There’s a shift going on in the cities. You can see it in the evenings when the streetlights come on and a different, whiter, more tightly controlled illumination hints at  a new way of doing business. In cities all across the United States, LED fixtures for roadway and street lighting, parking garages and parking lots are lighting up the intersection where new technology meets new sources of funds.

The change has been relatively sudden. With it has come a change in the way street and area lighting is sold. Lighting manufacturers, electrical distributors and independent reps adapting to the changes see a chance to ride a tide that already is rising fast, and will rise much faster still. There’s one major factor still to be resolved, and once that reaches its tipping point, the whole market will almost certainly see a massive storm surge of sales.The change began a few years ago, when the first blows of economic recession were being felt in city budgets. As mayors, city councils and city managers scrambled to find new ways to deal with unexpected shortfalls in tax revenues, their attention fell on the money they were paying every month to light their roads and outdoor spaces.

It was about this time that salespeople from unfamiliar companies began knocking on their doors, talking about new LED lighting systems for roads and parking lots. Some of these city officials may never have met a lighting salesman before. In most municipalities, the roadway lighting is owned by the utility and the city pays a bundled rate for power and the use of the fixtures, so for decades the key to selling roadway lighting had been to cultivate relationships with the utilities.

The claims that LED lighting could cut power consumption by half and operate for 15 years with no maintenance led the cities to consider whether it might be better to own the fixtures and pay a lower monthly rate just for the power. But the up-front cost of taking ownership of all those cobraheads and installing new LED technology is substantial. It was about that time that the federal and state governments began offering grants for infrastructure projects as part of various stimulus packages to boost activity in a lagging economy. Suddenly there was a way for cities to make the change without having to find the up-front money in their own budgets.

The resulting boom in LED lighting sales to municipalities has been dramatic, and the opportunity ahead for this market is tremendous. There are an estimated 26.5 million streetlights in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Municipal Solid-State Street Lighting Consortium (MSSLC). Navigant Research in a report last fall estimated that LED roadway lighting will be a $17 million business by 2020.

On the ground, manufacturers are seeing the surge first-hand. “We’re seeing major RFQs and RFPs for projects covering 500 to 50,000 units every week,” says Scott Posey, value stream manager, Infrastructure, for Acuity Brands, Atlanta. “Between the domestic U.S. and Canada, we get five to 10 a week. In the municipal space, LED has reached the tipping point.”

The established manufacturers of roadway lighting initially found themselves playing catch-up as a flood of LED-only start-ups and companies from the electronics and semiconductor industries jumped into this market, but the established players have moved quickly to protect their share, acquiring LED fixture specialists and rolling out new product lines. In a short span of time it’s changed to where you have to have LEDs to be in this market.

The technology has advanced more rapidly than just about any other market in the electrical industry, and won’t slow down anytime soon. This rate of development is expensive, which shifts some of the advantage back in favor of the large manufacturers with deep pockets.

The pace of new product introduction is closer to that of mobile phones than the historical, incremental development when roadway lighting was the domain of high-intensity discharge (HID) sources, says Mike Armstrong, product general manager for outdoor lighting at GE Lighting. “We’re already into our third generation of LED roadway products since we first got into this market in January 2010,” he says. “LED technology is advancing so quickly that systems designed now have to be adaptable to use new drivers and new technology as it becomes available. It’s all about modularity.”

The advances in LED technology are producing better street lighting with whiter light that can be controlled in ways high-pressure sodium (HPS) and other HID incumbents never could. LEDs allow system designers to tailor the light for better uniformity and to reduce light trespass into neighborhoods, for example, and it’s hard to overemphasize the importance of controls, which allow both real-time monitoring of system performance and more innovative approaches such as adjusting light levels based on traffic flow.

The shift to municipalities owning their own fixtures has dramatically changed the whole process of selling roadway lighting. It used to be a business that a rep could handle with reasonable effort, “off the side of his desk,” but those days are now gone, says Tim Hill, director of marketing and product management for the outdoor market at Eaton’s Cooper Lighting business. To start with, the number of buying influences in a typical sale has increased by orders of magnitude.

“In the utility model, you had to call on the standards engineer, the purchasing manager, maybe a business guy upstream who makes some decisions,” Hill recalls. “It was highly standardized in terms of products. When you drive down the roadway, it’s difficult for anyone not in the industry to tell whose fixture it is. It was all about price and relationships, good old-fashioned selling. Today, you still have to maintain those relationships with the utilities, because they have to allow the products on their system, but now you also have to find and cultivate relationships with the person responsible for the roadways at each city, which is sometimes an elected official, but more often an appointed position.”

The person in that position at the municipality may not have a grasp of the technology, and the technology is changing so rapidly anyway that selling in this market has become as much about education as relationships. Distributors and reps must be ready to educate new buying influences on the whole lighting system, including controls and the expanded options for shaping the lighting to fit the space, plus financial angles such as return on investment. And cultivating specifications has become a bigger issue than it has been in decades, if ever.

Specifications have become a bit of a free-for-all, say the manufacturers working in this market. Where in days past it was often the company’s independent reps who handled the RFPs, Posey of Acuity Brands says his company has brought most of that work in-house because so many ask about things that only the factory knows.

“What’s surprising is the level of detail that’s required by the end-use customer,” Posey says. “I’ve read a lot of specs over the years, and it got to the point they were pretty much boilerplate. Now requirements that come in for standard municipal lighting, the detail they require for information that’s not public knowledge — they get down to who manufactures your driver, hottest temp points, junction temperatures, LED driver, average life span. The reps don’t have the time and don’t have access to the information, in part because the product life-cycle has shortened to 10-15 months.”