LED is the future, but I don’t think it’s here yet

San Jose Mercury News columnist (and fellow Mizzou alumnus) Troy Wolverton has been testing LED bulbs. His conclusion: The quality of light is good, prices will continue to fall and efficiency will continue to improve, so they’re the future, but the future isn’t here yet. Update: I think it is now.

I’m always trying to wring the last bit of value out of my utility bill dollars, so I’ve been watching this closely. And I agree.
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So maybe CFLs burning out a little early isn’t entirely bad?

I was out buying toilet parts today (more on that in a minute–I’m sure you’re thrilled), and while I was there, I looked at light bulbs. I needed a few. And I noticed something. The 40W equivalent CFLs use 9 watts today. The same as LEDs. So I bought a package of (4) CFLs for $1.85. The local utility subsidizes CFLs, since it’s cheaper to buy all its customers CFLs than it is to build new power plants.

I got home and checked one of my 40W equivalents that I’ve had for a while. 13 watts.

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Of CFLs, LEDs, and modern lighting in general

Compact Fluorescent and LED light bulbs just couldn’t stay out of the news this week, and boy, is there some bad information still out there.

Let’s start with Velvet Underground drummer Moe Tucker, who recently discovered a form of libertarianism after years of voting a straight Democratic ticket. She said three things about CFLs in an interview with Village Voice Media: Read more

I got an LED bulb, and it is fabulous.

I half-heartedly checked Home Depot’s web site today, and saw they had 429-lumen, 8.6-watt (40W equivalent) LED bulbs at my local store. Finally!

So when I had a chance, I drove over, plunked down my 19 bucks, and brought one home.

It’s not perfect. But I like it an awful lot.I tried the bulb out in a lamp first, to test the light quality. It’s very similar to the last batch of CFLs I bought. Not quite as yellow as my remaining incandescent bulbs, but nice.

It’s not quite bright enough to use in a lamp, and it’s fairly directional. You’ll want at least a 60W equivalent for that, and probably more. Give it time.

In my son’s bedroom, the light worked great. It works nicely in overhead lights, and it’s dimmable. Dimmable CFLs are expensive and hard to find, so I might as well buy LED bulbs instead since they use less power and last 2-3 times as long.

In operation, I found the LED bulb never got uncomfortably hot to the touch.

LED bulbs produce no UV light, so they won’t attract bugs and they won’t cause the pictures on your walls to fade. That sounds like a plus to me.

And, believe it or not, they’re assembled in the USA. Presumably most of the components, if not all of them, are made in China, but LED bulbs are one of the few things you can buy that support manufacturing jobs here in the States.

The bulbs have a five-year warranty. I suggest saving the receipt and perhaps the packaging, and writing the date of purchase on the base of the bulb in pencil. That way if the bulb fails prematurely, you can do something about it.

The 46-year life expectancy claim sounds overly optimistic, but 15-20 years wouldn’t surprise me.

I suggest you “burn in” the bulb by leaving it on for 24 hours straight. Like any other electronic device, if it survives that first 24 hours of running continuously, it’s likely to last years.

If the bulb is going in a bedroom or someplace else where leaving it on for 24 hours is impractical, put it in a lamp and leave the lamp on for 24 hours, then install the bulb where you intend to use it.

At $19 a pop, I’m not going to run out to convert the whole house. But as old bulbs burn out, I’ll buy LEDs to replace them. As time goes on, they’ll only improve, and prices will come down. But these bulbs are good enough to be useful today.

The energy savings isn’t chump change–LED bulbs pay for themselves in a couple of years if they replace old-fashioned incandescent bulbs. Not only do you get more lumens per watt, but the less wattage you consume, the lower your cooling bills will be. I was an early adopter of CFLs–I have them everywhere but my kids’ rooms, and a seldom-used light in the shower of one bathroom. Between that, my thermal curtains, and a programmable thermostat, I haven’t had a $200 electric bill in years.

Energy isn’t going to get any cheaper, and we consume more of it per person than the rest of the world. We can voluntarily cut our energy usage, or we can wait for China and India to show up with guns and force the issue. I’d rather cut it voluntarily.

Incoming link: http://mondayevening.wordpress.com/2009/02/17/led-bulb-glows-after-i-turn-it-off/

Coming soon: Affordable LED lighting

Affordable is relative, of course. LED lights are a long way from costing less than CFLs, and of course, the old-fashioned incandescents are still cheaper. But the Ecosmart LED bulb that Home Depot is about to start selling for $20 costs half as much as competing offerings from GE and Philips.

They use 8-9 watts to provide equivalent light to a 40w incandescent, work in dimmers, are made in the USA, and have an estimated life expectancy of 17 years. So I think I could be persuaded to buy a couple.But speaking of CFLs, I’ve been buying them since at least 2003. They get a bit of a bad rap, but in my experience, not all CFLs are created equal. Some of the first CFLs that I installed 7-8 years ago are still working. I’ve had others only last a few months.

