They’re showing up in cars and streetlights, Christmas trees and flashlights. And now they’re coming to your home.
Light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, are the new rock stars of the lighting world. They use only 20 percent of the energy that an equivalent incandescent bulb does and they can last over 20 years.
“LEDs are going to take over the market,” Patrick Urain predicts.
Urain is a conservation program manager for Tacoma Public Utilities. He’ll be giving a presentation on LEDs at the South Sound Sustainability Expo on Saturday at the Tacoma Convention and Trade Center.
OUT WITH THE OLD
The move away from incandescent lighting is more than just about going “green.” It’s required by law.
When President George W. Bush signed the Energy Independence and Security Act in 2007 he set into place the eventual phasing out of workhorse incandescent bulbs, such as the standard 60 watt.
Bulbs in the 40- to 100-watt range are no longer being manufactured in the U.S. although existing inventory still can be sold. Specialty bulbs are not affected by the law.
Just about every American has grown up with the incandescent bulb since Thomas Edison invented the first commercially viable version in 1879.
“We base everything off of what Edison did. He had the perfect light bulb — except in terms of energy efficiency,” Urain said. “With LEDs you are getting far closer to that original functionality of the incandescent.”
Fluorescent lighting has been a mainstay of businesses and government for decades. The lights use one-third the energy compared to incandescents and last 10 times as long. In recent years, manufacturers were able to produce a smaller version, the compact fluorescent light or CFL, for screw-in lighting fixtures made for incandescent bulbs.
Consumers greeted the bulbs like an annoying co-worker: You may put up with him on the job, but you don’t want to hang out with him at home.
Florescent light bulbs emit light with a green cast and while manufacturers have corrected that over the years, they haven’t been able to exactly match the warm hues of incandescents. Add in failing ballasts, humming, flickering, difficulties in dimming, hazardous waste concerns and an “I’ll come on when I want to” attitude.
“We in the electric industry think CLFs will eventually go away. It’s a dying technology. There are too many performance factors that just don’t function properly,” Urain said.
LEDs are more energy efficient than fluorescent. Based on the 60 watt incandescent bulb a CFL with the same brightness will use about 14 watts. An equally bright LED uses only 10 watts or less.
But don’t go tossing your CFLs in the trash. If the bulb is working fine, it’s saving you money. And when it does eventually die you still don’t want to drop it in the garbage. Fluorescent bulbs contain mercury, a liquid metal that can cause serious health problems in people and the environment.
The Light Recycle Washington program was started in 2014 to ease the proper disposal of fluorescent light bulbs — both tube and CFLs — along with high intensity discharge bulbs. (See box)
For most consumers, the biggest stumbling block to LEDs is the price. Shoppers will be hard pressed to find an LED bulb under $7 without subsidized incentives. And if you do find one, exercise caution — quality can vary widely.
“It’s not at a price point where people can say, ‘I have 30 sockets in my house. I’m going to go out and buy 30 LEDs.’ But, we’re getting there,” Urain said.
Prices continue to drop as manufacturers refine their processes and the bulbs become more popular.
The cost of any bulb needs to be factored into savings. For Tacoma Power customers, the cost to operate four 60 watt incandescent light bulbs for four hours a day is $2.18 a month. For four 9 watt LED bulbs putting out the same amount of light the cost is 33 cents per month.
Though LED technology has been around since the 1960s, many consumers are skeptical about the long-life claims of bulb manufacturers. Different factors play into an LED’s life span.
Unlike incandescents, LEDs don’t die with a dramatic flash — they just slowly fade away. The length of use is based on an average of bulbs tested by independent agencies. The typical 20ish yearlong life span of an LED reflects the moment when the light output falls under 70 percent.
Where the bulb is used makes a difference. Moisture can affect life span but heat is the major killer, Urain said. Not all LED bulbs are made to be used in enclosed fixtures, the kind that have tight fitting covers. More on that below.
LEDs, with their electronic components, do occasionally fail. Better quality bulbs will come with a warranty.
The number of lights used in homes has gone up over the years. Grandma’s kitchen might have had one overhead globe light. Today’s kitchens could have a central decorative fixture, can lights in the ceiling and under-cabinet lighting.
If all of the bulbs in a home were switched from incandescent to LED, the owner would see an 80 percent to 85 percent reduction in energy use for lighting. But that doesn’t mean a similar reduction in the entire bill, which for the average Puget Sound Energy residential customer, is $93 a month.
Lighting makes up only 11 percent of a typical home’s energy use, according to the Department of Energy. Heating, air conditioning, water heating and appliances — particularly ovens and dryers — use the lion’s share of energy.
