Incandescent bulbs vs. LED bulbs
According to the Energy Star website, light-emitting diodes are “semiconductor devices that produce visible light when an electrical current is passed through them.” They rely on solid-state electroluminesence to produce light, which means they convert electricity into light through the excitation of electrons.
Incandescent lights, meanwhile, use thermal radiation to produce light, which results in a huge amount of energy loss due to heat and in turn a much shorter lifespan. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that solid-state technology could reduce national light energy usage by up to 50 percent.
LED bulbs got their start in commercial applications such as retail signs, traffic lights and children’s toys. In part, this was because they couldn’t replicate the brightness or warm color of incandescent lights. They’re also directional by nature, meaning the light emitted is a focused beam instead of diffusing out in many directions. The good news is that improved bulb coatings have largely negated this issue. Today’s LEDs can diffuse light 360 degrees.
You’ll find two common types of LEDs in home lighting:
• High power LEDs (HPLEDs). HPLEDs produce a much stronger light than familiar miniature bulbs but generate much more heat, which means they need reliable heat sinks (devices that dissipate that heat), usually in the form of metal fins at the base.
• Organic LEDs (OLEDs). OLEDs, meanwhile, use an organic material as a semiconductor rather than a crystal structure. Organic materials produce a naturally diffuse light, and their molecules allow for more variation in performance and light quality than crystals.
One LED can last up to 50,000 hours, the equivalent of 42 60-watt incandescent bulbs. (Photo by Hugh Vandivier)
Light bulb cost
While a worldwide push seeks to end the dependence on incandescent bulbs, there have been several stumbling blocks. The first is price. The lowest-priced 60-watt LED bulb on the market costs around $10, which is five times more than a comparable incandescent. High-end bulbs, meanwhile, cost upwards of $80 or more. This price is often balanced out by longevity because these bulbs can last anywhere from 10 to 15 years or more depending on use.
In addition, there has been confusion over how manufacturers label bulbs. Traditional packaging reported the brightness of a bulb using watts. LEDs, however, need far fewer watts (between six and 10) to produce the same amount of light as a 60-watt incandescent. This has led many consumers to mistakenly think that all HPLED and OLED products are “underpowered.”
New guidelines, however, are focused on reporting a bulb’s brightness in lumens, effectively standardizing the market and making all bulbs easily comparable.
It’s also worth noting that LEDs can’t actually produce white light. To achieve this color, a phosphor coating is added to the bulb. First-generation LEDs, therefore, often had the problem of too-white or too-blue light that didn’t work well in spaces like living rooms or kitchens. Fortunately, major manufacturers have virtually eliminated this problem.
Pros and cons of LED lights
LED bulbs come with many benefits, and some drawbacks:
• They use far less energy to produce light, so they aren’t hot to the touch.
• They don’t “burn out” like typical bulbs, but instead start to dim slowly.
• LEDs can go from dark to full bright within seconds.
• Because they rely on solid-state components, LEDs aren’t easily damaged or broken and aren’t subject to failure due to constant switching.
• They don’t contain mercury like fluorescent bulbs. However, some LEDs may contain metals such as lead, nickel or copper, meaning you should handle broken lights with caution.
• Over time, LEDs can begin to change color due to temperature variations and age.
• Some newer bulbs may not work with older dimmer switches, instead refusing to turn on altogether or remaining very dim.
If you’re looking to switch over to LEDs but can’t make them work in existing sockets, it may be worth hiring an electrician to update your wiring and fixtures to help “future proof” your home.