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Tim Hortons employee Rahul Dhingra dusts the new LED ceiling lights installed a month ago as part of a sustainability upgrade at the coffee-and-doughnut company’s Caledon, Ont., location.

J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

Just a few years ago, LED lighting wouldn't have made Tim Hortons Inc.'s short list for new lighting systems because of high costs, along with an unpleasant harsh quality of the light.

But the technology has changed, prices for commercial use has dropped and bulbs are now available that emit a warm, friendly-looking light. The bulbs last for years, requiring less maintenance, says John Macey, manager of sustainable design at Tim Hortons.

The company is now outfitting all of its newly built restaurants with LED systems. Tim Hortons also has a retrofit program for existing sites and plans to change the lighting in its 4,500 restaurants globally. LEDs, which use light-emitting diodes, will replace a mix of metal halide, fluorescent and incandescent lights.

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"While many of these other lights have proven to be fairly energy-efficient, our research told us that LED lighting is truly the gold standard when it comes to efficiency, ease of installation and maintenance, and providing the best light quality for our specific needs," Mr. Macey says.

LED lights last up to 50,000 hours, compared with the standard 12,000 hours of the bulbs previously used at the restaurants. A return on the investment of the switchover from lower electricity costs is anticipated within 3 1/2 years.

The new lighting systems are part of the company's commitment to a greener building design, as it plans to have as many as 30 of its Canadian restaurants LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified by 2016, according to Mr. Macey.

Other companies are switching, too. Starbucks Corp. began implementing LED lighting in 2010 in new locations. The company's goal is to reduce electricity use by 25 per cent in their stores globally .

LED lighting was also the technology of choice for Edmonton, which is converting all 98,000 of its street lights in an ambitious greening program. The project shows a reduction of electricity use of 40 to 60 per cent, depending on the light intensity needed in different locations, according to Gary Ursulak, street light construction and maintenance supervisor for the City of Edmonton.

Market trends suggest that interest in LED lighting is growing and that the market will grow quickly. According to a recent report by market research firm ResearchMoz, the LED lighting market, which was at $4.8-billion in 2012, is anticipated to leap to $42-billion by 2019. Another recent report, by Markets and Markets, shows growth in other efficient lighting technologies, too, but suggests LEDs have the greatest potential.

The trend is spurred on by the phasing out of incandescent bulbs under Canada's Energy Efficiency Regulations that parallels a move in the United States.

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Do LED lights deserve the hype? They aren't the only game around, points out Frank Sharp, senior technical leader from the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). The U.S.-based EPRI conducts research related to the electric power industry.

Mr. Sharp notes advances are being made in all the various available lighting technologies in terms of greater energy efficiency and longevity. The amount of energy a business might save by switching to LED systems isn't straightforward.

"The savings from LED to another technology varies from application to application, and it varies with which technologies you compare them to. … If you're switching between an LED and fluorescent technology, that's going to be a smaller percentage because fluorescent lighting is relatively efficient already," Mr. Sharp says.

Fluorescent lights, however, contain small amounts of mercury. At end-of-life, these bulbs should be treated as hazardous waste, according to Environment Canada.

The amount of light a bulb emits is measured in lumens, while the power used is in watts. Most LEDs fall between 75 and 100 lumens per watt, depending on the fixture, whereas fluorescents are typically in the 80 to 90 lumen-per-watt range.

Jennifer Veitch, a senior research officer at Canada's National Research Council, notes there is variance between LED lighting products in terms of brightness, the quality of colour emitted (from a harsh blue-white light to a warmer red), and there are uncertainties around longevity because of the technology's newness.

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To help consumers sort through this, the U.S. Department of Energy is developing more detailed labelling for bulbs.

Ms. Veitch notes, too, that many smaller players in the field got into LED lighting from the electronics industry. Some may not be experienced in dealing with issues that could arise with long-term lighting products.

Generally, when considering switching to a lower energy lighting technology, do due diligence and ask for a long warranty, industry experts suggest.

Tim Hortons did. The company engaged several suppliers and selected the top seven to participate in test retrofits at several restaurants in Toronto. They monitored energy consumption and looked at the quality of service, aesthetics and light quality.

"We wanted to make sure the lighting solutions we chose provided the best atmosphere for our guests," Mr. Macey says.

After that, the company negotiated a seven-year warranty.

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