A clothes dryer can use 4,000 watts when it’s running. That’s the energy use of 66 60-watt incandescent or 400 10-watt LED bulbs. A hot water heater could use 5,000 watts while it’s running (a good reason to turn it off while on vacation.)
“It’s a common misconception. ‘I’m going to go change all the lighting in my house and I’m going to see this dramatic savings on my electric bill.’ Not really. In the lighting portion of your electric bill, you’re going to see those dramatic savings,” Urain said.
Still, like reducing your cable bill, over the years the savings add up. “You reach your return on investment in four to six years and then you reap the rewards,” Urain said.
While watts are the standard for energy use, they can no longer be used as a guide to a bulb’s brightness. Instead look for lumens — a measure of light output. The 60 watt incandescent, 14 watt CFL and 10 watt LED all put out about 800 lumens of light. The more lumens, the brighter it is. Bulb labeling will list the lumen output.
We live in a yellow world. Our sun, as any school child with a crayon knows, is yellow. At night, we turn on incandescent light bulbs that are practically orange. The result is that neutral-colored light (light that is neither blue nor yellow) often appears blue to the eye.
The human eye has an amazing ability to correct off-colored light. We perceive incandescent light to be less orange than it really is and fluorescent light to be less green than it is. So, it’s often difficult to ascertain what a LED bulb’s true color output is. Add in personal preferences and the decisions become more difficult.
“Lighting is very subjective. What you might like, I might not like,” Urain said.
LEDs usually start out with a slightly blue color. Manufacturers coat the inside of the bulb that holds the LEDs or the LEDs themselves with materials to warm up the hue.
The color of light can be measured on a scale, often referred to as color temperature or degrees Kelvin. The higher the number, the bluer the light. Candlelight is 1,900K, an incandescent bulb is 2,800K, sunlight is 4,800K, a cloudy sky is 6,000K and the light from a blue sky, aka shade, is 10,000K.
In an attempt to make it easier, the industry sticks to three main colors for LEDs. But the names (which vary) are not particularly helpful in determining their relationship to one another. “Soft,” for example, is a word better suited to describe blankets than color. And “bright” is meaningless in describing color.
“In the Northwest, we sell more daylight bulbs than any other part of the country,” Urain said.
A tour through the bulb section of a big box store, such as Home Depot or Lowe’s, might leave the consumer scratching their heads. Some of the new LEDs don’t even look like light bulbs. A large a part of that is due to manufacturers’ attempts to replicate the spherical dispersion of light that incandescents provide.
The first LEDs were poor at producing omnidirectional light. It’s still something to pay close attention to when buying an LED. Cheaper LEDs might not provide full light dispersion.
“With LEDs, all things are not equal,” Urain cautions.
Top manufacturers such as Cree and Philips have made great strides in omnidirectional lighting — even if the bulb looks like it came out from a cartoon. One bulb made by Philips is flat, but still delivers omnidirectional light.
RIGHT BULB, RIGHT FIXTURE
Half of all LEDs are not designed to be used in enclosed fixtures, Urain said. An enclosed fixture is any that does not allow air to flow past the bulb. The common glass globe ceiling fixture is one example. Glass shades with open bottoms are not enclosed.
LEDs produce light with little infrared heat, but heat build-up comes from the bulb’s electronics. If not cooled, their life span will shorten. Only about a third of LED manufacturers create bulbs that can be used in enclosed fixtures.
“The consumer has no idea. The consumer has to read the packaging,” Urain said. Each package contains a required lighting-facts label that list the lumens, color, and life of the bulb.
The question of making LEDs dimmable is tricky. Some are and some aren’t capable of dimming (read the labeling) and even then they may not work with the rheostat you have installed. Some require an electronic rheostat called a CL dimmer.
LEDs go beyond bulbs. Some are screw-in fixtures designed to retrofit can lighting. Others have LEDs built directly into the fixture.
Practically all LED technology is moving fast, Urain said. If you don’t like the options today, manufacturers might soon create what you are looking for tomorrow.
THE ULTIMATE ENERGY WASTER
Consumers can switch to LEDs, increase insulation and add any number of energy saving equipment to their homes but the biggest factor that affects energy use is simple human behavior, Urain said.
By using energy conservative products and then using them in an efficient manner, the homeowner can see a dramatic drop in energy bills.
“You really can have a huge impact. You just have to be conscious of your behaviors and the behaviors of the home. Those two things combined create your bill,” he said.