Tunable White

JP Bedell

LED keeps evolving. Six or seven years ago no one thought that LED was bright enough or cost-effective enough for general purpose lighting. Then efficacies improved, colour got more consistent, costs came down, and now specifiers and end-users want LED first, everything else as a second option. LED has arrived and there's really no questioning it now.

That said, the industry is still changing and the technology keeps getting better and better. What makes LED fundamentally different from incumbent lighting technology is that it's digital versus analog. Which means changes to the quality of the light can be driven by software as much as hardware. We're already seeing that in smart buildings where LED fixtures are paired with digital lighting controls for task tuning and scripted automations. The next wave is already here. It's tunable white light and it will be the next game changer in LED lighting.

What is tunable white?

USAI's BeveLED 2.0 is available with colour select. This tunable white technology lets your recessed down lights transform the tone of a space.

Tunable white essentially describes a fixture's ability to shift from "cool" white light to "warm" white. Currently most LED fixtures come in a fixed tone of white light; typical CCTs are often 2700K, 3000K, 3500K, 4000K, and 5000K. Tunable white fixture offers the ability to shift the tone of the white light. So no fixed CCT is required.

There are several key advantages to this capability:

Eliminate the problem of guessing what CCT the client wants

I happen to like 3500K in a lot of applications, but what difference does that make? It's my client that ultimately needs to love the light I've provided them. Some people love warmer tones, others want the "whiter" whites of 4000K and 5000K. Tunable white takes the guesswork out of that problem.

Vary colour temperatures within a given application

Imagine a retail location that displays leather in one case and silver jewellery in the next. With tunable white, you can "warm up" the leather in one case, and make the silver extra brilliant in the other.

Tunable white would allow you to shift the tone of the white light for each of these shelving cubes, finding the perfect tone for the product you're displaying. There is a growing body of research that says that cooler colour temperatures of light enhance our alertness and ability to focus, while warmer tones relax us. Imagine an educational environment where you want the students awake and alert for their first class, but a little more mellow after recess. Or imagine an office environment where you want to boost productivity during the workday, but also host social events in the evening. Tunable white offers this variation.

An example from my event lighting days

The ability to make LEDs change color isn't necessarily a new one. But in 2015 we're seeing more and more manufacturers offer it as a standard option. Here's an example from my event lighting days of the power of tunable white light.

Here's the "Icy White" the client wanted. Dialled in at the swipe of a slider.

I was commissioned a few years ago to design the lighting for the Wired Magazine Pop-Up Store in Times Square. It was a huge space needing light to cover not only signage and walls but all of the latest electronic toys of the day. I was given the design direction that the space needed to feel like an "icy blue white light." Well what exactly does that mean? I know what it meant for me, but it was the client I was concerned about. I opted to light the space with a colour-changing LED fixture rather than a conventional halogen. This enabled me to tune the white light, rather than ask our union electricians to get up on ladders and change theatrical gel on hundreds of fixtures. When my client walked in the door. I asked them for a second to review the lighting. Then moving one slider I was able to add a little more blue to the white light until it was the perfect blue/white tone for them. We locked it in, and they were thrilled.

If you're specifying LED take a minute and consider tunable white. It's an option that could make the difference between merely pleasing your clients and thrilling them. 


JP Bedell is a Lighting Guy from New York City. Sales rep and blogger for SDA Lighting.Stan Deutsch Associates, founded in 1962, is dedicated to offering specification-grade lighting products to the local design community. SDA offers quality lighting solutions to commercial, retail, hospitality, institutional, healthcare and educational markets;