Wednesday, January 30, 2013

LED Light Bulbs Part 1: What's wrong with CFLs?

That was one expensive splurge, but it was worth it. For a few years now, I've seen light emitting diode (LED) light bulbs for "regular" lamp bases (E26) at stores like Costco and Wal-Mart. They were oversized, weird looking, and something like $35 for "40W" or less. The most "popular" models at the time looked like wedding cakes with dozens of LEDs laid out in concentric circles at decreasing radii. Then there were also the novelty bulbs that were meant for decorative lighting and produced a lot fewer than 400 lumens (about a 40W bulb). But times are a'changing...

A few months back, I was browing through online catalogues and found some LED bulbs that actually looked somewhat like regular bulbs. First, I found the 40W incandescent equivalents and then learned of 60W and even 75W. "Cool" was what I thought, up until I looked at their actual energy consumption: they use as much energy as compact fluorescent lights (CFL). A 400 lumen (40W incandescent) LED consumes around 10W, just like a CFL, and an 800 lumen (60W) uses about 13W. Why would I pay double, triple, or more for the exact same "energy saving" bulb?

Why go with LEDs? (or, more accurately, why ditch the CFLs)?

The most obvious answer is mercury. As you may now, all fluorescent light bulbs contain mercury because that's just how they roll. Ultraviolet (UV) light is first produced inside the bulb with the help of mercury, and then it is converted to visible light using a phosphor layer lining the bulb's interior. Unfortunately, mercury is a very toxic heavy metal, and while the quantity inside CFL bulbs isn't very large, it's still large enough to be of concern. Upon breaking a bulb, you are usually advised to air out the room and to clean the affected area with gloves.

Ya, and the environment. Can't forget about that one. Trash a CFL in the regular trash (or break one and be forced to trash it) and you're dumping a heavy metal directly into the environment.

Ultraviolet Light

Speaking of UV light, have you heard all the warnings about how you shouldn't go outside during day time when the sun is "strongest"? That and put up sunscreen lotion when going out during the day regardless of season? The answer is probably "yes", and you probably know that it's due to the dangers of UV light.

Well, if you want to get paranoid (not to say there are't valid concerns), then you may want to think about how safe it is to have UV producing devices all over your home and work area (see here). But the phosphor coating absorbs all the UV light, right? Apparently, not if the coating is cracked or chipped. If there is clear glass, then UV light will get out. There are a bunch of studies (see the link) that discuss the quantity of UV light emitted from fluorescent bulbs and how they put out more than the sun at close proximity (inches away from bulb). Total. Freak. Out. The good thing is that you should be fine as long as you aren't positioned too close to the bulb, and if you have a shade or diffuser over the bulb.


Durability is another thing to consider. Incandescents are crud. Period. They don't last very long and they burn a lot of energy, producing a lot of heat. Is this really bad though? Yes, you can buy these relatively cheaply, but you have to buy more. And because of their seemingly terrible energy efficiency and wastefulness, governments and stores have been banning them (e.g. Ikea).

Aside from safety issues, CFLs are energy efficient. Like we discussed, they use as much energy as LEDs, which are the new technology. Additionally, they are rated to work for thousands of hours, which may equate to years if you don't leave them on all day (. However, its record of reliability is not as pristeen as one would think. CFLs are a bit more "needy", shall we say. Off the top of my head, you are not supposed to use them in enclosed fixtures, they don't like heat; you shouldn't use them for lamps that are turned on/off frequently; and they don't stand up to unstable electricity sources too, apparently. Do some googling and you will find stories of bulbs blowing out and spitting out fire. This all wouldn't be so bad if they didn't splatter mercury every when they blew (assuming they don't start a fire)...

Just so you know, my record with CFLs has been great. They have all lasted years despite being on for 4 or more hours per day, and I haven't had any blow outs yet.

Turn-on Time

This one has never really bothered me, but it's a recognized "feature" of CFLs. Fluorescent lights take a perceivable amount of time to reach full brightness; that is, when you turn one on from the "off" position, it starts out relatively dim, and after a few minutes or so, it will reach full brightness. Incandescent lights also have this "feature" except they usually don't take anywhere near as long as CFLs.


LED bulbs do not contain mercury. However, like most other light sources, they probably produce some degree of UV light. CFLs probably get a bad rap because they are designed specifically to produce UV light. It's only with the phosphor coating that we see visible light. Halogens are also pretty bad with UV and require UV shields, so I hear. Having said this, I have yet to hear major concerns about excessive UV being emitted from LED lights or bulbs that weren't designed specifically to produce UV light -- please tell me if you have heard otherwise.

Another perk of the LED bulb is their long lamp or operating life. CFLs will go into the thousands of hours and even up to 10,000 hours, but product literature says that LEDs should go into the 20,000 hour and up range.

And finally, LED bulbs do not take as long as CFLs to warm up (i.e. go to full brightness). This is from random googling and personal experience. Mr. Google shows that people have actually timed and measured the amount of time it takes for LED bulbs to warm up, and they are supposedly only slightly slower than incandescents. The one bulb I've been running for a few days appears to be quick at warming up. It replaced a CFL, so the difference is definitely noticeable.

What's the score? No mercury, energy efficient as CFLs and much moreso than incadescents, about twice the life of a CFL, no lengthy turn-on time, and no super large worries about UV light. Essentially, you get the better parts of the CFL without the mess -- as far as we know with this newer technology. Not bad. And Ikea doesn't think they're so bad either. By 2016, Ikea plans to phase out the sale of CFL bulbs and sell LEDs exclusively.

With this newfound love of less toxic light bulbs, I ventured out and purchased a few at the current prices (~$15/bulb) and tried them out. Check out the second part of this article to see what I found!

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