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Goodbye Incandescent, Hello LED

Goodbye Incandescent Bulbs

Incandescent light bulbs are essentially being phased out by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.  And, in California, if you do any home remodeling or new residential construction, Title 24 Building Energy Efficiency Standards will affect your lighting choices. So, sooner or later, you will have to face the challenge of what to do about the old lighting in your house.

Old-fashioned incandescent bulbs were easy to deal with. If a 60-watt bulb burned out, I just bought a new 60-watt bulb. I had a good sense of how much light that would put out. Manufacturers offered some variations in color such as soft white, bright white, daylight, etc., but these were relatively easy to understand.

Hello CFLs…Er, Not so Fast

When compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs) became widely available in the mid 2000s, they promised greater energy efficiency and overall lower cost. Enticing! But homeowners like me faced frustrating challenges selecting bulbs that performed in a customary fashion. Simply replacing incandescent bulbs with CFLs often meant turning your home’s warm, pleasant lighting into what looked like the lighting in a gas station bathroom!  Suddenly, the lighting was too bright, too white, or too blue or it flickered, took too long to light up, did not work in cold temperatures or was not really dimmable. Trial and error along with multiple trips to the hardware store were required to get a satisfying solution.

Not only was the purchase process for CFLs more complicated but so was disposal. Fluorescent bulbs contain the toxic chemical mercury. This means that when my frisky cat knocked over the floor lamp and a CFL broke, I faced a hazmat cleanup process. I was supposed to remove people and pets from the room, turn off any forced air heating or AC, open all the windows and clean up the broken pieces while holding my breath and without using a vacuum.

The Good News – LEDs to the Rescue

When I first discovered LED lights that would fit into the standard E27 base, the price was exorbitant. So, once the price dropped to just under $20, I decided to buy just one to replace the 100 watt bulb in my bedside lamp.  I bought a 10.5 watt, 800 lumen lamp with a pleasing 3000 Kelvin color rating. This is supposedly only as bright as a 60-70 watt incandescent bulb but somehow it provides plenty of light for my middle-aged eyes to read by and only uses 10.5% of the energy used by the bulb it replaced!

LED lighting (using light-emitting diodes) is ultra-efficient, can cut energy use by more than 80% and lasts more than 25 times as long as conventional incandescent lights. The good news is that the cost of LED bulbs has fallen by more than 85% since 2008 and is expected to continue to drop, according to Tal Mashhadian, owner of Lite Line Illuminations. Most LED bulbs carry a warranty of at least 5 years.

Would LEDs be a better solution than the CFLs? Would I have to replace my ceiling- and wall-mounted light fixtures to use them? What is the lighting really like? So, I was pretty stoked to hear what Tal would have to say about the new LED lighting options at our recent event at the Los Altos Library. His presentation, Q&A and show-and-tell enlightened the inquisitive audience. For those who missed the presentation, here are some of the highlights.

How LEDs are Different from Other Bulbs

LEDs are more of a “lighting package” than a bulb. LEDs differ from incandescent and fluorescent lights in three very important ways:

image3 shedding light
  1. They are not omnidirectional — Since light output is more focused, the placement of LED chips and the use of reflectors are important parts of the lighting package.

  2. LEDs are sensitive to heat – When LEDs get too warm, their light output degrades. A heat sink is needed in order to absorb excess heat and ensure optimal performance.

  3. Colors of LEDs are created by phosphors – These phosphors may cover the LEDs themselves or included in the diffuser that is part of the lighting package.

Most LEDs do not require special handling for disposal (although you should check their packaging for instructions).

How to Choose the Right LEDs

There are three main features to consider when selecting LED lighting:

1. Lumens – This refer to the amount of light emitted.  Here is a handy table shared by Tal.

lumens and watts

2. Color Temperature (Kelvin) – This is a measure of how “warm” or “cool” a light looks.

3. Color Rendering Index (CRI) – This is a measure of how accurately colors are produced by a light source in comparison with natural light. It’s expressed as a percentage where higher percentages are closer to natural light.  This is an important feature to consider when selecting light for viewing artwork.

All light bulb packages sold in the U.S. are required to carry the Lighting Facts label. This carries information on the light output (lumens) and color temperature (Kelvin) but does not require an indication of the CRI. Since color perception is somewhat subjective, Tal recommends testing out the lighting yourself or visiting a showroom where you can judge how colors appear.

Lighting Facts 2

Do I Have to Replace My Fixtures?

To my surprise, it turns out that I don’t have to completely replace my recessed lighting. In some cases, I could just replace the bulb itself. For example, I could choose to replace the MR16 halogen bulbs in recessed fixtures with a 10 watt LED. However, I would have to be careful to choose LEDs that have adequate heat sinks. (Tal recommends products by Soraa). Another option is to screw in a new canister to the existing halogen fixture.

For the R30 cans that I had installed 14 years ago (and which now contain dimmable fluorescents), I could leave the housing in place and replace the cans themselves.  This might cost $40-$90 per can. However, I could do it myself and would not have to recut the holes in my ceiling. (Since I have a few dozen of these, I think I’ll wait.)

For some of the halogen fixtures in my house — like wall sconces with unusual halogen bulbs — I am going to have to wait for LED replacements.

Interesting Innovations and Fun Facts

  1. There are new LEDs on the market that have the ability to become warmer in color when they are dimmed.  One manufacturer calls this “sunlight dimming.”

  2. LED “light strips” are available and can be purchased by the foot (~$25/foot). These are very cool and can be cut to any length.

  3. The smart technology in LEDs makes it possible to integrate all sorts of functionality into lighting systems – e.g. a daylight sensor that could automatically dim or brighten a lighting system.

  4. The amount of power used is so little, that it would be technically possible to use Cat 5 wiring (i.e. twisted pair wiring as used in Ethernet cables) instead of standard Romex.

  5. LEDs do not emit UV radiation (as do incandescent bulbs) that can fade fabrics.

Caveat Emptor

Tal advised us to watch out for some potentially misleading information:

Tal Mashhadian, owner of Lite Line Illuminations

Tal Mashhadian, owner of Lite Line Illuminations

  1. More watts does not necessarily mean brighter light.

  2. Lighting efficiency of LEDs is measured differently than with incandescent or fluorescent bulbs.  The correct measure for LEDs is lumens/per watt.  A greater number is more efficient.

  3. Be aware that packaging describing watt usage (e.g., “only uses 8 watts”) does not necessarily describe the power used by the LED itself. It could represent power consumed (and possibly wasted) by other components of the lighting package. Lumen output per watt is the correct measure of efficiency.

  4. Tal recommends investing in light fixtures and lighting where the specifications have been tested and validated by independent labs.

He also pointed out that, if the LED’s heat sink is not adequate, the color of the light can shift over time. LEDs with better heat sinks might be more expensive but it can pay off in the long-term.

Time to Say Goodbye to Old-Fashioned, Energy Hog Light Bulbs?

Is it time to kiss both your incandescent and fluorescent bulbs goodbye?  You can probably start doing so economically and develop a plan to gradually phase in LEDs. If you are remodeling, you may have no choice but to go with LEDs.  And the good news is that there are many great lighting options out there.  It’s worth visiting your local showroom to check out the solutions.

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