LEDs have caught up with and surpassed conventional incandescent and compact fluorescent light bulbs. But faced with an array of unfamiliar shapes, statistics, and specifications we may not understand, we’re tempted to retreat into the lights we’re used to…despite the nagging feeling that we may be wasting more energy and changing bulbs more often than we should. If you’re curious about converting to LED (it stands for Light Emitting Diode, and each bulb contains several diodes), we’ll cover the basics to help you choose wisely.
How do the numbers stack up? Electricity and bulb replacement savings pay off over time.
Aside from the inconvenience of your incandescent suddenly popping and dying (or worse, your CFL emitting noxious smoke as it fails) as you’re preparing for a big dinner party or in a rush to get ready for work, all those bulb replacements add up. Though a single high-quality home-use LED can cost $18-50, stop and do the math. That single bulb will do the work of up to 50 incandescents, or up to 10 CFLs. In addition, for each working hour an LED consumes half the electricity of a CFL, and as little as one tenth the electricity of an incandescent.
While you may be able to find “discount” LEDs for cheaper pricing, they may not be the bargain they seem. Lower-quality bulbs usually have a shorter life expectancy and higher rate of malfunction: another case of “you get what you pay for”. LEDnovation, for example, offer lamps estimated to last more than 10 years longer than their cheaper hardware-store counterpart.
Consider too: although that CFL may last 10 times as long as an incandescent, its fragile glass shatters easily, releasing toxic mercury into your home (if you use CFLs, please make sure you are prepared for clean-up of a broken bulb). LEDs, on the other hand, are tough. We’ve watched a toddler throw an LED onto a hard floor with no damage to the bulb (and no danger to herself). While you should treat all electronics gently, an LED’s true durability helps us feel more comfortable spending real money on their purchase.
How soon will a single bulb pay for itself through longevity and energy savings? There are too many variables to give a single answer — electricity costs vary widely, and brighter LEDs currently cost more per lumen. Generally speaking, within a few years you should feel confident that you have recouped your initial investment. For many of us, though, even sweeter is the knowledge that by screwing in that first new bulb we are reducing our carbon footprint, while lightening our load on our unsustainable, often coal-fired, industrial power-generation. But if you want to talk numbers, the average household would save about $150 on their annual electricity bill by replacing all household incandescents with LEDs. It’s not hard to multiply that number and see what ten years, or twenty, could do for your budget. The sooner you convert, the sooner you start saving.
How bright? Translating watts to lumens.
How many lumens do I need? It’s like learning to think in metric, only easier. Since LEDs use drastically fewer watts to create the same strength of light, it becomes confusing to use wattage as the primary reference point. Speaking in lumens makes it easy to compare and find the bulb you want for the purpose. If you’re still used to incandescent standards, try the following conversions for convenience:
- 25-watt incandescent: 250 lumens
- 40-watt incandescent: 450 lumens
- 60-watt incandescent: 800 lumens
- 75-watt incandescent: 1100 lumens
- 100-watt incandescent: 1600 lumens
For R30 floodlights, the conversion is a little simpler: multiply your old incandescent watts by 10 (a 60-watt bulb would convert to 650 lumens in this application).
Most of us are used to assuming that the higher the wattage, the brighter the light. With LEDs, this isn’t always true: owing to variations in materials and construction, two same-wattage LEDs can have different lumen outputs, so be sure to read the fine print.
Warm or cool? Why the “temperature” of the light matters.
In the early days of industrial fluorescent lighting in offices, schools, and institutions, everyone within range of those long pale tubes looked vaguely sick and washed-out. Fluorescents became notorious for their cold white flickering light, which seemed to affect our state of mind as well as our appearance. Those were purely task-oriented lights: they provided the maximum illumination for the minimum energy output, and were not initially concerned with creating atmosphere or enhancing our mood.
