Changing to energy-saving LED light bulbs isn’t as easy as the old jokes. It’s tricky, technical and $$$$. Here’s my story.
Last Spring I began looking for ways to make our house more energy efficient through insulation and other energy saving measures. New York State has an excellent home energy conservation program and through the NYSERDA website I was able to locate a contractor to do a free home energy audit. Many states have similar programs offering rebates and low-cost loans to homeowners willing to insulate, upgrade the furnace and install more efficient LED light bulbs to help lower electric bills.
The contractor I chose, Bill Mc Knight, of Energy Conservation Specialists, arrived with his infrared camera and blower-door apparatus to determine how much air was leaking out of our house, and where. He inspected the attic, the basement and tested the furnace. With a passion for energy-saving that’s really contagious, he’s a dream contractor – skilled, knowledgeable, generous with his time and attention to detail – always on the lookout to help his clients save.
“You know,” he said pointing to the GE Reveal incandescent floodlights in my ceiling cans “you could reduce your electric bill by 30 percent if you switched those incandescent bulbs to LED light bulbs.” Bill also warned that the LEDs were expensive, but worth it because they ran cooler (on low voltage), used less electricity than fluorescents, and would not need replacement for many years. I had no idea there were LED light bulbs made for ceiling cans.
On my own, I had previously purchased a dozen dimmable compact fluorescent floods – about $12 each — and hated them. Even worse than the smaller compact fluorescent bulbs I’d tried three years ago when I wrote my original post on making sense of light bulb color, they gave off sickeningly greenish-yellow light. They didn’t dim – they died – and caused my switches to malfunction. I moved them to closets and the basement where there are no dimmers. The light output remains abysmal in those dark places. $144 plus tax was badly spent and fluorescent bulbs cost $1 each to recycle!
Inspired by Bill’s suggestion, I bought two LED light bulbs as a test. My ceiling cans take PAR 38-size bulbs (4.75-inches in diameter) which I found out from a sticker up inside one of the fixtures. The bulbs I had been using were smaller than they should have been. At Lowe’s, I found dimmable 3000K (warm white) Utilitech brand flood lampss (Lowe’s proprietary brand made by Feit), equivalent to my incandescents at 885 lumens (brightness). For $30 each they are guaranteed for 25,000 hours or about 3 years (8760 hours in a year). That means each new LED adds $11.50 a year to my electric bill for three years before I use a kilowatt. Ouch! But the light is wonderful and even brighter and cleaner than the incandescent bulbs. So I invested an additional $70 to put four in my home office ceiling, where lights burn 12 hours a day. What I also like about these bulbs is that the bezel, or outer ring, is very narrow. So there is a maximum light spread from this bulb style.
Good solution? Almost. With all four bulbs replaced, the lights didn’t dim and my switches didn’t work. Our ten-year-old Leviton dimmers are great. I love their tiny green lights to show where the dimmer is set and they are a cinch to find in the dark. But LED light bulbs put out low voltage vs. the high voltage the old switches use. So I constructed a workaround — mixing one incandescent with three LEDs — which resolved the problem.
Following the successful mix, I replaced 3 of 4 bulbs in Mr. AM’s home office and 6 of 9 bulbs in the kitchen – two other daily high-use areas. My electric bill did go down slightly but who knows how long it will take to see a $420 savings to cover the cost of the bulbs? Two of the LED bulbs burned out within three months and I returned them to Lowe’s where they were replaced at no charge. Had I bought online I’d have been out of luck.
I really like the LED light bulbs and Mr. AM says he sees better with them in his work space. But – and this is a very big but – to convert to 100% energy efficient lighting in my house:
• Every dimmer must be replaced with a new LED-compatible switch. This requires an electrician.
• To keep the switch style I like, there is a single choice: Lutron Maestro. This is a top-of-the-line option and Lutron offers specialty choices including “occupancy sensor” switches that turn themselves off (rebate bingo) and remote-control infrared switches (no getting out of bed up to turn off the lights). That cost would be about $2000. And those switches only are guaranteed work with certain lightbulb brands.
•So, even if I go for LED-compatible switches, those must be matched with compatible bulbs. Before buying either component, it’s essential to check the manufacturer’s approved list of bulbs and sizes or risk humming and improper dimming. Lutron is compatible with the Utilitech bulbs – at least for now but in the future, who knows? (Update 2/28/14: the Utilitech bulbs pictured here have been discontinued and replaced by a bulb with a plastic housing. I was able to purchase the last 8 of these bulbs in Lowe’s stock. Since I don’t plan to replace any switches until I no longer have old bulbs to do the workaround this is not an issue.)
• A majority of the LED bulbs range from semi- to totally hideous. Note to manufacturers: automotive styling does not cut it!! My Utilitech bulbs are less visually offensive than most.
The choice of LED bulbs and brands is brain-boggling. Fair warning: special attention must be paid to bulb design and especially to the surface area including the bezel (rim) thickness, the beam pattern (wide or narrow), the shape, size and socket type. Floods spread light down and at an angle all around. I look for a narrow bezel and an even pattern of diodes over the surface to get the widest spread of light from each bulb. A thick bezel and diodes only in the center is a bulb that works like a spotlight. This chart I found [above] is a handy reference guide.
Despite my sincere intent to lower the energy footprint of my house, the fast-moving new technology isn’t standardized or completely compatible with new or old fixtures. That means there’s no cost-effective solution for my house very soon. Retrofitting all the switches and all the bulbs would cost several thousand dollars before there is a penny of savings on my electric bill. Plus, I still have a supply of old bulbs to use up. I’m pleased to have made a start. Meanwhile, making sense of switching to LED is ultimately a matter of dollars and cents.
(Source: chart via elegant-intl.com)