Home & Garden Columns

About The House: LED Down the Road to Cheaper Lighting

By Matt Cantor
Friday July 07, 2006

For those of you who are regular readers of this column, it will come as no surprise that today’s topic is one related to energy efficiency. Keeping our globe cool means generating less heat in all of our pursuits—or at least burning less oil or gas.  

It’s very exciting being alive today. So many things are changing and there is such promise in new technologies and ways of thinking. I can certainly understand and have great compassion for the argument that all of our answers do not lie in science. 

Sometimes, science and technology take us in the wrong direction. But given our obsession with having fast travel, ready resources and instant everything, it, at very least, behooves us to buy these marvels with pennies and to make them with plentiful resources.  

It is in this spirit that I present the notion of lighting our houses with our little friend the Light Emitting Diode—the LED. LED’s have been around for decades, lighting up the panels on Lieutenant Uhura’s Command Panel and flashing at you from your alarm clock and VCR. 

They’ve been doing these things because they are cheap, cool and very long lasting for low wattage applications. But they haven’t been considered for big lighting jobs until the very recent past when LED’s have become capable of providing higher luminosities. 

There’s a revolution raging in backwaters that we don’t often hear about and it involves a great race to produce a LED that can complete with the incandescent or fluorescent light bulb. Though the race may not be won, the lager has some major advantages to offer and it may be time to put your feet in the water right now. 

I bought two devices this summer. One was a book-light. I saw this at a client’s house and decided I just had to have one. It has a single LED in a spring loaded arm and provides enough light to read by without waking the wife. It will also be fine for reading to the kiddies at camp, if I’m not too embarrassing or stupid to be seen or heard from this year. 

The second device is a flashlight. It has 24 LED’s and is good enough to do my job examining things under houses or in attics as long as I don’t have to look way across to the other side. 

A year ago, I would not have considered such a purchase but these things are getting cheaper and more effective at a measurable pace. 

Now we’re starting to see LED lighting designed specifically for houses and commercial buildings and not surprisingly, it’s starting with bulbs that can replace typical incandescent or halogen ones. 

The cost of these is currently very high but before you say no to them, consider what we pay for the electricity to run our 25 cent incandescent bulbs. 

Here’s a general breakdown of the efficiency of LED’s compared to our current methods: 

A conventional light bulb (incandescent) is about 16 lumens per watt (lm/W) and a tungsten bulb is about 22 lm/W. A fluorescent lamp may range from 50-100 (average of 60) lm/W so it’s not hard to see why we like the fluorescent so well. 

LED’s have gotten about 22 lm/W in the past but in 2003 bulbs were tested at 65 lm/W and this last year we saw a test of an LED that was at 131 lm/W. This means that you will soon be able to get as much light out of an LED for about 1/7th the cost. 

This technology is clearly growing quickly and if I were much on investing, I’d be looking to major developers of LED home lighting as an investment. You see, in today’s homes, lighting is a major power user. The reason is that incandescent lamps are little heaters.  

When you leave a 100 watt bulb going, it just like leaving a tiny oven going (those Easy Bake ovens of the past were heated with a light bulb, but I wouldn’t know anything about those since I never played with them or baked any cupcakes in them no matter what my sister or any of her friends say). 

A LED has a number of advantages over both conventional bulbs as well as fluorescents. The first is, of course, the low cost of operation. 

They’ve already overtaken fluorescents on that but they are also simpler than the fluorescents to install because they don’t require a ballast. Fluorescents have to control the flow of current. 

LEDs can be shaken, stirred or used to beat your electrician over the head and they won’t stop working. Very tough little light source, the LED, so you won’t be replacing them because you banged into it while looking for your ski goggles in the closet. 

LEDs last a very, very long time and their cost should be seriously adjusted for their longevity. An LED will typically last 10 years and you’re probably going to find that light fixture ugly before then and want to change it so once again, the little LED races to the finish line. 

Now, there are a few problems. They’re not cheap. The equivalent of a common bulb is currently about 20 bucks so that’s 20-80 times the cost of bulbs down at ACE but I guarantee that these will be dropping rapidly. 

If you consider that it costs about 25 cents a day to run a 100 watt light bulb and that it will cost about 4 cents a day to run a similar LED lamp, it’s not too hard to figure out that you’re going to save the cost of the bulb in a fairly short time and go on to saving loads over the twenty years that it’s running. 

My final argument (for now) in favor of my little friend the LED is that it’s cool. Remember the Easy Bake oven story. These will not qualify. 

You can generate hundred of lumens and not have your lamp get warm enough to burn anything. This means much greater home safety since hot bulbs and the hot wires that are feeding these hungry beasts won’t be inside your house. 

I know that I tend to beat the global warming drum quite a bit but here’s one more way that we can produce less CO2 without giving up the amount of light you’re used to. 

LED’s, by virtue of their generating light through the excitation of various substrates, can come in a range of colors (and, of course, white) and so there are lots of architectural and artistic possibilities waiting to burst forth so keep your eyes peeled for rings, ribbons and fabrics of LED lighting to illuminate and color your world.