LEDs vs. incandescent lights… there’s a real difference.

LEDs vs. incandescent lights… there’s a real difference.

This was supposed to be easy. Determine once and for all if it’s time for all of us to switch to LED (Light Emitting Diode) Christmas lights. Almost everyone has an opinion and are more than willing to share unless it’s going to be mentioned in a magazine article, then they clam up tight. Most are quite comfortable with the tried-and-true incandescent lights and have heard enough war stories about LEDs to not make the jump. Enough! My job is to get to the bottom of the LED versus Incandescent Christmas light story and tell you what to do. Ready?

I’ve been decorating quite awhile and have always been amazed how cheap Christmas lights can be. I’ve just assumed there was a giant machine in China spitting out Christmas lights every day of the year. As I was preparing for this article Christmas Done Bright set me straight on that giant machine. Seems it’s really people manually assembling almost all of those light strings with a minimal amount of automation. Christmas Done Bright even had pictures from a recent trip to prove it. I can’t help but think there’s not much money in building Christmas light strings for a living. See below.

For several years a string of 100 mini-light incandescents cost $2. With a little effort, after Christmas sales could score strings for less than a dollar and it became easy to have thousands of lights in a Christmas display. If a string went bad it was no big deal. Toss it in a heap of the non-working, use it for spare bulbs and buy another cheap string. Looks like pricing might be up 10-20% this year but the bottom line is incandescents are still easy to afford. The only issue is for the over-the-top decorator since all those lights can really increase the electric bill during the holiday season.

My research began with a call to the unbiased Consumer Report magazine and they provided this quote from last Christmas season:

It’s that last phrase that got my attention “… payback takes more than three 90-day seasons.” I already knew LEDs used considerably less electricity than incandescents but the lights also cost quite a bit more. These are tough economic times and saving electricity in the long run doesn’t always match up with spending money in the short run. Maybe the question should be: is it time to buy nothing but LED based lights?

I was assigned this story in February and finding Christmas lights that time of year is a bit challenging. I settled on playing with LED based lights in general. A trip to my local Wal-Mart yielded some replacement lights for the old fashioned incandescent light bulb. The packaging said you get the equivalent light of a 40 watt bulb but use less than two watts. The tree-hugger in me appeared and I bought several. I did notice old fashioned 40 watt incandescents were about 25 cents each and these new fangled LEDs were almost $6 each. That’s a 2,500% price premium to enter the LED world but the package said I would save $112 in electricity because LEDs lasted considerable longer than typical incandescents rated at 2,000 hours. What’s this 2,000 number? If an average table lamp is on around three hours a night, an incandescent bulb should last about two years. LEDs claim to last 20,000 to 100,000 hours. The huge LED price premium seems worth it when you do this kind of math.

Someone needs to beef up the truth in advertising law. Those LED bulbs claiming to put out the same amount of light as a 40 watt incandescent are stretching things way too much. The bulbs are really made up of a dozen or more little LEDs inside a glass dome. I’m guessing if my eyeball was about three inches from the bulb it would seem like a 40 watter but in my house where we don’t stare at the bulbs at such close ranges these LED replacements put out about as much light as a 15 watt incandescent. This is no big deal as long as you know the real light output up front so these LED replacements can serve a useful function for background lighting or similar.

Once I had forgotten how much the LED bulbs cost, I felt pretty good about using them, at least in the beginning. My biggest complaint was some lights were slightly different in color. I found out bulbs could be a warm white or cool white color. I bought a few more and discovered it didn’t much matter what the label said because you got whatever was available at the time of packaging. Rest assured you can easily tell the difference between warm and cool white and they don’t mix well in the same light fixture, but again, I got over it.

After a few months I began regretting my LED investment because those $6 replacement bulbs starting going dark. I had even purchased some of the $15 LED floodlights. I was standing in my back yard one evening, heard a pop and noticed things weren’t as bright. Looked up at the floodlight and half those little LEDs were out. Did some quick math and figured the bulb had less than 100 hours on it. Forget about any refunds.

Then there’s the light dimming issue. This is so easy in the incandescent world. Turn a knob and the mood is set. My LEDs said in big, bold letters they weren’t to be used in dimming applications. I’ll admit they weren’t really bright enough to require any dimming, but it’s the principle of the thing. I put one of these bulbs on a dimmer circuit to see what would happen. Here’s a hint. Don’t do it. The bulb doesn’t really dim and totally burns out in just a few minutes.

