LED Lighting: What you should know

By Amy Newman

Lighting from the Kichler Lacey Collection

Alaskans are obsessed with light. We spend the summers basking in its warm rays, and the long winter months feverishly wishing for its return. With winter upon us, choosing the right lighting for your home becomes even more important. LED lights aren’t new, but with most incandescent bulbs phased off the market and an increase in available options, they provide an energy-efficient and cost-effective way to light up your home’s interior.

What are LEDs?

LEDs, or light emitting diodes, are powered by an electrical current that passes through semi-conductor material, causing the small light sources to illuminate. They use 70-90 percent less energy than traditional incandescent bulbs, and can last 10 to 25 times longer. This translates into huge savings to homeowners.

“LEDs use significantly less electricity than incandescent bulbs. That’s probably where people stand to save the most amount of money,” says Josh Sundstrom, president of WillowRidge Construction, LLC in Anchorage.

Switching to just one LED light can save homeowners $30 to $80 per year in electricity costs alone, according to Energystar.gov. Factor in that the typical LED lasts 10 to 25 times longer than other bulbs – meaning you won’t need to replace bulbs every year – the savings quickly add up, particularly if they are installed in high use areas of the home.

“They are expensive initially, but they seem to pay off over the long term because they last longer,” Josh says.

LEDs can be purchased as either individual bulbs to replace incandescent bulbs in fixtures, or as a solid state light (SSL), which means it cannot be converted back to incandescent or other bulbs, says Barry Kirstein, vice president of marketing for Access Lighting, a California-based company that provides lighting to Brown’s Electric. They can be used in any fixture, from recessed can lights to floor lamps, whether indoor or outdoor, and are available in the size or shape needed for any fixture, he adds.

Making the switch to LED

Homeowners have more options than ever before when selecting LED bulbs and fixtures. Even lights that traditionally required the use of a transformer to operate – such as under cabinet lighting – now come in plug-and-play models, Barry says, so an electrician is only required for very specialized lighting, or if you choose to use a transformer model for aesthetic reasons.

But choosing the right bulb isn’t as easy as grabbing one off the shelf at your local big box retailer.

“That is more problematic simply because there are a few simple rules that need to be kept in mind,” says Peter Wright, an electrician and owner of Wright Choice Electric in Anchorage. “It’s not as easy as it used to be to just go out and buy a 60 watt bulb and screw it in.”

Homeowners should keep in mind the following when choosing an LED bulb.

Color rendering input. The color rendering index, or CRI, is a measure of the LEDs ability to replicate an object’s color as close to daylight as possible, says Catherine Call, owner of Anchorage’s Blue Sky Studio. The higher the CRI (the scale tops out at 100), the better the color.

Barry recommends purchasing an LED with a CRI rating of 90 or higher.

Lumen output. Since LEDs use so little electricity, bulbs are rated in lumens – the level of brightness the light emits – rather than watts, Barry says. The higher the lumen rating, the brighter the light.

Here is a chart to help homeowners convert watts to lumens:

Source: Energystar.gov

Color temperature. LED color is represented as a range on the Kelvin scale, from 2700K to 5000K; numbers on the lower end of the spectrum are warmer and mimic incandescent bulbs, while those higher on the scale are cold and reminiscent of fluorescent bulbs, Peter explains.

Most homeowners will want to choose a light on the lower end of the color spectrum.

“Three thousand Kelvin is what I typically select, which is somewhere between balanced studio lights and incandescent light in color,” Catherine says.

Intended use of the bulb. Choosing the wrong bulb can decrease the bulb’s useful life, sometimes to as little as a year. Homeowners should pay special attention when selecting LEDs intended for use in enclosed fixtures and outdoors.

“The little heat that LEDs generate can’t dissipate in an enclosed environment,” Peter explains. Using a bulb not rated for enclosed fixtures can cause it to overheat and have a shorter life span, he says.

For outdoor fixtures, pay attention to the bulb’s temperature range he adds. A bulb not rated for Alaska’s below-freezing winter temperatures will work, but you may find yourself replacing it by next season.

Another factor to consider – whether you intend for the lights to be dimmed. While there are dimmable LEDs on the market, they are not compatible with all dimmers, Peter says. Make sure to check the manufacturer’s recommendations to determine which, if any, LEDs will work with your system.

Consultants help light the way

With all the talk of lumens and Kelvins, making the switch to LEDs can seem confusing. That’s where a lighting consultant can help.

“When you do that initial adoption to LEDs, it’s always good to talk to somebody who can help guide you about what you want to replace,” Barry says.

A consultant can suggest the right type of light depending on the mood you want to create in a particular room. Kitchens, for example, may require brighter bulbs since they are a work station, Barry says. But most people will want to steer clear of bright lights in dining rooms, dens or other living spaces where they want to create a relaxed mood.

“A specialist can help you buy the right lamp to suit the environment,” he says.