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Linear lighting: past, present and future

Linear lighting: today, it’s a fixture in everything from classrooms to storerooms. So how did it become so popular, and what’s next for this versatile group of light fixtures?

What did people do to light long spaces before this type of lighting became available?

Long spaces, in particular, can be more difficult to address without the help of a linear fixture. Previously, we lit long spaces with large, industrial incandescent bulbs. These were used in everything from homes to industrial applications such as warehouses and factories, and even retail stores. Usage evolved into a range of lumen packages and color temperatures, but the basic technology remained the same. 

How did linear lighting get started? 

The transition to linear lighting began in the 1950s, mainly in industrial settings. Manufacturing environments first used linear fluorescent tubes like the T12 and T16. In the 1970s, this technology began moving into homes.

Traditional linear lighting has existed for a long time, but there are some production issues. For example, linear tubes illuminate a greater surface area, which isn’t always desired, and the lamps have more requirements regarding the sockets on the ends. Even today, historical holdovers such as single and dual paneling make this application more difficult.

We started seeing a shift in the 1970s, with increased usage of linear lighting in small workshops and garages as well as home interiors and retail spaces. This created a need for lower costs and more decorative options.

Beginning in the late 1970s, puff linear fixtures became quite popular. Almost every spec home and apartment had a puff linear fixture, particularly in the kitchen. Many manufacturers offered a product with wood trim, like a picture frame. Finishes ranged from oak and cherry to oil-rubbed bronze to achieve symmetry with the home’s cabinetry and accessories.

If you walk into a long-standing New York deli or Chicago hardware store, you might see old linear strip lights. In the early days, these lights were small and inexpensive. They only served to illuminate the space; they weren’t meant to be decorative, and people didn’t think about the quality of the lighting. Even modern businesses focused on keeping prices low might have linear strip lights, because they’re the most economical solution.

What are the characteristics and benefits of modern linear lighting?

Basic linear strip lights are a steal, but if you want to upgrade your aesthetics, it’s worth looking at other options. In fact, the original linear lights have been mostly relegated to garages, laundry rooms and other utility spaces. On the retail side, for example, everyone is springing for more aesthetically pleasing fixtures and better light. Offices have sources that mix indirect and direct lighting, resulting in more even distribution, to help workers who spend hours in the space.

Color temperature plays a psychological role and shouldn’t be overlooked. For example, a bargain store might use 4K lighting to encourage customers to buy products quickly and check out, while another store might use 3K lighting to provide a more pleasing experience.

The linear lighting market today is still huge, and it’s not going away anytime soon. The difference now is that linear architectural lighting and LED technology have broadened the applications of linear fixtures. The industry continues to evolve with improvements in aesthetics and performance. We’re moving away from the old, traditional housings, utilizing materials in a better way and incorporating more advanced technology. We’re also making everything more compact and more efficient. It’s similar to how the big, heavy sedans of the 1970s have been minimized and streamlined.

What are some of the most innovative products and concepts on the market today?

In the past, customers had the choice between aesthetics and economy. But new technology makes it possible to have both.

Eaton’s Metalux WaveStream™ LED is one product that takes design flexibility to an entirely new level without sacrificing performance, and it’s still a great value. Advanced optical coupling overcomes the harsh glare of some earlier LEDs; the result is a luminous plane of light that can be customized as a solution for almost any residential, commercial or industrial use. It’s more efficient than earlier products, too. We’re talking about a jump from about 85 lumens per watt up to 120 lumens per watt.

What happens next? 

Aesthetics are somewhat fixed at this point, but when it comes to performance, the sky’s the limit. For example, the WaveStream™ LED will likely reach 135 lumens per watt in a year.

But modern technology isn’t just becoming more efficient. It’s also becoming easier to install and fine-tune. In the past, customers had to commission each product for the associated controls system. But now, products have inboard controls, meaning they’re already preprogrammed for an area when they’re installed. Customized channels are also fairly simple to implement. Controls are the next big disruptor. They will change lives by giving us the ability to customize everything.

The exciting part is that, in a lot of ways, we’re already there.