassing the initial investment and lifecycle costs, or from the perspective of practical use. Let us consider this interesting and topical subject.
First of the factors that influence our choice is the current lighting solution. If the room already has fluorescent lighting fixtures, compatible LED tubes are an affordable solution, even if the fixtures are serviced at the same time. If integrated LED fixtures are chosen instead of LED tubes, the old lighting and conductors need to be removed and new fixtures and conductors installed, resulting in much higher costs. The difference in initial costs is not as significant if there is no existing lighting system, and a new lighting system and conductors must be installed regardless of the selected solution.
In integrated lighting, all the electronics have been packed into a single assembly which is then installed into the electrical network of the building by an electrician. When the light sooner or later fails, there’s a risk that the same light or the required replacement component is no longer available. The light must be replaced with a different one, and the building will no longer have a unified lighting concept, or all the lights must be replaced to retain a unified look. Some manufacturers offer module-based solutions, and there have been attempts to formulate shared module standards, but so far these have not gained a proper foothold in the market.
On the other hand, LED tubes with a built-in power supply contain all the electronics within the tube assembly, and are easy to replace. Anyone can replace the tube, with no need for an electrician. If old tubes are replaced with tubes that have the same colour temperature, the lighting concept will remain unchanged. The continuing availability of LED tubes is backed up by the international IEC 62776 standard, published in December 2014. The fixtures and conductors can thus be retained also in the future. If you wish to incorporate new technological advancements into the lighting concept in, say, ten years’ time, you can do it simply by replacing the light tube. When making the choice, you should also consider the responsibility for maintenance: an integrated light is considered a permanent installation, and its maintenance is the responsibility of the owner of the building. In a LED tube installation, the fixture is a permanent installation, but the LED tubes are not, so they can be replaced by the user of the building.
Integrated LED lights have some indisputable benefits: you don’t need to consider the shape of the fixture body, and different control technologies are available for them. The benefits of LED tubes, on the other hand, include their familiar shape and ease of use. DALI compatibility is being developed for LED tube lights, and some manufacturers already offer tubes with dimming capabilities. This means that on the technological level, the competition is evening out rapidly. Proprietary control solutions, however, pose a challenge for customers. If the manufacturer leaves the market or adopts new technology, the lack of support for the previous solution often forces the customer to change systems as well. It is a good idea to choose generally available standard control technologies such as DALI, or to use regular sensors and control electronics, available from any well-stocked electronics wholesaler, to build a motion detector-based, presence-based or scheduled lighting system. Any electrician will be able to install and service these components. In the case of LED tubes, a typical configuration has 3-phase conductors in the lighting fixture, and the LED tubes connected to the same fixture are controlled separately, which will allow changing the lighting level in the room even without dimming capabilities. All the important functionality of more expensive and complicated control systems can be achieved with such simple solutions. Regular sensors and LED tubes combine into systems with high reliability and low lifecycle costs.
Lighting market analysts have conflicting views on the future of the LED tube and integrated LED technologies. Of the operators that produce regular market analysis reports, Infiniti Reports and Strategic Unlimited, among others, predicted in 2015 that the market for LED tubes would experience annual growth of 28–29% during a period of several years, and that LED tubes would hold the biggest share of the LED lighting market. Frost & Sullivan, however, swear by integrated LED lights, and have long been giving up on the entire LED tube product segment. They have predicted that LED tubes will disappear from the markets by the middle of the 2020.
To see behind this conflict, we must understand that the market analyses reflect the views and goals of the companies interviewed during the related surveys. It is obvious that the operators in the lighting industry wish to sell products that will yield maximum profit. The long life and low cost of LED tubes don’t make them a very attractive product segment for manufacturers and retailers. Operators such as Samsung and Toshiba have given up all their LED light bulb and tube businesses. Osram also sold its similar operations to the Chinese, and Osram’s LED lamps and tubes are now sold under the product name LEDvance.
If big corporations do not consider LED tubes a profitable product segment, does it mean that there are no markets for them, or that the products are a poor choice for the end customer, compared to the integrated LED lights that the big corporations wish to promote? Despite all the sales pitches coming from these corporations, it is obvious that what’s good for the manufacturer is not always good for the customer – sometimes, it is not good for the customer at all. This is true in the case of LED tubes. LED tubes allow the end customer to replace their lighting with an affordable solution that also has low lifecycle costs, using a standardized product with a secure future. This is incompatible with the established business practices and expected margins of traditional lighting system producers.
Compared to integrated lighting systems, LED tubes have the following benefits:
- An international standard guarantees that compatible replacement tubes will be available for the T8 assembly now and in the future. There are no guarantees that the model of an integrated light, or even its manufacturer, would continue to exist even during the full warranty period of the product. There are many examples of ceilings being filled with different light models as the original integrated lights are no longer available, even with the warranty still in force.
- Installation costs are low when the facility has existing fluorescent lights. If the lights have magnetic ballasts with no compensation, installation is simple: only the tube and the starter need to be replaced. Even the rewiring of an old electronic coupling is in most cases a better solution from an economic perspective than using supplier-dependent integrated LED lights.
- In future, upgrading to the latest lighting technology can be done simply by replacing the old tubes with new standard tubes, with low costs.
- The tubes can also be moved to new facilities.
- According to the market analyses by Infiniti Reports (2015) and Strategies Unlimited (2015), LED tubes are the largest product segment in LED markets in terms of turnover, and will also experience the fastest growth until 2022. We have firm grounds to believe that LED tubes are the first choice to replace old fluorescent installations, even if some operators in the lighting industry say otherwise.
Based on all of the above, LED tube fixtures and LED tubes are the best choice for new and renovated facilities.