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LED Landscape Lights

The goal of this topic is to be truly informative and unbiased so that you can make the proper decision about LED. There are many positives and there are many negatives.

LED (Light Emitting Diode) lighting is exciting technology and the future of lighting.

LED Lighting uses less power and each bulb potentially lasts up to 10 times longer (40,000 hours vs 4,000 hours). Their efficiency and long life make LED lighting a great green solution.

LED Spotlights LED Lamps
LED Path & Area Lights LED Transformers
LED Flood & Well Lights LED Cable & Connectors
LED Specialty Lights LED Accessories & Tools

The positives of LED lighting:

  1. You do not have to change the bulbs/lamps every 1-2 years like you do with halogen (big benefit).
  2. You are making a statement in support of green technology (a great thing!).
  3. You are on the cutting edge and like to be an "early adopter" (a cool thing!).
  4. Due to the lower wattage, you can use a smaller transformer (save money).
  5. Due to the lower wattage you will have less voltage drop, so you can use thinner cable and have easier layouts (wire in series/daisy chain, instead of understanding voltage drop).
  6. It is improving faster than you can believe. Prices are dropping fast, lumens increasing, color temperatures getting warmer, new technologies enabling high output with less heat (i.e. longer life/more reliable). The technology is almost there for everyday applications.

LED technology is improving, but before you make the jump you need to educated yourself. The market is flooded with misconceptions, false claims, and inferior product – all of which can make you very disappointed in LED lighting. You must be careful and use LED for the right application/reasons.

Some quick realities about LED:

  1. With most LED outdoor lights you will get low lumens (actual illumination) compared to halogen. For example, a 35w halogen outputs 600 lumens and quality 3w LED outputs ~300 lumens. This makes them on the low end of lumen output needed for quality landscape lighting and equivalent to about a 15w halogen in regards to their actual light output.
  2. Many/most LEDs do not mention the specifications that matter—lumens (actual light output), and color temperature (color of the light). They tend to mention their wattage (the watts that they consume) which has nothing to do with the amount of light they output.
  3. There is a tradeoff between the 4 main specifications/factors that are important with an LED lamp and you will pay accordingly. The 4 factors are:
    • Lumens (brightness).
    • Color temperature (expressed in Kelvin (K). 3000K is warmer like a halogen we are used to, 5000K and above will be a blue-white that looks somewhat artificial and undesirable for landscape lighting).
    • Price.
    • Life span (e.g. not "claimed" life span but real life span and quality).

As the table below illustrates, the lumens for LEDs are lower than halogen, and when you get into the higher lumen LEDs they tend to be very high color temperatures.

Watts Lumens Color Temp.
20 w MR16 Halogen GE ($5) 1000 3000K
35W MR16 Halogen GE ($5) 2100 3000K
3 W MR LED Quality ($35) 230 3000K
3 W MR16 Inexpensive ($19) 864 8500K (artificial blue-white)

The brightest LEDs tend to be the coolest color temperature (undesirable blue-white color). The inexpensive LEDs tend to be low lumens, undesirable color and tend to fail quickly (often with-in a few months). The challenge is finding an LED that is bright, has an acceptable color, is well made so it doesn’t fail prematurely, and that is reasonably priced. You good news is you can find these now. Right now (as of 10/1/09) a quality LED with good color temperature can output about a 15 watt halogen equivalent and costs from $35-$50 wholesale. The customer will usually pay ~ $50-$100 premium for an LED lamp.

Price and LED technology is changing quickly, but as of 10/1/09 LED bulbs under $10 are worthless, under $20 barely acceptable, and are in the $40-$50 range wholesale for a decent LED lamp that is worth using for landscape lighting.

There are some other issues to be aware of:

  1. Degradation of color temperature. Most of the desirable color temperature LED lamps (below 3000K) use a phosphorus coating to produce a warmer color light. Unfortunately this phosphorus coating breaks down with heat and the color temperature will begin to shift over time.
  2. The lumen output decreases over time. Most LEDs see a 25% reduction after a couple years.
  3. Silicon chips and drivers fail when exposed to too much heat (that is why there is a fan in your computer). LED have been fighting this heat issue with higher output LEDs.
  4. Heat dissipation methods. Retrofit LED bulbs use fins on the lamp to help dissipate heat. This certainly helps, however in landscape lighting applications the heat is still contained inside a sealed fixture. Some manufactures like DG Lights and Kichler integrate the LED into the fixture using the entire fixture as a heat sink. This helps tremendously however there is no changing the lamp. If you have a problem you must replace the entire $100-$300 fixture.
  5. ROI and energy savings. Financially it’s very hard to justify LED lighting, even though it’s roughly 80% more efficient. Why? Because low voltage landscape lighting uses very little energy so an 80% savings is still only pennies a day, and it takes a lot of pennies to payoff the Led premium. For example, the average cost of electricity nationwide is $.10/KWh (It costs $.10 to run 1000 watts for 1 hour). For the typical 20 fixture landscape project, uses ~ 600w or $.06/hr to operate. An 80% savings is $.048/hr.. You need over 20,000 hours to breakeven, or 11 years of operating your lights 5 hours/night 365/yr to save $1000 in electricity. You don’t even know if the LED lamp will last that long.

Selling both sides of the fence. I can show either side and make a very compelling argument—for or against LED. If you don't believe me read below:

I’m a contractor selling you LED solutions:

"LED is 80% more efficient, green and will save you money. The lamps last 40,000 hours which is around 20 years. No more burnt out lights, no more service calls. Reliable, cool to the touch, energy efficient, cutting edge…and you are saving the environment and being green. A true win-win."

All of it is largely true, depending on how you look at it.

