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What to Look For When Buying LED Light Bulbs
If you haven’t given much thought to the subject of lighting lately, it’s probably because, like most people, the phase-out of conventional incandescent bulbs hasn’t been the most important thing in your mind. Which isn’t really surprising; being able to turn the lights on at will hardly seems like a big deal. We do it all the time and as the priorities go, the whole lighting thing is comfortably off the radar.
Yet the disappearance of the incandescent light bulb continues quietly but unabated and in less than two years the only products stocked on the shelves will be energy-efficient light bulbs, of which there are two types: CFLs (lamps compact fluorescents) and LEDs (light emitting diodes).
Currently, the majority of energy-saving light bulbs available are CFLs which are about 4 times more efficient than incandescent bulbs (i.e. they only waste about 25% of their energy as heat , versus 90%). However, CFLs are widely hated by consumers, manufacturers and environmentalists. They have very poor aesthetic qualities (not really what you want for lighting), they are difficult to dispose of safely due to their mercury content; and they are complicated and expensive to manufacture.
LEDs, on the other hand, score well on all of these counts and more, the most obvious of which is that LEDs are not only 10 times more efficient than incandescents today, but doubling in performance approximately every 18 months. The implications of this (known as Haitz’s Law) are staggering; in 3 years we should expect to see LED bulbs 40 times more efficient. It’s no wonder the lighting industry has overwhelmingly chosen to abandon the development of CFLs and focus on LEDs.
So should you buy LED bulbs right now? Much depends on whether you balk at the listed prices (compared to incandescent and CFL bulbs, LEDs still cost several times more to purchase) or whether you can do the math and realize that the energy savings of electricity will be more than profitable. investment in the first year or two. And since modern LEDs last over 50,000 hours (compared to 2,000 for regular light bulbs), the return on investment never ceases to be felt.
Now some people will say it makes sense to expect LEDs to be both cheaper and still more efficient, but again if you run the math you’ll find that actually it’s better to replace perfectly functional bulbs with LEDs once in a while, then plan to replace them in a few years, even if they still have years to live. How? Because the cost of electric lighting is roughly equal to the cost of electricity – it’s all in the operating costs, not the cost of the hardware.
So if you’re considering switching to LED lighting, here are some pointers on what to look for. First, understand that cheap, low-power LEDs aren’t quite capable of replacing most existing lighting – in this area, low cost is a false economy. However, the more expensive branded products certainly deliver, look fantastic, and can deliver quite remarkable cost savings.
Second, we’ve all become accustomed to rating light levels by power, ie 100W very bright, 40-60W comfortable, below 25W getting a little dim. This scale does not apply to LEDs. At the moment a fair estimate is that an LED will produce as much light as a conventional bulb rated at 10 times its power, so a 5w LED should be easily sufficient to replace a typical 50w halogen spot lamp for example.
A more direct way to gauge brightness is brightness, measured in lumens (a standard 40W bulb produces about 360 lumens). However, brightness by itself is not enough to determine the actual brightness of a light source. The angle of the beam and the “color” of the light are also crucial.
This brings us to a third set of aspects to consider. LEDs are inherently very directional with a very narrow beam, and they have also until recently tended to be on the cold side of things, producing a bluish light. This gives a pretty harsh effect with small areas of very bright light but lots of dark spots. High quality modern LED floodlights have much wider beam angles (120 degrees for example) which produce an even beam of light and their light color is much warmer. For reference, the color of light is measured using the Kelvin temperature scale where 2000k is referred to as “warm white” and values above 4000k are defined as “cool white”.
To recap, find out if a given LED bulb will be suitable for the application you have in mind by checking the packaging (or if buying from catalog or online, the product description) for the following:
- Price and warranty (with LEDs you really get what you pay for)
- Brightness (or estimated brightness i.e. “equivalent to 50w”)
- Color temperature of light (indicated as “cold” or “warm” or given in Kelvins – see above)
- Beam angle
- Estimated longevity (LEDs should last 50,000 hours or more)
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