Monday, June 6, 2016

Upgrading lighting

There is no easier or better way to upgrade one's energy efficiency than by swapping out light bulbs.  That doesn't mean it's easy because the whole lighting market has been a moving target for several years.  It has been confusing enough so that there has been political blowback against energy-efficient bulbs.  I know someone who bought a whole big box of tungsten incandescent bulbs because he thought the energy efficiency standards were going to fail.  Our resident political nutcase, Michele Bachmann, even made her war on energy-efficient lighting part of her run for the presidency.

And hard as it is for me to admit it, Bachmann had a point.  The interim "solution" was the compact fluorescent bulbs (the curly-tails).  They were generally affordable but had significant problems shared with the rest of fluorescent bulbs—mostly they contained mercury.  But the other big problem was that they had an unpleasant color—fluorescent bulbs start out green.  In order to make them look like incandescent lights (which everyone loves because they resemble fire light) an orange-yellow coloring had to be added.  Since the original green was never fully covered, the resulting light could make skin look jaundiced and most folks object to looking like they may be suffering from liver disease.

The real solution was the Light Emitting Diode (LED).  These utterly clever devices were astonishingly energy efficient.  But in the early versions, they didn't put out a lot of light and were EX-PEN-SIVE.  The first bulb to replace a 40 watt incandescent I saw at Home Depot about eight years ago cost $40.  Now there were calculations that in 10 years or so, you could pay for one of these with electrical savings but $40 was still too much sticker shock for me.  And seriously, this so-called 40 watt replacement only put out about 80% the light of a $1 tungsten bulb.

Two years ago, I went shopping for replacements for the 50 watt GU-10 halogen bulbs in some track lighting.  There were  LED replacements at the local big-box building supply but they still wanted $25.  I was able to find some on Amazon for less than $7 so that's what I bought.  The LED replacement uses 6 watts.

A month ago, we decided to finally strip some truly ugly wallpaper off the dining room wall and paint.  My SO had purchased a lovely George Nelson bubble lamp about three years ago to replace an ugly brass chandelier, but she has been sick and so this project sank to the very bottom of our to-do list.  But one morning I heard her cursing at the wall paper steamer so I knew the project was back on.  And I was going to have to make some decisions about installing this wonderful light fixture.

The instructions said the fixture could accommodate up to a 150 watt incandescent.  While LEDs have come down considerably in price, there was still really nothing that big and even two 75 watt lamps would cost about $80.  However, the 60 watt replacements are now running in the $3-5 range—the more expensive ones are dimmable.   So I chose to put two 60s (9.5 watts) in the bubble knowing that this was already a lot of light.  The other choice was color.  The replacement for incandescent bulbs are usually listed at 2700°.  And unlike the curly tails, they really are 2700°.  But there are also many LEDs at 3000° and it is a color I really like.  It is close enough to the old tungsten color but it is just enough more "white-bright" to make reading easier and food look better.

About those dimmers.  In the old incandescent days, a dimmer merely changed the amount of electricity flowing to the bulb.  With LEDs, the dimmer must control a diode.  The bad news is if you want to control your light levels, you must replace that too ($25).  The good news, in my humble opinion, is that with an LED, the light output changes but the color does not.  I find this cool beyond words.  But apparently, not everyone agrees because there are now LEDs that DO change color as they are dimmed.  In fact, I saw one LED that allowed you to dial up the color from candlelight (2100°) to high noon sunlight (6200°) with an app on your smartphone.

So the lessons I learned about the brave new world of LEDs include:

1) The most common bulbs are dirt cheap already.  These include 40 and 60 watt replacements and the recessed can lighting bulbs.

2) The great prices can be had at Costco, IKEA, and Amazon (and probably others.)  My local big box store has a brand new LED section with prices as low as IKEA.  Price is no longer an excuse to not buy these truly amazing bulbs.

3) There are reasons for installing LEDs beyond costs.  Best example might be replacing tube fluorescents.  The replacement for a 40 watt tube currently costs around $12.  The difference in efficiency is small compared to swapping out an incandescent—the LED requires 21 watts so the energy saving is less than 1/2.  But I know someone who works under those tubes and recently they were replaced by LEDs.  Instant on.  No flickering (no headaches).  No hum.  No mercury.  Great color.  Changing the light source has changed his work environment.

So here it is—our new dining room fixture.  Designed in 1952—it became an icon of Modernism.  It has been described as a paper lantern crossed with a flying saucer.  The amazing exterior is a plastic once used to mothball Liberty ships.  And I am willing to bet that this classic has never looked better than with LEDs providing the light.  We are extremely pleased with the outcome.  I had a blast learning the possibilities of this new world of lighting.  And when I get done converting the house to LEDs, we will use less than 20% of the electricity of the old lights.


  1. We are at about 90% LED. The part I hope is true is the longevity of the LED bulbs. I have to get out a 10' stepladder to change a bulb in our living room, so the less often I have to do that the better. The folks loving the LEDs the most are churches, theaters, and production people. The bulbs in fixtures in high ceiling churches become very expensive when the bulb change requires a lift and moving several rows of pews to accommodate the lift at each fixture, so think about changing a bulb from incandescent to LED and now it won't have to happen again for 10-15 years....the price got very cheap. And the production guys are getting very fancy, as the same diode can be one of 8-10 different colors in a minutes is cool to watch as the color changes instantly with a tone change by an artist like Joe LED!

    1. I have seen some LEDs rated for 25,000 hours. If that is true and those church lights burn just 6 hours a week, we are talking about a theoretical life of 80 years. Yeah, I guess that is worth it in saved lift rental, even if the bulbs fail for other reasons at 30 years.

      In five years, hardly anyone will remember why bulbs were made any other way. These things are already so cool, it boggles the imagination. And the lighting folks are still just figuring it out.