The Lowdown on LEDs

The Lowdown on LEDs

These ultra-efficient bulbs are the future of lighting, but they aren't without challenges. Here's what you need to know.

By Kate Tyndall

Philip Wegener PhotographyThis kitchen designed by Doug Walter uses five LED lighting circuits, all on dimmers: undercabinet lighting, recessed cans, the uplit cove, track head task lighting, and decorative pendants.

Few components of a house have changed quite as dramatically in the last 30 years as the lighting that illuminates its rooms. It’s been quite a jump from the familiar pear-shaped Edison bulb, with its tungsten filament and homey yellow light, to the high-tech light emitting diodes of energy-efficient LED bulbs.

Homeowners can be forgiven if they’re confused and want to cling to the known, even though it is woefully energy inefficient. Remodelers, who often are installing new lighting for their customers, can be confused too by some of the performance inconsistencies of LED bulbs, which are poised to pass compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs as the most popular energy-efficient bulb choice among consumers.

Far and away, LEDs are the way to go, but they do have a learning curve, so here’s what you need to know to ensure you use the right bulb in the right place.

The Basics

  • Energy Efficient: LEDs are 25 to 35 times more efficient than incandescent light bulbs, and four times more efficient than the spiral compact fluorescent bulbs that are so roundly disliked by consumers for their wonky looks, delayed turn on, and unreliable dimming.
  • Long-Lived: LEDs are the Methuselah of light bulbs. Though they aren’t likely to attain anywhere near the 969 years of Noah’s grandfather, at 20-plus years, they will outlast more than a few homeowners. Even the best CFLs top out at 10 years.
  • Safety: Because LEDs run significantly cooler than incandescents and CFLs, there is there is less risk of burn injuries in handling them. Human skin burns at 140 degrees, notes Centennial, Colo.-based architect Doug Walter, and incandescents can reach into the 200-plus range. CFLs run at a somewhat lower temperature, but still dangerously hot. LEDs come in at a relatively cool 120 degrees. Walter sees another safety benefit to LEDs: “Especially for seniors, every time they have to get up on a stool to replace a bulb it’s a falling hazard.” With the long lifespan of LED bulbs, most homeowners can retire their ladders.
  • No Delay: Unlike CFLs, LEDs respond immediately when the switch is flicked; there is no warm-up period as the bulb gradually lights.
  • Broad Color Spectrum: LEDs are available in colors ranging from the familiar warm yellow hue of an incandescent bulb to a brighter but still warm hue, through a variety of cooler tones all the way to daylight. When they first came on the market, their bluish-white light garnered a lot of pushback from customers who didn’t like the color, finding it too stark for comfort. Engineers have been able to address the cold light of early LEDs and create bulbs that produce light on the warmer end of the lighting spectrum, replicating the hue given off by incandescent lights.
  • Environmentally Friendly: LEDs contain no hazardous chemicals, unlike CFLs, which contain small amounts of the heavy metal mercury, a known toxin that should always be disposed of through a qualified recycler. LEDs can be tossed in the regular trash for disposal—when it eventually burns out.
  • Unaffected by Cold: LEDs perform just as happily when temperatures plummet, unlike compact fluorescents, whose light output suffers when temperatures dip below freezing.

LEDs Gaining Ground
The single biggest drawback to widespread acceptance of LEDs has long been their high price. Even five years ago, consumers might have paid $20 for a single bulb; 10 years ago, the price would have approached $40.

However, as manufacturers have ramped up production, thanks to the government’s Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which set minimum efficiency standards for light bulbs, prices have been going down. Today, consumers can buy the equivalent of a 60-watt LED bulb by a major manufacturer for $2.50, and there are LED retrofits for recessed lighting that can be had for around $25 to $30.

There is no need to traipse to a specialty lighting store to find the right LEDs for your project. Even the big box stores have multiple shelves devoted these high efficiency bulbs.

courtesy of Doug WalterAs this in-store comparison tool demonstrates, lighting' color temperature can have a big impact on a space.

What you won’t find on those shelves is a wide variety in the color of the bulbs, which is expressed in degrees Kelvin. That homey warm light so prized by many homeowners is expressed as 2700K, while the cool daylight hue of high noon comes in at 5000K. There is often little in between these two bulb hues to choose from.

That’s unfortunate, since the bright white of a 5000K bulb may be too bright—which is often the perception for bulbs on the cooler end of the spectrum—for a particular application but the 2700K bulb way too yellow. A cool white bulb with a Kelvin temperature in the 3000 to 3500 range might be just the ticket.

This is where a remodeler’s knowledge of the product—and their ability to source the less common LED bulb types and colors—can really help guide homeowners in tailoring a lighting plan to their specific tastes and needs.

The Devil's in the Details
When bidding a job, remodelers should consider the lighting, even if it’s not on the customer’s list of must-haves. As far as Walter is concerned, adding LEDs “should be a part of every remodelers’ toolkit.” As consumers become more energy conscious, “lighting is the obvious, low-hanging fruit.” Retrofitting can lights and adding task, way finding, and pathway lights can be a nice add-on.

“New lighting is always part of the conversation for new bathroom or kitchen remodels, regardless of the project size,” says Pacific Northwest remodeler Milt Rye. “I have been recommending LED fixtures and bulbs more frequently largely due to the light spectrum that is now available. People can choose from soft white, which more or less mimics the yellowy incandescent light, up to daylight spectrum, which is more of a blue-white light. With the gloominess we deal with in Seattle, the daylight spectrum is very popular.”

Kitchens and baths in particular are a perfect target for a lighting upgrade, since both are heavy task-oriented sites. Remodeler Ben Morey of Long Beach, Calif., got on board with LEDs back when the bulbs still gave customers sticker shock.

“Five years ago we moved to LED lighting as our standard,” he says. “While back then it was more difficult to find and cost more, it changed our lighting designs as well as the energy efficacy.”

Philip Wegener PhotographyDoug Walter used LEDs in three 5-inch recessed cans and bright undercabinet lighting over the sink; due to the kitchen's dark finishes, more lighting was needed to achieve the recommended levels.

Morey uses LED recessed lighting in all kitchen and bathroom jobs, as well as under cabinet and interior cabinet lighting in kitchens. “We have also used LED strip lighting under floating vanity cabinets for a focus point in some of our bathrooms when the style allows.

“The one main hurdle is still the dimming, especially with three-way switches. Even as manufacturers like Leviton come out with lighting manufacturer lists that tell you which of their switches to use, there is still humming that occurs at lower dimmer settings.”

Bethesda, Md., spec builder and remodeler Mark Leas also uses LEDs in his projects, but has encountered problems with the consistency of the product, and says some of the LEDs he’s seen “are junk.”

The problems with dimming and light consistency are well known, says Walter, but he notes that manufacturers are getting pretty good about listing which brands are compatible with their dimmers.

The trick to maintaining consistency in lighting color is to stay with the same brand, says lighting expert Mark Lien, industry relations manager with the Illuminating Engineering Society, since a 3000K bulb from one manufacturer may have a slightly different hue than a 3000K bulb from a different manufacturer.

Walters agrees, and advises remodelers to stay away from unknown manufacturers who often cut back on quality to produce bulbs at a cheap price point.

As Leas discovered to his cost, “there’s not always consistency when much of the product is made in China.” He recently shipped back to the vendor three boxes of faulty LED lights.