Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Should you invest in LED lights for your home?

In my personal opinion, the answer to that title question at this point in time is a resounding NO
This is the type of device I'm talking about - a Light Emitting Diode (LED) retrofit bulb suitable for use in single-family homes.  They come in a variety of styles and configurations.  Photo from Wikipedia
My opinion is based on our experiences with the things to date, which I will explain below.

Shortly after we moved into our house, my husband got a wild hair and decided that he wanted to put LED spotlights in our kitchen ceiling.  As I've explained in other posts, our kitchen is in the center of our home, not on one of the exterior walls, so it has no windows.  Despite the substantial illuminating contributions of one behemoth and now-beautiful skylight, we use the kitchen lights almost perpetually because, during the building process, we made sure that they were situated to shine directly onto the countertops.   Therefore they are particularly convenient regardless of the time of day or presence of light from other sources (we have under-cabinet lights as well, but the overhead ones really help). 

So our kitchen lights get unusually heavy use.  Furthermore, per the original house design, they happened to end up on the same electrical circuit as a lot of other important stuff, and we wanted to minimize the overall load on that circuit.  In consuming less electricity, LEDs can help to achieve this.

To make a long story short, my husband did the math, and the math revealed that LED spotlights would be expected to pay for themselves in about four years.  So he went out and spent over four hundred dollars to buy six large bulbs for our kitchen ceiling.

That may sound like a lot of money, but the important question is never the absolute cost - it's the payback time.  And in this case, the payback time appeared to indicate that it was a sound investment, given that we intend to live in this house for much longer than four years.

However, lifespan and energy costs have not proven to be the only important considerations.  Take a look at these two photos of our kitchen lights and note carefully the subtle but important differences.
This is one of the bulbs on the main switch.  There are five of them distributed around the kitchen.
This is the lone bulb above the kitchen sink.  Like most newer houses, ours has two switches for the kitchen lights, with the sink bulb operating independently from the rest of the suite.  You can turn on just this one, or you can hit the second switch and light up all six. 
Do you see how the over-sink bulb is a lot more yellowish than the other bulb in the picture above it?  That's because the kitchen sink bulb gets heavier use.  Very often, we don't need to turn on all six spotlights - we just need the one over the sink.

What this means 2.5 years into our ownership of these things is the following: When all six lights are turned on, five of them produce nice crisp light and one of them produces very snotty yellow overtones (in my opinion).  This discordant combination is very noticeable and is unsightly - and we paid over four hundred dollars to achieve it! 

We suspect this happened in substantial part because the bulb's transparent faceplate has discolored with time.  Note to self: In the future, always check to verify that any such light-emitting device has a glass faceplate, not plastic. 

It's also possible that the diodes themselves have degraded a bit, but the lights are only 2.5 years old - LEDs are expected to fade with time, but they shouldn't have faded this much in such a short period.

Of course, there are several potential workarounds to this issue, but none of them are appealing to me because part of me believes that if we pay over four hundred dollars for lightbulbs, we shouldn't have to be jumping through hoops to compensate for what are, in our opinions, their engineering shortcomings.  Pardon me, but that's a boat-load of money.  Not only should these things shine without a glitch, they should bloody well be rappelling themselves down from the ceiling and cooking us breakfast, for that price. 

But anyway, if you decide to buy some of these things, here are my personal suggestions:
  1. Check the current price comparisons, such as this one, to see if they'd really pay off in your specific home scenario.  LED prices have probably fallen substantially in the past 2.5 years since we bought ours.  The math may be even more favorable now, and that might modify the arguments I'm making here.
  2. Only buy bulbs that have glass faceplates so that you can perhaps avoid at least some of this yellowing degradation issue.  By the way, if you've had this same degradation thing happen to you and you have managed to replace your bulb's yellowed faceplate with a new one, please email me ( gmail) and tell me how you did it, because I would love to know. 
  3. If you use these bulbs in a kitchen scenario similar to ours, periodically rotate all the bulbs through the most heavily-used socket.  At least that way, if they get yellow, hopefully it will be a more uniform yellow and therefore not as noticeable or as ugly (in my opinion) as what we have inadvertently achieved in our kitchen.  We would have rotated ours from the outset had we been informed that this was going to occur. 
Isn't that last one a particularly fun idea??  The point in us getting bulbs that cost over four hundred dollars is so that we could save money but also save the time and effort involved in climbing up to a ten-foot ceiling to replace the danged things on a regular basis.  If instead we have to climb up for the purposes of rotating them every few months, it kinda defeats a big part of the purpose in getting them, does it not??

Happy LEDing.  Maybe. 

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