LED There Be Light

You want transformative tech?  I give you… LEDs and domestic-class lighting.

Do you have MP3s, or cassettes?  Do you watch YouTube, or filmstrips?  This same upheaval is coming to lighting, whether we like it or not.  Last week, Ikea announced that they would phase out all light bulbs except LEDs by 2016.  All- including compact fluorescents too.  The medium-term promise of LEDs is now compelling and confident enough for the company to stake such a bold claim:

-All the light of an incandescent bulb, but from a quarter of the power.

-Lifetime durability- tens of thousands of hours, instead of hundreds like an incandescent.  You’ll change houses before you need to change a quality LED light.

-Instant-on, unlike any fluorescent.  Not all that relevant for domestic use.  Also highly durable and shatterproof, unlike halogens, more useful in a vehicle or an industrial setting.

-No mercury content, though fluorescents didn’t really have that much mercury to start with.  The mercury accusation is a red herring.

-Not as hot as a halogen, for less fire risk.

In essence, a good LED will be a lifetime light- you’ll forget there’s even a separate bulb in there.  Some products won’t even let you get to the LED.  So, if they’re so great, then why aren’t we already buying these wonder-bulbs?

First, LEDs are vulnerable to heat.  They’re made of semiconductors, like computer chips.  But your computer needs a fan, because otherwise the CPU could fry itself.  Similarly, LEDs can’t take as much heat as an incandescent filament, and need good heat sinking to survive.

Just like solar panels, you’re paying for that enhanced lifetime up front, instead of in recurring costs.  A lamp-sized LED may last as long as fifty incandescant bulbs, but you’ll pay fifty times more, then pull ahead in your energy bills over that time.  But people don’t want to pay upfront; the mere sight of a bulb with a $20-40 price tag on it makes one recoil if you can’t do the math on total cost of ownership.  And unfortunately, most people can’t do the math on total cost of ownership.

Also, it took time to get to $40 prices.  And reliable, 50x lifetimes.  While LEDs in this size class were being hyped in 2008-2010, a lot of shady outfits were selling units that wouldn’t actually last that long.  You had to know who had the good ones, and you had to pay.  The “L Prize” helped.  The federal government (i.e., Department of Energy) held a contest to see who could meet the goals of long life, low power consumption, affordable cost, and a good light quality.  Philips won the prize money.

Don’t tell that to the conspiracy nuts, though.  Apparently, “the government will take our bulbs away.”  No such thing will happen.  No one will actually enter your home, looking for proscribed possession.  Instead, a phased-in tax will make incandescents less appealing, starting with large bulbs (easily replaced with fluorescents), then adding lower and lower wattages (to be replaced with LEDs).   And if, BTW, you don’t like the color spectrum of a fluorescent or LED, there’ll be another, with a different phosphor spectrum.  The fact that you can’t be bothered to look doesn’t mean LEDs as a category are all bad.

Incandescents will still be sold, though (just, not at Ikea).  Incandescents still make sense in closets, stairs, some bathrooms, attics, etc.  Here, you cycle a light on and off.  This is harsh on fluorescents (while not really meriting a halogen), and the total burn time is not long enough to make LEDs save money.  Fortunately, most homes only have a handful of these places, and the number of incandescents bought won’t be too high before LEDs get really cheap.

There will be some “incandescent-like” bulbs.  Because no technology really dies, halogens and xenons will exist in niche uses.  There will also be “halogen-like” incandescents.  A few incandescent bulb lines may survive by running hotter than they do now, because hotter is more efficient.  At that point, the line between incandescents and halogens will blur.  Some of these are sold now, such as GE’s HIR and Sylvania’s IR.

But in a few years- oh, 2018-2022 or so, incandescent bulbs will be rare.  Like dead cassettes along the side of the road.

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2 thoughts on “LED There Be Light

  1. Pingback: LED There Be Light Pt. 2 | cableflux

  2. Pingback: Followup: 4 Light Bulbs Of The Future | cableflux

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