One of the latest trends in commercial lighting is tunable white light emitting diode (LED) lighting, or the use of controllable channels to adjust the color temperature of the white light output. Before this technology was available, clients would need to specify the color temperature of LED fixtures throughout their building. Once the lights were furnished on site, the color temperature could not be changed, unless replaced.

Standard LED lighting uses red, green, and blue channels that are adjusted to create the entire color spectrum. The channels in a tunable system all produce white light, but with differing temperatures from a warm to a cool tone.

Due to more advanced LED technology, tunable white as a design option for a lighting system is now available. Improvements in LEDs, including the efficacy and controls, has created the ability to change the color temperature while still maintaining light output performance. This can be integrated into other building automation controls. For example, integrating with daylight dimming or connecting to the window shades system, ultimately increasing or decreasing overall lighting.

With the development of tunable lighting, the resulting light output can be synced to support human circadian rhythm. While this would be helpful in an office setting to support employees’ biological clocks, a major impact can be seen in the healthcare and education markets. The neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) was one of the first areas to use color-changing light to set the circadian rhythm in premature newborns.  Recent studies have shown that the use of gradual shift in lighting reduces the stress on newborns compared to a sudden change in lighting and has an overall positive effect on the newborns’ physiology and development. As with classrooms, the Department of Energy recently released a report on a trial installation of tunable lighting systems in three classrooms. The trial period allowed teachers to change the lighting tone based on the students’ activities. The results of the study proved to be positive with the teachers stating the lighting system improved the overall learning environment.

It is important to note that energy savings are not a result of tunable white technology. Energy savings come into play with the integration of dimming and switching in conjunction with the tunable white adjustments. The key to creating the cost savings is having the ability to change the lighting intensity along with the change in color temperature.

Graphic by Jessica Smith

The benefits from tunable white are mimicking daylight and circadian lighting, altering color temperature for specified scenes, and the flexibility in lighting design. These results create ideal lighting environments and promote the health and wellness of people in the space, which is an increasing focus on the building industry. In fact, a focus on circadian lighting is a feature in the WELL Building Standard certification, which provides guidelines that minimize disruption to the body’s circadian system, enhance productivity, support good sleep quality, and provide appropriate visual acuity.

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