It would be a shame if all the advantages of LEDs -- high efficiency, long life, digital controllability -- were counteracted by a simple problem like not being able to get your new LED bulbs to work with the dimmer switches in your home.

But that’s just what’s happening with today’s LED systems, which have a hard time integrating with analog dimmer systems. If too many new LED buyers end up disappointed with how their new lights fail to work with their existing dimmer systems, that could spoil the public perception of a technology that’s in many ways superior to incandescent and compact fluorescent lights.

That’s the problem that Cirrus Logic intends to solve with its new CS161X digital LED controller. It’s the integrated circuit maker’s first foray into consumer-side energy management technology, with more than 200 dimmer systems out there that need to be incorporated into the system’s logic for translating analog signals into digital dimming commands.

Cirrus has proven compatibility with about 98 percent of the dimmers it has tested, and is already shipping units in Europe integrated with LED bulbs from an unnamed, “major” lighting manufacturer, Bill Schnell, Cirrus public relations manager, told me in an interview last month.

By year’s end, Cirrus hopes to ship from 5 million to 10 million units in bulbs from multiple partners, he said. That’s not a lot, compared to the roughly 200 million LED bulbs sold last year, though that number is projected to grow to 1 billion by 2015, according to Datapoint Research.

Nor is Cirrus the only company with ICs to make LEDs compatible with today’s dimmers -- contenders include Maxim, Infineon, TI, NXP, IOR, Power Integrations and iWatt, Schnell said. Greentech Media’s in-depth coverage of the LED lighting field has found other manufacturers, such as Switch Lighting, promising compatibility with dimmers as well.

“We’re kind of in the middle of the pack right now, in terms of cost” added to each bulb, Schnell said. “But the bottom line is, there’s no change on the cost structure in a meaningful way,” he said. Beyond that, Cirrus is claiming that its digital processing engine can offer greater assurance than its competitors of being compatible with the world’s dimmer switches.

It’s just one example of the challenges new technologies face in seeking to replace older ones that already have a dedicated infrastructure built up around them. One of the most obvious examples is the chicken-and-egg challenge of deploying electric vehicle charging stations to support a new generation of plug-in vehicles that have yet to come onto the market in significant numbers.

The LED challenge is simpler, with major lighting manufacturers like Philips, GE, Osram, and Sylvania and upstart contenders like Lighting Science Group planning to offer LED bulbs to fit into fixtures for incandescent and compact fluorescent bulbs. The main challenge so far has been the price of LEDs, which are still significantly higher prices than incandescent and CFL bulbs, though they’re dropping fast.

Groom Energy and GTM Research predict that the LED enterprise lighting market will grow by 30 percent in 2011 and surpass $1 billion in annual revenue by 2014. Most of the early growth will come in the commercial and industrial LED lighting space, where the 2010 U.S. market stood at about $330 million in annual revenue. 

The big shift in the consumer market will come through a combination of falling prices and customer education to understand the benefits of LEDs, industry observers say.

Regulation will also drive much of this shift. Both the U.S. and China are phasing out high-wattage incandescents to start and eventually will be applying the ban to lower wattages, and the European Union, India and Australia are legislating a phase-out of incandescent bulbs for replacement by fluorescent and LED alternatives.

But legislating a change from a 100-year-old technology will be a lot easier if the new technology comes with as few hassles of installation as possible. As Schnell put it, “If you pay $20 for a light bulb, it ought to be the best light bulb you’ve ever bought, right?”

Cirrus isn’t stopping at dimmer compatibility. Its next LED IC series, the CS163x, intends to tackle color mixing as well as dimming, to coax a warmer and more natural quality of light from today’s bulbs, Schnell said.

Tags: bridgelux, cirrus, compact fluorescent, energy efficiency, general electric, green building, green lighting, incandescent, iwatt, led, light bulb, lighting science, nxp, osram, policy