Shedding Light on LED's

LED Lighting
Image:  energy.gov
My first experience with LED (light emitting diode) lighting didn't go well.  I have a small desk in the living room where the laptop lives.  A 25 watt incandescent bulb in the desk lamp was just right.  It was enough light for working at the desk and it was pleasant in the evenings.  A couple of years ago it burned out.  I thought this would be a good time to try an LED.  By then I had already converted all of the other table and portable lamps to CFL's, but LED's had become the best lights to use for energy conservation.

I found a "25 watt equivalent" LED bulb at the hardware store, brought it home and installed it.  I felt good about it until I turned it on.  It was atrocious.  First, it was irritatingly bright, much brighter than the 25 watt incandescent it replaced.  And the light it produced was blue.  I mean really blue.  It was so unpleasant it didn't last ten minutes.  I replaced it with a "60 watt" CFL I had and later went shopping for 25 watt incandescents.  My LED conversion was put on hold.

Moving ahead to the present, there was a recent article posted at Vox.com about converting to LED's.  This got me thinking about them again.  The lower energy consumption is significant.  Then, after 27 years of life, the main light in the master bath burned out.  It was a 120 watt flood in a recessed light/vent fan combo fixture.  Time to go shopping again.

There was a time when buying light bulbs was a simple process.  Everybody understood what a 100 watt soft white light bulb was and what it meant.  With LED's, things are much more complicated.  The market isn't helping either.  My desk light debacle is an example.  It has become a confusing mix-mosh of lumens, and kelvins and A19 vs. A21, and where you can and can't use them.  Also personal preferences and sensitivities can come into play.  I knew I had to do some research.  Here's what I learned as a brief primer to explain the terms:

LED Lighting
Image:  Amazon.com
Lumen:  The amount of light produced.  From what I have observed, there is apparently no marketplace standard for watt equivalency.  A "100 watt equivalent" bulb is usually 1600 lumens, but can range from 1050 to 1600 by different manufacturers.  A lot of reading of fine print is necessary.  To my senses, a 1600 lumen LED is brighter than a 100 watt incandescent bulb.  The general equivalents are 40 watts-450 lumens, 60 watts-800 lumens and 100 watts-1600 lumens.

Kelvin:  The color temperature, appearance or warmth of the light.  "Soft white" is 2,700 to 3,000 K.  Again for me, I find 3,000 K lighting a bit harsh.  Even 2,700 K LED's are not as "warm" to me as an incandescent soft white, but they are acceptable.  Photographers will recognize color temperature as an expression of white balance.  In Photoshop, "tungsten" white balance is 2,850 K.  That blue-emitting desk light I bought was probably a "daylight" bulb at 5,000 K or higher.

Color Rendering Index:  This refers to how colors appear under different light sources.  This would be important in photography, artwork, healthcare and high fashion, but probably not in normal home lighting.  It never has been before, but you will find CRI designations on some LED lights.  The closer it is to 100, the better.  I don't pay attention to this number.

A19 vs. A21:  Standard light bulbs are "A-series" referring to the shape of the bulb.  In the US the numbers 19 and 21 refer to the diameter in eights of an inch.  An A19 bulb is 19/8 or 2.375 inches in diameter.  This becomes important with larger watt-equivalent bulbs.  Incandescent bulbs produce a lot of heat which is wasted energy.  LED's save energy by producing much less heat, but there is still some heat generated.  If it builds up, the circuitry can be damaged.  The larger A21 bulbs dissipate more heat and are used for 100 watt-equivalents and up.  You need to make sure an A21 bulb (2.625 x 5 inches) will fit where you want to put it.

E26 Base:  This stands for the regular "Edison," "standard" or "medium" 26 mm screw base on light bulbs.  There is nothing special about it.  Don't let it confuse you.

Dimmability:  Some LED's are dimmable and some are not.  This should be specified on the label.  If the fixture has a dimmer switch, make sure the LED you're putting in it is dimmable and doesn't make humming noises.  From what I have read, there are still a few problems with dimmable LED's, so the technology may not have yet caught up to market needs.

Lamps with 3-way switches work exactly like incandescent bulbs, 2 clicks on, 2 clicks off.  There are 3-way LED's available.

Fixture Compatibility:  If there wasn't enough complexity already, here is some more.  For table lamps or any kind of open fixture where the bulb is exposed to the air, this is not an issue.  For recessed fixtures, enclosed fixtures and outdoor lighting, there may be specifications.  Check the labeling.  This is another area lacking market standardization and the information may be hard to find.  Again, I think this has to do with heat dissipation.

LED Lighting
Image:  Amazon.com
Now, I needed a 120 watt flood light replacement for the master bath.  The local stores had nothing to offer.  In fact, I notice that some local retailers don't seem to know how to present LED lighting to the market.  They are not helping to simplify and explain the complexities either.  Selections might be limited.  Why would a store even stock that awful blue desk light I bought?  I would consider it a specialty item rather then for the mass market.  They probably didn't know any more about LED's then I did.  A light bulb is a light bulb, right?

As usual, my next stop was Amazon.  Here I quickly found something that appeared to be suitable:   2700 K, check.  1400 lumens, OK.  Appropriate for my bathroom fixture, yes.  120 watts of light in a 17 watt flood, perfect.  I ordered it.

When I got it installed, I noticed it was brighter compared to the incandescent it replaced.  Also, I was accustomed to stepping out of the shower into the warmth generated by the old light.  That was gone now and i missed it at first.  That's the whole point, of course.  All that heat was wasted energy.  I got used to not having it.  I consider this tangible evidence of the energy being saved.  I was happy with this light.  My second LED conversion attempt was a success.

LED Lighting
Image:  Amazon.com
Now that I'm armed with new knowledge, my entire upstairs, bedroom, bath and study, has been converted to LED lighting.  I calculate 1170 watts of equivalent lighting is now being delivered by 163 watts of power.  That would theoretically be an 86% decrease in power consumption.  Of course this would depend on which lights are actually on and for how long, but you get the point.  Not bad.  I am now starting to work on converting the main floor of the house beginning with those lights that are used most.  I am not yet incandescent-free, but that is the goal.

Tip:  I have determined that 60 watt-equivalent LED's at 800 lumens are perfect for all of my table lamps.  I think 100 watt-equivalents would have been too bright.

I believe converting to LED lighting is a worthy effort.  It just should not be necessary to put in the time and study that I had to do.  If converting to LED lighting is desirable for energy conservation, then this must be made easier for consumers.  Most people will not take the time to do research in order to purchase a light bulb.  Plus, the market won't accept lighting that is more costly, and also turns out to be harsh and irritating.  This could postpone or even prevent widespread acceptance of the technology.  My own first experience is an example.  In the meantime, let me try to simplify the process with a short checklist:
  • Brightness:  Remember 40/60/100, 450/800/1600 lumens or look for watt equivalents
  • Appearance:  Just go for 2700 K for normal home lighting
  • For a dimmer switch, be sure the bulb is labeled "dimmable"
  • Compatible for location (indoor, outdoor, dampness) and fixture (recessed, enclosed)
Now you won't get LED down the primrose path like I was.

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