LEDs: Throwing Some Light on the Hype

Let's start this off with a quick clarification. When I say "LED light", I'm not talking about the nifty, little blinky things that are frequently part of the ingredients list in Make projects. I'm talking about the Big Show: An LED light that can replace the incandescent bulbs and/or CFLs you have lighting up your home right now. To do it right, you don't just need a single LED that works, you need an array of them…and you need them to produce enough light, and the right color of light, reliably enough that people can buy an LED bulb and know what they're getting into.That ain't easy. But it is getting easier.


LED lighting really is more than a toy. This is the library of the new Wit Hotel in Chicago. It's not lit entirely by LED, but lighting designers Lightswitch Architectural did use the technology in the coves around the ceiling and walls. Unfortunately, getting this look at home isn't as simple as it's often made out to be.

Trouble is, they're being oversold, like whoa. For about two-and-a-half years, I've been reporting on LED lighting for a trade magazine called Architectural SSL*. During that time, I've watched mainstream press and enviro blogs tout LEDs as the green energy miracle light. Often, with a level of enthusiasm seldom seen outside rooms full of puppies. Don't get me wrong. LEDs are pretty cool. There are places where they're useful now, and places they probably will be soon. But if you're just hearing about the awesome, you aren't getting the full story. And, as more LED products start showing up on store shelves, that really starts to matter.

Join me, won't you, as we put on our Sober Assessment Goggles and take a peek at the current state of light bulb of the tomorrow…

*The glamorous life of a freelance writer, everybody. That said, if you are thinking about freelance, I recommend convincing a trade magazine or two to love you. The work is steady, the pay is decent and the people are good. And that is a better situation than you'll get from a lot of things you could do to pay the bills. /unsolicitedwriteradvice

1. There Are Good LED Lights Out There; But You Probably Can't Afford Them

A Twitter friend lamented the other day that LED lighting technology just isn't getting any better. And that's wrong. Right now, if you were a city manager, the owner of a fine hotel (like the Wit) or somebody with enough cash to hire a lighting designer to pick out the fixtures in your living room, you could go drop some money on LED lights that would work great, look beautiful and (depending on your project) give you some big savings on energy use. The obvious problem here is that, with a few exceptions, you are likely none of those things.

No, what you see is the stuff for sale at Home Depot. And that, my friends, is usually not worth your time or money. Not yet, anyway. Buy 'em if you want, but prepare for disappointment…Christmas tree lights that say "white" and turn out to be blue…$20 lightbulbs that conk out after two weeks. That's a lot of what's out there. Case in point: A couple weeks ago, I was at an LED conference and one of the speakers told a story about buying 10 screw-in LED lightbulbs from his local Costco, just to see what they'd do. The box claimed they'd last 30,000 hours. Within two weeks, four were dark, and one had changed colors and started blinking. Less than two months later, all the lights had dimmed out enough to be useless. I've heard that same, basic story about 50,000 times now. Sure, there may well be good, affordable products out there. But you have no way of telling the difference, which brings me to….

2. Trust No One

See, the LED industry is kind of in this awkward teenage phase right now, where it's doing the business equivalent of tagging public buildings and sneaking cigarettes out behind the barn. There's a lot of misrepresentation and a lot of flat-out lies, and just because a box says something that doesn't mean you can believe it (more so than boxes of other things). In fact, up until last year, there weren't really any useful standards to compare LED lights. Anybody could make any claim they wanted to and even the professionals had nothing to judge it by. That's changing, but for now, assume you're dealing with the early 20th-century patent medicine industry.

Again, yes, there are good products and there are honest companies. But finding them takes a LOT of research. Last year, at that same LED conference, I watched a discussion panel devolve into (literally) tears and yelling over this very topic. The phrase, "Pull up your big boy pants," was shouted. This isn't yet a place where average consumers can just walk in and grab something off the shelf.

The DOE is trying to fix that, though. One way they're fighting back is with CALiPER, basically a secret-shopper program with a lab experiment twist. Researchers from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (and other labs) purchase LED bulbs and fixtures anonymously (often via third-parties) and run them through an extensive testing process to see whether they live up to the claims on the box. The majority still don't, though it's getting better. More than 175 products have been tested since 2006. But, while CALiPER is improving the overall situation, it won't help you a lot. The reports are fairly technical–they're written for lighting designers and engineers–and the DOE doesn't name names. CALiPER can tell you whether, in general, you can seriously consider a certain type of LED bulb. But it can't tell you what specific products are bunk.

3. Keep a Close Eye On that "Energy Efficiency" Thing

The biggest selling point–at least for average consumers–is that LEDs are more energy efficient than any other kind of lighting. They'll slash your bills and save the planet! Rejoice!

You can probably guess where this is going. The fact is, LEDs are pretty damn efficient. Much, much more so than the old, incandescent Edison bulbs. But they aren't always a greener choice compared to fluorescent lamps. The thing to look at is lumens per watt, a fancy term that basically just refers to how much light you get out vs. how much energy you put in. The more lumens per watt, the better the energy efficiency. The kind of fluorescent lamps used in offices–the long, narrow ones that are called T-5 or T-8s in Technicalland–regularly get more than 100 lumens per watt. An LED T-8 lamp tested by CALiPER last year got 42.*

Plus, the lumens per watt rating of the LED itself doesn't necessarily mean that a lamp made with an array of LEDs will get the same rating…or that a fixture made with a couple LED lamps will even get close. You lose efficiency each time you add other parts to the system. And many times, when you hear about super-efficient LEDs, you're hearing about just the single LED, not about its efficiency in a complicated system.

If you do happen to be in a position where you can buy LEDs, and you care about the environment, this is something you need to be really critical about. A good green PR campaign isn't the same as actually green numbers.

Again, I want to stress that LEDs don't suck. And where they do suck, they're getting better. But I don't want you to get burned by hype. And right now the amount of hype surrounding these things would make Flava Flav blush.

*Yes, fluorescent lamps contain mercury. But so does the pollution from coal-fired power plants. This is part of what makes the green-ness of LEDs so complicated right now. If you get your energy clean, it might well be more green to buy an LED over a fluorescent, even if it uses more energy to produce the same amount of light. But if your energy comes from coal, that could change the equation, especially when you consider the fact that a lot of cities have good fluorescent recycling programs.

Thumbnail photo: Goins