I’m trying to sell you halogen, or am against LED:

"You will pay roughly $1000-$2000 more for 20 LED landscape lighting fixtures over halogen. You will save about $.04/day in electricity. Why would you pay $1000-$2000 now to maybe save $1000 10 years from now IF the lamps even last that long?

You will get less light, a worse color light, a worse beam spread and overall worse landscape lighting result. Additionally the color and brightness of LEDs degrades after a year or two.

The life span claims are ludicrous. Most light fixtures don’t last 20 years and you think a high tech computer component will last in an outdoor wet, hot environment for 20 years?

Regarding no service calls, lights need to be attended to at least every 1-2 years regardless. Wires cut by landscapers, plant growth covering fixtures, calcium build-up on lens—this has to be done anyways—you still need the same service calls. If you think you can put landscape light fixtures in the ground and leave them for 20 years without touching them you are dreaming.

Bottomline—less light, worse color, $2000 more all to save a few cents per day—make no sense unless you are doing it because you have the extra money and just want to support the technology. Did I even mention that no one knows the real life span of these bulbs you are hoping to breakeven on in 10 years. A couple cents a day in energy savings is not being green. If you really care about the environment, save energy on high amperage devices. Oh do you live where it snows? Your LEDs run too cool and do not melt the snow that covers them so they work be much good in the winter. If you really want LED, use halogen for now and when the technology gets better you can swap out the halogens with retrofit LED lamps."

Real acceptable applications of LED:

  • Fixtures in hard to service places like up in a gable on a house, high in a tree.
  • Commercial properties, resorts, associations where lights need to be on dusk to dawn. This doubles the payback time. Also speeds up the need for lamp replacement of traditional halogens. Lastly a resort may be willing to pay the premium to insure a light is never out (the cost of having one out even for a day is bad for business/safety).
  • Places where electricity is much higher than the national average. I used the national average ($.10 kWh). In some places it maybe as high as $.30 kWh).
  • Someone who knows the facts, but has the means and just wants to support the technology and be an early adopter.
  • Month by month these stats (price, lumes, color temp, reliability) are changing. 2 years ago it was a big loser. Last year getting ok for some applications. Now its good for some applications. By Spring 2010 and 2011, it may start to be a reasonable alternative for more people, and may actually have a positive ROI and quality result.

What to do?

If I were a contractor, I think you can make more money by pushing LED. You are offering something more unique and cutting edge and it has a compelling story. But if you do, be sure to educate the customer on the pro’s and cons. Also choosing the right LED is a must. At this point the only quality integrated LED I can recommend is DG Lights. For retrofit lamps, we are not there yet, but feel we will be in the Spring of 2010, at which point we will start carrying the best of breed LED Bulbs to fit into quality brass outdoor lighting fixtures.

LED (Light Emitting Diode) lighting is exciting technology and the future of lighting.

LED Lighting uses less power and each bulb potentially lasts up to 10 times longer (40,000 hours vs 4,000 hours). Their efficiency and long life make LED lighting the great green solution.

LED lights use solid state technology and semi conductors to make a silicon chip diode glow. Low output LEDs are cool to the touch, however in higher output applications, the driver and chip generates intense heat and needs to be cooled or it becomes less efficient. Efficiency, life span and output decreases as lumen output and driver heat increases. Retro-fit bulbs statistics can be deceiving, their ability to live up to their claims is largely depending upon the quality of the manufacturer.

LED’s are intensely efficient and long lasting in low wattage applications because they do not produce a vast amount of heat or require significant heat sinking. The goal is to scale this technology to lumen outputs that rival traditional bulbs. Tremendous advancements are being made during this exciting time. LED technology statistics are based on low wattage applications. Based on lab tests using optimal heat sinking, output data is higher. To reach near perceived LED efficiency, higher output LED technology should be built-into a specific fixture and the fixture designed as a massive heat sink for the driver. Hence, high "true" LED spotlights are full of heat dissipating fins. Unfortunately, the cost to manufacture heat sinked fixtures with the proper drivers is very expensive. Currently, such set-ups are only available from niche manufacturers on a made to order basis for roughly $300/fixture. This is not to degrade LED lighting or retro-fit LED bulbs. We recognize great value if your purchase is to support green lighting initiatives. Soon, LED will be an efficient substitute for traditional lighting.

There is not an abundant amount of information regarding LED brightness compared to regular bulbs. LED bulbs do not have official lumen ratings or hour ratings like traditional bulbs because LED performance is dependent from the heat sink/fixture it is placed. To reiterate, the actual light output, life span and energy efficiency of the same LED varies. It is related to specific fixture and heat sink it is built into. Moreover, it would take 4.56 years of constant illumination to test each fixture version to see if it lasted 40,000 hours so testing is "interpreted". Manufacturers have taken optimal industry LED data for possible performance results and list that as the data for their product.

For more information on LED technology and LED landscape lights, there is a site and blog called Lizard Lighting that is dedicated to the discussion of LED www.LizardLighting.com

Solar Fixtures

The concept of solar fixtures - renewable energy, no wires or transformer and easy installation—just stick fixtures in the ground, is optimal, but it does have drawbacks. Most importantly the light is not strong enough to illuminate an area properly. Solar lights will glow like a marker light, noticing that the fixture is on, but will provide very little useable light in a landscape lighting application. Currently, Solar fixtures are best served to be used to identify the edge of a driveway or walkway. Because we focus on selling lighting that a contractor would use, at this time solar does not fit out product mix. Until then, you may want to try the following two retail sites that offer a variety of solar fixtures: www.mysolarshop.com and www.eco-lights.com. If you are looking for solar lights and are aware that the lumens (light output will be very minimal), but you like the ease of installation, you can also try our friends at Solar Lights today.

As technology improves, solar will become a more useable alternative for professional contractors.

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