Today, even the pure white LEDs create a better quality of experience; we no longer have to choose between the power-hungry 100-watt bulb and feeling depressed with a dismal, dim energy-saver. You’ll be impressed with the glow cast by newer LEDs! Warm light is considered flattering, relaxing, and intimate.
Light temperature is actually measured in “degrees kelvin”: a more orange light will have a lower number (a candle might be 1500 kelvin), while natural daylight is at the high end of the spectrum, often over 5000 kelvin. A cooler light will appear brighter than a warm light of the same lumen-strength. As a general rule, consumers often prefer warm lights for a living room or bedroom area, with a cooler (and brighter) light in a kitchen or bathroom. Look for a CRI (Color Rendering Index) rating of 80 or higher: this is separate from brightness, and ensures your colors will appear as true-to-life as possible.
Household LEDs are generally clearly labeled with a term such as “warm white” (around 2700k: recreates incandescent light) or “cool white” (4000k, good for task lighting). Early CFLs, which many found “too harsh” were around 4500k. Specialized tasks such as artwork or technical jobs may want to simulate daylight as closely as possible. Anything above 5000k starts to look bluish, and is generally not desirable for home use, although to minimize eye-strain, you may enjoy a focused reading light in this range.
Diffused or focused? Flood or globe? Choosing the right bulb for the job.
Now that LED home lighting is “all grown up”, there is a bulb for almost every need. Some work well with dimmers (the newer dimmer switches work best with LEDs), some plug easily into your “pin base” track lighting, some will replace the round white globes in your bathroom vanity. There are focused spots for reading lamps, and general all-purpose units to plug in almost anywhere you’d like.
For most ceiling fixtures or shaded lamps intended to light up a room, choose a round, “omnidirectional” bulb. This will cast a diffused light almost indistinguishable from the familiar incandescent. In a kitchen or bathroom, try a 4000k “neutral white” with a powerful 1600 lumens.
For targeted illumination, we have enjoyed converting our living room lighting with strategically placed recessed lights and adjustable spots. These ice-cream cone shaped bulbs have been around since before the omnidirectional round-headed models were developed, and LED efficiency truly shines here. Several of these in a room make lovely “pools” of light where you want it, for maximum adjustability. Some of the lowest-power off-grid homes we know of, where every watt counts and the yearly electricity consumption is less than a tenth of a standard modern home, use this type of lighting.
Any special operating instructions or cautions?
No! Simply install and enjoy. Don’t worry about how often you switch an LED off or on: it won’t decrease the lifespan or efficiency. Your LED won’t emit much heat, so no fire risk is created. No toxic ingredients, no UV rays, no specialized disposal instructions. Look for reputable-brand LEDs that come with excellent manufacturer’s warrantees of at least 2 years, or up to a lifetime! The rare defective product will almost certainly fail within that time. You’ll know your investment is protected, so any feeling of “risk” that comes with trying something new can be minimized. The United States began phasing out incandescent bulbs in 2012. Regulations prohibited manufacturers to continue making 100 watt bulbs because they did not meet new energy standards, and the old stock quickly disappeared from store shelves. The 75-watt followed in 2013, and the 40- and 60-watt in 2014. In a local building supply store during the 100-watt phaseout, I ran into a kind, elderly neighbor pushing a shopping cart piled high with the soon-to-be-obsolete product. He was counting on that supply lasting him the rest of his days, as he didn’t believe the alternatives were acceptable, and he wasn’t ready to adjust.
Hopefully, even the most reluctant and skeptical will be willing to take another look at the options: these aren’t your grandfather’s energy-saving light bulbs. LED light bulbs illuminate instantly, they can cast a warm glow, and are built to last longer than almost any other technology product out there. Doing the right thing no longer needs to be its own reward: you will save real money over time. Start with just a few LEDs in a range of specifications (warm/cool, lower/higher lumens) to find out how their particular light quality translates in your home. Try a few brands to find your favorite. The only regret you’re likely to have: not making the switch sooner!