The Truth About LEDs
A while back I wrote that Melissa and I had given up our expensive and ultimately unfulfilling fling with CFL lightbulbs. We must have spent a couple thousand dollars putting them all over the house, but as soon as the ones in the outdoor sconces die off, we'll be done with them completely. I've been experimenting with different brands of LEDs, and Glenn Reynolds' mention this morning of Cree's bulbs reminded me to finally write up what I've learned.
The first lesson is: Brand counts. When it comes to incandescent bulbs, your better brands tend to last longer but they all produce the same high-quality light we all know and love. LEDs however vary widely. For the purposes of this column, I'm putting halogen bulbs in their own category, even though they too produce incandescent light. We'll get to them shortly.
We've tried four brands of LEDs, with extremely mixed results.
My least favorite -- and keep in mind, these are subjective observations but I am very picky about the quality of light in my home -- are the bulbs produced by Philips. They look super-modern, which is what drew me to their reflector bulbs for the ceiling cans in my studio. The R30 size looks like the Pan Am spaceship from the orbital transit sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Everything else about them represents the worst of LED lighting. The light they produce has that sickly feeling that screams "cubical" instead of whispering "warm and comfy living room." The light doesn't emit evenly from lens, which might not be so annoying if the bulb didn't stick out from below the can -- but it does and so it is. There's also a good half-second delay between flicking the light switch and when the light can be bothered to come on. It seems to have a very broad dimming range, but the light simply becomes fainter and sicklier and less pleasant the lower you dim it. (We'll talk more about LEDs and dimming problems in a minute.) The Philips bulbs were also the most expensive. I have one in the studio and two (R20 size) in the bedroom and I can't wait to ditch them all.
Next up is Feit, which produces a astounding range of LED bulbs. If there's a size, wattage, or application you can even just imagine, they probably make it. That part is great. The reflector bulbs light perfectly evenly (unlike Philips), and the light is more pleasant. Of all the brands I've tested, theirs seem to have the longest power-up delay. But the R20 reflectors produce good-enough quality light for the kids' rooms, which is nice because little boys don't always remember to turn off the lights. In fact, this one time one of them might even have remembered. Anyway, Feit's bulbs are moderately priced and their performance is acceptable -- if you can live with that on-delay.
We've put EcoSmart bulbs in the garage and in a couple of other rooms, and I'm happy with them. Screwed into fixtures with that mock alabaster glass cover, the light they emit is almost indistinguishable from incandescent bulbs. They come on instantly, too. They dim as well as any LED is able to. At full brightness, they produce a lot of light. We have two of those alabaster-type ceiling fixtures in our laundry room, which used to hold two 60-watt incandescents each. The LEDs are so bright, that I replaced them with two 60-watt equivalent bulbs and two 40-watt equivalents -- and then still had to put the whole shebang on a Lutron dimmer. And then I rarely turn the dimmer up more than halfway. So instead of running 240 watts in there, we're now running maybe 20 watts -- did I mention they produce a lot of light? That's some serious savings, especially for moderately-priced bulbs.
The cheapest bulbs we've used are also my favorite. Cree is a longtime producer of commercial LED lighting, but is moving into residential in a big way. Their bulbs produce the closest I've seen to honest-to-God warm-feeling light, they come on instantly, and seem to have the best dimming range. I have one in my studio ceiling, just a few feet away from a traditional incandescent, and the two are virtually indistinguishable from one another at full brightness. The difference being that the Sylvania bulb is using 65 watts and the Cree is sipping a mere 9.5. Needless to say, it won't be long before I replace the rest of the lights in my studio. Cree's bulbs also look almost exactly like your traditional incandescents, at least from above the ballast. They also have a rubberized coating for a nice grip when you're installing them -- that grip is reassuring when you're up on a ladder with a couple of ten-dollar bulbs. Cree's only real drawback is that they produce a very limited range of bulbs.
But I won't be replacing any of the traditional reflector bulbs in the ceiling of our kitchen or living room, or in the dining room fixture. Because the second lesson is: LEDs aren't for every room in the house.
When an incandescent bulb is dimmed, it produces a softer, warmer light. It's welcoming. It's comforting. When you dim an LED bulb, even Cree's best-in-class, they simply emit less light. That's no way to serve dinner or enjoy cocktails in the living room.
For those purposes we've switched to halogen bulbs. They won't give you all the savings of LEDs, since they typically use 2/3rds the equivalent wattage of traditional bulbs. The big BR40 bulbs I like for the kitchen run almost eight dollars apiece, and consume 40 watts compared to one of those 9.5 watt LEDs. But the light they produce is even nicer than traditional incandescent bulbs, especially when dimmed. They probably won't save you any money in the long run, and you'll still have to replace them every 2,000 - 4,000 hours -- but for quality of light they can't be beat.
But everywhere else, my mantra is: Out with the CFLs and in with the LEDs.