I can think of two possible reasons for this. I bought my first bulbs at Home Depot. Later, I switched to buying bulbs at Kmart. The bulbs I was buying at Kmart were considerably less reliable. A couple of years ago I switched to buying bulbs at Costco. Fed up with replacing CFLs, I started writing the date of purchase on the bulbs and saving my receipts at that point. But so far, none of my dated bulbs have burned out.

So I think changing brands can make a difference. If a bulb burns out before its time, buy a different brand next time. And write the installation date on your bulbs so you can be certain the bulb really did burn out before its time. Given the number of fixtures in most homes, it can be difficult to remember exactly when it was you changed a bulb.

The other thing to check is the fixture itself. The base of the bulb contacts a copper tab inside the fixture. Over time, this tab can get mashed down, causing poor contact, which causes arcing and damages the base of the bulb, leading to decreased bulb life. If you want to fix this, cut off power to the outlet from your breaker box or fuse box, remove the bulb, and bend the tab to about a 20-degree angle. Turn the power back on, turn on the light switch, then start twisting the bulb into the socket. Stop turning just as soon as the bulb lights.

Save energy and money with smart power strips

I stumbled across this money-saving tip today. A company called Bits Limited sells “smart” power strips. Here’s how they work: You plug a device into one of the plugs, and when you turn that device on, it switches power on to other outlets. The strip also figures out how much energy the device uses when it’s off, so when it senses you’ve turned that device off, it cuts power to those other outlets.

Here’s an obvious use: Plug your TV into the master outlet, then plug your VCR, DVD player, cable box (or powered antenna if you’re a cable-hating tightwad like me) into the autoswitching outlets.The reason these strips work is because most home appliances use power even when they’re switched off. A powered-off TV uses power because part of it has to stay on all the time waiting for you to hit the power button on your remote. The same thing is true of your DVD player, VCR, and anything else that has a remote. Any device that uses a plug-in “wall wart” transformer is also consuming power. The transformer chews up a watt or two even if the device it powers is turned off.

So if you can bring yourself to walk over to the TV to turn it on rather than using the remote, you can buy the cheapest $31 model for each TV in your house and plug your stuff into that. (To save more money, check for refurbs.)

The manufacturer states one of these devices can save you $11.55 a month, on average, when used with a computer.

The savings won’t be as high with other devices like TVs, but you can expect to save a few dollars and in the summer, you’ll save slightly more because those devices won’t be generating excess heat that your air conditioner has to dissipate. Each strip you buy should pay for itself in less than a year.

Plus, those wall warts will last longer if power is cut to them when they aren’t in use. I’ve come across numerous “broken” old-school video game machines whose only problem was a burned-out wall wart. Replacements can be pricey ($10-$20), so if these power strips save you from having to replace two of those over the lifetime of the unit, they pay for themselves right there.

The company also sells beefier units with more outlets and more protection intended for computers. The idea there is you can plug the computer in, and when you turn your computer off, it will automatically shut off your monitor, printer, and any other peripherals you have in order to save power.

I have mixed feelings on using these with computers. From an energy consumption standpoint, having a computer powered on all the time is comparable to having the lights on in the room all the time–and we’re talking old-fashioned incandescents here, not CFLs. So plugging your computer into one of these devices and turning it off when you’re not using it would save a lot of power. While computer monitors should be turned off when not in use, there’s nothing worse for the computer itself than turning it off and on repeatedly. I leave my computers on all the time, and in the last 10 years, I’ve had two hardware failures. One was a hard drive crash in a laptop (very difficult to avoid), and the other was a dead power supply in an HP Pavillion desktop after a power failure. As underpowered as that power supply was, that failure probably was inevitable too. Two failures in 10 years is a pretty good record.

Electricity is expensive, but computer failures are expensive too. I prefer to leave my computers on, save power where I can (I own several computers but they all only print to one printer, for example), and maximize my computers’ life expectancy.

I’m thinking very seriously about at least ordering one of these for the living-room television. It won’t pay for itself as quickly as the programmable thermostat did, but they only cost about $5-$10 more than a traditional power strip with comparable protection ratings. If I look at them as a $10 investment instead of a $30 investment, they’ll pay for themselves pretty fast.

I did go looking for other manufacturers. It appears that Fellowes made these in the past but has discontinued them. For now, it appears Bits Ltd’s offerings are the easiest ones to find. It would be nice if that changed.

A crude way to get some of the benefit of these is to use an electrical outlet timer. Plug the timer into the wall, plug your power strip into the timer (assuming the timer has a grounded outlet), then set the timer to cut the power off at night. The savings won’t be as dramatic, but if you happen to have a timer or two around the house to control Christmas lights, you might as well put them to use saving you some money during the other 10 months of the year.