LED Light Bulbs: a Better Choice For Indoor Lighting?

LED light bulb

An energy conservation measure passed by Congress in 2007 mandated that incandescent light bulbs are too wasteful of electricity and therefore incandescent bulbs must be eliminated from American homes by 2014.  Congressional negotiators struck a deal in December of 2011 that overturned these rules, but by that time all the American incandescent factories had closed and these bulbs were getting pretty scarce.  Instead of an outright ban incandescent bulbs must now meet higher energy standards; standards that many manufacturers feel are unreasonable.  A restriction on 100-watt bulbs took effect in October of 2012, and 75-watt bulbs were phased out in January 2013. In March of next year (2014), restrictions on 60-watt bulbs will go into effect.  As these restrictions kick in, the bulbs are disappearing from stores.

Is This a Good Thing?

We must certainly admit that the inefficiency of an incandescent bulb is astonishing; for a standard 60 watt light bulb, only 10% of the energy it consumes is given off as visible light, 90% of the energy is converted to heat.  These are more accurately defined not as light sources but as miniature space heaters.

However, one must wonder about the motivations and methods of forcing this change.  One issue I find particularly condemning is the fact that not one CFL factory exists in America.  Most are in China.  When GE closed it last incandescent bulb factory in Winchester VA in 2010, they began work on a factory in China.  They never even considered manufacturing these replacement bulbs here because of the high labor costs and taxation here would result in a 50% higher manufacturing cost than in China (according to The Washington Post).

What Comes Next?

Currently the leading replacement for incandescent bulbs is the compact fluorescent lamp (CFL).  These are fluorescent tubes twisted into a compact light bulb shape with a screw-in tip like an incandescent bulb.  This gives them the ability to directly replace the outmoded bulbs without having to change light fixtures.

Compact fluorescent lamps do have one major drawback; they contain mercury.  Not a lot of mercury, but enough to cause health and environment concerns as the number of these bulbs being used in homes and businesses spirals upward because they are replacing incandescent bulbs.  Improperly disposed of CFL’s can result in significant amounts of mercury reaching the local water table, putting residents at risk of neural damage, kidney damage, birth defects, and blindness.  CFL’s must be taken to a recycling center or pick-up (most Lowe’s stores now have CFL drop boxes) for disposal, not thrown in the trash.

A less dangerous replacement for incandescent bulbs is the LED light bulb.

What Is An LED Bulb?

LED stands for Light Emitting Diode and is a semiconductor diode that emits a single wavelength of light when charged with an electric current.  This lamp produces light in a similar fashion to incandescent bulbs except that instead of a filament which heats up and glows as electricity passes through it, an LED creates light using movement of the electrons streaming across the semiconductor to create electromagnetic radiation that can take the form of visible light.  They can also produce almost any color of light by varying the materials used and the voltage applied.

LEDs are not new; they have been in general use since 1963 but have previously been quite small and low powered.  Things like digital readouts on alarm clocks, indicator lights in electronics and dedicated light sources in industrial equipment, and lights for model railroading were common uses for LEDs.  More recently Christmas tree lights and even automotive tail lights are being made with LED’s because of their low power consumption and longer life over incandescent versions.

Benefits of LED Lights

LED lights can be made very small for specialty applications.  They use far less energy than incandescent lights and give off more light per unit of power consumed. Because of the lower energy levels, they last far longer than incandescent bulbs. Some modern LED room lights are rated at 50,000 hours – 15 to 30 times the life span of a good incandescent bulb and twice that of a CFL.

If we assume this bulb is in use in a business office where the lights burn for 8 hours a day, in a 5 day work week, 52 weeks a year; a 50,000 hour bulb would last for 24 years.  Some brands come with a guarantee to back-up their longevity claim.

LED light bulbs can produce a desired color without applying a filter or can produce white light. For home and business lighting, LED lights are an eco-friendly and cost effective choice. They use less electricity and produce less heat than incandescent bulbs of an equivalent lumen output, and unlike fluorescent lights they contain no mercury. Since the emitters are encased in plastic, they’re not easily damaged like most CFLs.

Drawbacks of LED Lighting

Currently the largest drawback to LED bulbs is their cost: typically between $30.00 and $90.00 per bulb.  This is MSRP; retailers generally offer better prices.  This price is due to the complexity of the manufacturing process; not only in fitting enough LEDs inside a light bulb size cover to produce the intensity and color of light (commonly 60-120 diodes), but also in incorporating a heat-sink to draw the small amount of heat that each LED produces away from them and keep them working at peak capacity.  Heat and humidity fluctuations can affect LED performance and longevity.

Choosing the Right LED Bulbs

LED light “bulbs” for room lighting contain an array of light-emitting diodes in order to produce the amount and color of light needed.  Their ratings are different from what we are accustomed.  A 10-watt LED light bulb is comparable to a 50-watt incandescent bulb.  The color of the light is measured on the Kelvin scale; choose bulbs in the 2,500 to 4,000 Kelvin range for general purpose lighting; the higher the rating the whiter the light, lower ratings produce softer, yellowish light.

Also look at the beam angle of a bulb.  Narrow beam bulbs are good for spot lighting and reading lamps, wide angle beams are best for general purpose room lighting.

The Future of LED Lighting

As in any new product; advances in the manufacturing process and higher demand for the product will bring LED bulb prices down.  They will never match the affordability of incandescent bulbs, but when dividing the cost out over the expected life of the bulb – and the convenience of not having to climb up to replace incandescent bulbs every few weeks – the sticker shock isn’t as bad as the first impression would make it seem.

When everything is considered, I think you will agree; LED lights are an eco-friendly, cost effective, long lasting and versatile choice in home lighting.

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