There’s a lesson to be learned with my initial LED testing. In this case you don’t get what you pay for. It appears I was one of the very early adopters of this product and the manufacturer hadn’t quite worked out all the issues. Luckily I billed all the LED bulbs to PlanetChristmas. Eight months later I still have a few of them scattered around the house and they’re working but I’m not optimistic they’ll save money in the long run by using less electricity.

With these valuable lessons learned from full sized LED household bulbs it made sense to checkout the LED based C7 and C9 replacement bulbs used in Christmas lighting. The industry calls these retrofits and there might actually be a good fit for them in this environment. Of all the Christmas light power hogs, those bulbs originally designed back in the 50’s are the worst. Each incandescent lamp draws 5-9 watts, which doesn’t sound like much until you put a few hundred around the house and watch the electric meter spin like a top. The C7/C9 LED retrofits are made of tough plastic so they’re hard to break and draw less than one watt of power a piece. LEDs cost around $1 each compared with the old fashioned incandescents at about 15 cents a piece. Now the LED premium is only about 650%.

I talked to a variety of folks with some VERY strong opinions on the retrofits. Seems there are two issues: brightness and longevity. Early generation C7/C9 LEDs were dimmer compared to their incandescent cousins but could be lived with in dark environments where there was nothing to compare them to. A lot of these same people also used the retrofits in their computerized Christmas displays where dimming the lights is involved. Those expensive 50,000 hours LED bulbs weren’t lasting one night. At $1 each, that left a bitter taste in too many mouths. Low light output and inability to dim sounds like a pattern to me.

Being an underpaid magazine article writer does have its perks, though. Sometimes vendors will let me test their products and that’s what happened with retrofit bulbs. There’s good news here. From what I’ve seen, the bulbs for 2009 are brighter than years past. I cut open some of the retrofits and found they looked similar to those 40 watters I had bought back in February. Retrofit brightness is dependent on how many individual LEDs are in the bulb. Some had three LEDs. Many had five. A few crammed ten LEDs inside. Be sure to ask how many individual LEDs are in a retrofit before you commit to a large purchase.

If you’re willing to spend just a few more cents per bulb and specify the “fading” type, they actually dim without blowing out after many cycles. The only odd characteristic is LEDs don’t dim over the same range as our trusty incandescents and seem to totally cut out when they drop below about a 35% brightness level. Someone told me that could be fixed by adding what they called a shunt. If you take a string of LEDs, add one incandescent C7 somewhere in the electrical circuit, then all the LEDs take on the dimming characteristics of the incandescent. I gave it a shot and it’s true. I checked with the pro decorators and they all swore by the little trick. There are obviously things LEDs can learn from those old fashioned incandescents.
I then decided to tackle LED based mini-lights. How incredibly confusing! It’s a bit like trying to compare apples to oranges. Stand far enough away and they look the same but the similarities quickly disappear as you get closer.

The first challenge is differentiating between professional and consumer quality. The pros use better components, are very consistent across all their products and can thus charge a premium because it saves installation time. Unlike my early LED experience, you get what you pay for.

The pro LEDs address something called flickering. When you initially turn off an incandescent light the bulb still glows just a little because the filament is so hot. I don’t fully understand alternating current but the experts tell me an incandescent light is really switching on and off dozens of times a second but we don’t notice because the filament is glowing between those on/off cycles. The challenge is with LEDs and the fact they go dark instantly when there’s no power. Apparently some people can perceive the LEDs rapidly turning on/off with the alternating current. Come to find out I’m one of the lucky people. It’s hard to describe but you can look at these LED strings, move your head and experience the flickering. This is quite irritating and thus distracting. The pros address this issue by using some sort of magic called full wave rectifying on all of their products. Unfortunately this isn’t common in the cheaper consumer world.

LEDs have one undeniable advantage over incandescents and that’s what I call purity of color. It’s hard to define until you see it. LEDs emit a pure light not necessarily colored by painted glass or a plastic globe. With the power off, most LEDs are clear. Turn the power on and the pure color is easily seen. This was most obvious to me at one of the big box stores with 23 lighted Christmas trees on display. 21 of the trees used incandescent lights. Two trees were lit with LEDs and really stood out from the others. Unfortunately I walked away wondering why the tree decorators weren’t using more LEDs and did they know something I didn’t?

