Light Bulbs Ahoy!!

Howdy!!  Glad to have you on board.  For my inaugural post, I’m going to discuss light bulbs.  Specifically, the pros and cons of your typical residential and commercial implementations.    Hopefully, by the end, you’ll have a good idea about what types of bulbs  will work well for your situation.

We can start very simply with the basics.  You have the incandescent class, which is comprised of your classic bulb along with its modified cousins the halogen and xenon.  There’s the Fluorescent class, which includes the old standby, the tube, and the relative newcomer the CFL and its adopted and unloved sibling, the CCFL.   Finally, we have the LED class, which has been around for a few years, but is just really starting to get rolling.

Without getting into much of a history lesson, incandescents are the original light bulb and have been around since the 1800s.  Passing electricity through a filament (once carbon, now tungsten) that is inside a bulb filled with an inert gas (usually argon) will result in light being produced.  People have been using the standard incandescent bulb for over 100 years  so they must be great, right?  Well, honestly, I don’t have many good things to say about them.  Some people are big fans of the color temperature they produce- a warm, yellowy sort of white.  Myself, I can do without that.  They will work in just about any dimmer you have.  Otherwise they have nothing going for them:  They don’t last very long (1000-1200 hrs) and they are woefully inefficient; about 90% of the energy used in a bulb is converted to heat, not light.

So what about halogen?  Halogens  are an improvement on the design from a technical standpoint.  They last longer (about 2000 hrs) and they are more efficient and they still work great in almost all dimmers, but holy cow are they HOT!!!  I would not use these in my house unless there was no other choice and I was going to be around to monitor it.  These guys scare me.  They can reach temperatures of 300 degrees C (572 degrees F).  With a few halogens, you could bake a cake, fry an egg and boil water all at the same time!  Oh yeah, and don’t touch the bulb with your bare hands.  The oils from your skin can cause the bulb to explode.  To be fair, halogens do have one very nice characteristic- they portray colors very accurately.

And Xenon?  Another technical improvement in the incandescent world.  They’ve swapped the halogen gas for xenon gas inside the bulb.  They don’t run as hot as halogens, they are more efficient still than their counterparts and last about 5 times as long.  They still work in dimmers and color portrayal is almost as good as halogen. In my mind, if you have to pick between halogen and xenon- go xenon.  But, if you can use one of the upcoming types, you’ll be better off.

So how about Fluorescents?  Fluorescents use high voltage to excite a vapor containing mercury into producing ultraviolet light which in turn causes the phosphor coating inside the bulb to glow.   They last a long time (up to 15,000 hrs), don’t generate much heat and are several times more efficient than incandescents.  Now the downside,  the light they produce is  usually characterized as cold, sterile or harsh.  Fluorescents need a ballast to generate the high voltages necessary to excite the mercury vapor- that means two variables in your equation.  The bulb can go out, just like an incandescent, but the ballast can also fail separately.  If you’ve ever changed a dead fluorescent only to find the new one doesn’t work either… well you’ve learned this lesson the hard way.

CFLs are a miniturization of the old standard tube bulb.  They figured a way to shrink the ballast into the base of the bulb, giving you the curly Q incandescent replacements.  They’ve even done a good job of mimicking the “soft white” of incandescents, if you like that sort of thing.  The faults here are that they don’t dim very well- putting these on a dimmer will significantly shorten their lifespan, and they tend to need a bit of warm up time when they start to get older.  I had one of these guys in my nightstand light and after several years, i would turn it on and you couldn’t tell it was on.  Then over the course of several minutes it would become incrementally brighter and brighter, until it  finally reached full brightness and was useable.

What the heck are CCFLs??  I’m glad you asked.  This is a class of fluorescents that isn’t well known to the general public, and I’m not sure why.  CCFL stands for Cold Cathode Fluorescent Light.  They use a different mechanism to excite the mercury vapor that doesn’t require such high voltages.  The CCFL is fully dimmable and has instant-on capabilities.  I suggest these if you like the other benefits of CFLs, they will be a touch more expensive, but will last longer and provide you more flexibility in their usage.

Lastly, the latest addition to the lighting party- LED.  LED stands for Light Emitting Diode.  A diode is an electrical component that accepts electricity in one direction.  And in this case, when electricity is applied, light is produced.  You’ve seen the LED Bulb’s cousins all over… any green, yellow, red or blue dot that was pointing out something important (or not) on your stereo, cable box or computer.   What’s so great about LED bulbs?  To start, they are seriously efficient.  I light my 22′ x 15′ rec room on less than 100 watts.  The diode itself generates no heat (although the transformer in the base does somewhat).  They can be made dimmable, in different color temperatures and in just about any size and base style you might need. LEDs can also be put on an adhesive backed strip for under cabinet or other creative lighting possibilities. They also last as long as 50,000 hrs.  So what’s the downside?  They’re expensive to start.  But if you take into account the lack of maintenance and the savings on electricity, the upfront cost doesn’t look so bad.   Also, they make dimmable and non-dimmable versions.  If you need to dim the lights be sure you buy ones that say they are dimmable.  If it doesn’t say it on the box explicitly, then it isn’t dimmable.  LEDs will also require a special type of dimmer to work correctly.  Read this to understand why all dimmers are not the same.  Also, in my experience, quality can be variable among the lesser known manufacturers.  Stick with major brands (which will be more expensive) or confirm that the bulbs you’re buying are rated for 50,000 hrs and are using Cree LED components.  I’ve never had issues when sticking to those specs.

So what’s right for you?  It will depend on your goals.  If you need accurate color reproduction, halogen and xenon are good choices if you’re using track lighting so there is no heat buildup.  If you need a short-term quick fix, standard incandescents are way cheap and will get the job done.  Thinking long term energy savings?  trying to go green?  LEDs will be the way to go.  Looking for the best value?  CFLs or CCFLs will do the trick, if you can live with the shortcomings.

If you’re still not sure what you want to do, feel free to email me and I will try to provide you with some thoughts that might help clear your confusion.  Otherwise, until the next post, be safe and have fun!

Chris