LED maintenance: Care and attention

LED has become hugely popular because of its reliability, but even ‘fit and forget’ LED needs maintenance. Paul Milligan finds out how to keep LED healthy and happy.

There are a few reasons why sales of LED tiles have grown significantly in the past five years.  The quality of displays has undoubtedly risen right across the price spectrum whilst the resolution of tiles has continued to increase year on year, with sub-1mm pixel pitch tiles now available.  Costs of LED tiles have fallen too, from the high-end established manufacturers to shall we say more budget-conscious offerings (primarily from China).

As a result new players are entering the market all the time, looking to get in on what has become a lucrative market, which makes buying from a trusted source, whilst meeting ever shrinking AV project budgets, harder than it’s ever been.  One factor not discussed yet is the reliability of LED, which has always been good, and is a factor which often sits at the top of buying criteria for integrators and consultants alike.  LED is not only reliable but long lasting too, a typical LED tile will last between 65,000 and 100,000 hours, and can last significantly longer if run at high brightness from day one.  So you are talking about a product lasting for 10 years in all likelihood (if treated correctly that is).

Often viewed (and frequently sold) as a ‘fit and forget’ product, is the install and care for an LED really as simple as that? Or are we buying in to years of marketing propaganda created to pitch the product favourably against its direct competitor – projection - which has issues on alignment and brightness over the course of time?  

So is LED really ‘fit and forget’? “Obviously not,” says Liam Winter, product director for Absen Europe. “An LED screen is a complex piece of electronics with lots of parts, so however highly reliable you design a complex product there will be some failures.” Stephanie Walker, Daktronics service manager knows how this perception as ‘fit and forget’ came to pass; “The predecessor to LED was incandescent and wedge-based light bulb technology. During that time, it was widely accepted that the bulbs would burn out at predictable intervals, requiring regular service to replace or re-lamp the displays. The evolution to LED displays fed the dichotomy that LED displays are a fit-and-forget solution as LEDs do not suffer from the same failure rate that incandescent technology did.”

Laila Hede Jensen, Unilumin’s VP of sales, Europe, is another to admit that LED tiles do fail, but points out that comparatively the failure rate is still very low.   “The most common failure in an LED wall is a single LED diode failing. An HD LED wall has 2 million LEDs each made up of a red, green and blue diode, so has 6 million diodes in the wall. The best LED diode manufacturers typically give a failure rate of 5-10 failures per million LEDs, so around 10-20 LED diode failures over the life of the LED wall.” There aren’t many in the AV world who wouldn’t accept such a failure rate, regardless of the type of product.

Even when there is a failure Jensen points out, it should be a pretty straight forward fix for the integrator. “The manufacturer should provide a repair service for LED diode failures, and the repair process is that the LED board needs to be exchanged for a spare and then the faulty board should be returned to the manufacturers repair depot. The LED board exchange can be easily accomplished by the integrator using the latest front service technology.  The important aspect in this process is that great care has to me taken to avoid damaging LEDs on adjacent boards during the exchange process. Some manufactures (such as Unilumin) have designed a semi-automated process for the LED module extraction which helps to avoid such damage to the diodes.”

Something to look out for is that problems with LED videowalls can sometimes appear early on, says Christian Orcin, VP product marketing, Leyard and Planar.  “Small mechanical issues used to be very common due to handling or transportation, and some early failures tend to appear in the first weeks of the installations due to some ‘early aging’ needs of some components.” Once corrected you can have years of trouble-free operation.

The consensus then is that LED isn’t strictly ‘fit and forget’, but that a little maintenance goes a long way to ensuring a decent lifecycle and your investment in LED is maximised.  So what maintenance should you be doing with LED?  “There is no ‘must’ maintenance list like there is with a car (change oil etc) as it doesn’t have those sorts of parts,” says Winter.  “Its simple things such as if you put in in an indoor environment you must make sure it doesn’t get wet.  If there is heat indoors a key factor is to check air-flows and that filters are clean. We recommend controlling the environment the screen is in, rather than the screen itself. You have to educate people on the fact that you can’t install it, turn it on and do nothing with it for 5-6 years.”  The environment is key for LED says Stephanie Walker, Daktronics service manager, “The maintenance needed for a display located in Saudi Arabia or on a cruise ship will vary significantly from a display located in the UK or Western Europe.”

Heat is also another major factor in maintenance, “It is very important to regularly check the operating temperature on an LED wall,” says Jensen. “If LEDs overheat they can age prematurely which will affect both reliability and uniformity. The major cause of overheating is failures in the ventilation amongst others. Most indoor LED walls today no longer require fans for cooling and rely on convection current to allow hot air to escape from behind the wall. During the installation phase, greater care must be taken to ensure that sufficient ventilation space is available and input and outlet vents for air are a suitable size. Also that cabling behind the wall does not obstruct the ventilation.”

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If LED is being sold as ‘fit and forget’, and that isn’t the reality of the situation, does this mean clients are often unaware of maintenance obligations they should be fulfilling? Is the AV sales channel selling them an unrealistic dream? “I think the fault lies in both directions,” says Guy Horrigan, commercial director, digiLED.  “Firstly, the resellers want to give a positive message chasing the big ticket sales.  But also, I think buyers are accepting this without contracting with their suppliers in the right way.  To them, buying LED is often treated as if they are buying an LCD flat panel - which it isn’t (but they want it to be because it’s easy).  This is further evidenced by end-users presenting a spec sheet and asking you to quote against it.”  It could also be a knock-on effect from the consumer products versus proAV products conundrum we often see with LCD displays says Walker. 

“Many times clients are not initially familiar with the maintenance issues of an AV solution. If a client does not have a history with commercial solutions in the field, they may struggle to bridge the gap between consumer and commercial electronics systems. It falls to both manufacturers and sales channel providers to educate consumers on the different operational aspects that affect display performance and set realistic expectations with clients.”  Like all products, you get what you pay for in LED, if you buy cheap, expect to do lots of maintenance, as Orcin highlights.  “When the product is well designed and produced with good components, the maintenance should never be challenge. It’s important to understand that the cost reduction by a component change is directly proportional to the problems that could arise.  I think unrealistic promises are not based on maintenance factors but on the product itself. And in this case the sales channel is an important part to guide the end users to choose the right manufacturer for their project.”

If buyers of LED are being sold the idea the product is ‘fit and forget’ does this mean they are then reluctant to pay for maintenance, because they don’t think there will be any? “Clients tends to be reluctant to assume any cost after the purchase. This is why it is very important to understand the benefits of a good preventive and corrective maintenance before the installation. The clients are now much more experienced with LED - many of them have had some product challenges as well as maintenance challenges - so as the technology is getting more mature and so are the clients,” says Orcin.  

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Providing maintenance services for your LED clients can have a myriad of benefits, as Walker illustrates, “It can improve the customer experience and generate an ongoing revenue stream to supplement new product sales. It also plays a major factor in developing lifelong customers.” 

Because an LED display is often the centrepiece of a high profile installation such as an auditorium, control rooms, reception or boardrooms, any failure can create a major issue and fast response time are essential. So it’s important to have the help readily available when you need it says Jensen. “Such failures are rare, and it’s important that the end user understands that an SLA with the required response time must be in place, and also that the integrator has the local back up of the manufacturer for escalation, should the fault be difficult to resolve. Without a maintenance agreement in place, with the required SLA, the end user is risking a delay is error rectification.”  

LED is one of, if not the most reliable proAV product out there, but the message for buyers still has some way to be fully understood that when it comes to maintenance, the motto isn’t ‘fit and forget’ but more a case of ‘a little goes a long way’.

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