I spent most of my time looking at the consumer grade light strings. Luckily, Hobby Lobby starts putting out their Christmas lights in late July followed by the big-box stores a couple of months later. I dutifully went to all the stores and was immediately struck by how hard it was to compare prices of LED products. Where we’re used to buying incandescent light strings in 25, 50 or 100 light increments, LED strings can be found in 25, 30, 50, 60, 90, 100, 200 and 500 light increments. Then there’s the issue of spacing between lights. With LED minis it’s the typical 3-4” spacing but with C7/C9 strings they use 6-9” spacing instead of 12”. This is no big deal unless your design requires longer spacing to get around an object.

Then there’s the pricing issue. It’s all over the map! With incandescent minis we’re used to paying less than three cents a bulb but with LEDs it ranges from six cents (run to Mernards, quick!) to 18 cents each. The best I can tell the quality is all about the same. That means there’s only about a 200-600% premium for LEDs.

Most of the consumer based products suffered from flickering; no doubt the merchants are trying to save you money. All dimmed adequately but worked better when you added the little incandescent shunt. The C7/C9 strings were usually just mini-lights with large covers to look like the bigger bulbs, so they weren’t as bright as the real thing. Most of the strings had little bumps in the wire every now and then. The experts told me these were resistors to make things work right, but they do get warm which tells me they’re wasting electricity.

I hooked up my trusty Kill-A-Watt P3 gizmo to most of these strings and the claim they use considerably less electricity is true, though the numbers varied widely depending on the length of the string. The rule of three (never connect more than three incandescent light string in series) goes out the window with LEDs. Must state you can hook 20+ strings in series.

Some of these LED based mini-light strings claimed they had replacement bulbs and/or if one goes out the rest stay on. I’m thinking if LEDs are suppose to last so long I shouldn’t need to worry about replacing any bulbs. I did experience some strings where one or more replacement bulbs had worked loose making for dark sections. Jiggling the strings fixed the problems but I wondered about the premium charged for these types of bulbs.

Then there’s the issue of the lifespan of these LED based strings. A little known fact is most Christmas light manufacturers only want their product to last about 90 days so you then have to buy more. The claims of LEDs having super long life spans compared to incandescents might make you think a Christmas string could last over 100 years. Unfortunately, rough handling and the sun’s ultraviolet rays cause Christmas light strings to break down and wear out
quickly.
LED based Christmas light strings should last considerably longer than incandescents but in reality, technology will get in your way. LEDs can be manufactured to emit almost any color imaginable and each year they are getting brighter. Ask someone about clear LED Christmas lights and you’ll get an earful of complaints. In the incandescent world, clear is clear. In the LED world you have a rainbow of “clear” colors including cool white, warm white, antique white, pure white, clear, crystal clear, clear blush, etc. Mixing strings bought two years ago with what’s available today will get you all sorts of different shades and brightness levels and a very high level of frustration, especially after spending hours wrapping a tree with different batches of lights.

So how do you decide what consumer grade LED light string is best for you? Unfortunately, you can’t tell much about these strings by just staring at them in the store. Creative Displays recommended buying one string, test it in your real-world environment and then decide if you want to buy more of the same.

So what’s the final recommendation?

If you’re a professional, use LEDs. The pro products are better built and will set you apart from the amateurs.

If you’re energy challenged, meaning there’s only so much electrical current you can make available for Christmas lights, LEDs do end up being cheaper than buying a new house to get more power. Buy LEDs with the understanding they don’t last forever and the technology is rapidly changing. Stick with the standard light colors (chartreuse might not be available next year) and buy lots of spare strings now to use for a few years.

C7/C9 LED based retrofits are worth the extra costs. The fact they’re unbreakable almost justifies the entire premium. Don’t forget to make sure you specify the fading type if you do any kind of dimming.

As for the rest of us, incandescents are still the way to go because you know exactly what to expect and they’re cheap. Be respectful of the environment, only light your display during prime-time viewing hours and consider animation so just a few lights are on at any point in time.

Now, how am I going to get PlanetChristmas to pay for all these strings of LEDs?

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