Sunday, August 14, 2016

Joining the LED revolution

Six years ago, I wrote a rather grumpy post complaining about the tendency to treat fancy new LED light bulbs as the only alternative to energy-guzzling incandescent bulbs. I pointed out that, at the time, a single LED bulb with a brightness of 800 lumens (equivalent to a 60-watt incandescent) cost over $40, while the compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) that we'd been using for years cost only a buck apiece. So even with their longer lifespan and lower energy use, the LED bulbs were virtually identical to CFLs in terms of lifetime cost. I concluded that while LED bulbs might be a good alternatives to CFLs for someone looking to upgrade, for anyone who had already made the switch to CFLs, it made more sense to keep them and wait for the price of LEDs to drop.

Well, drop it has. In 2014, when I last revisited the issue, I found that it was possible to get an 800-lumen LED bulb for only $8, while comparable CFL bulbs had jumped to $2 apiece. Thus, over its lifespan, a single LED bulb would save you about $7 over CFL bulbs. Yet I still didn't think, at the time, that this was enough to justify running out and buying some. After all, a savings of $7 over a period of 13 to 14 years wasn't all that impressive, and anyway, there was no point in tossing a bunch of CFLs that were still good.

Recently, however, three things happened, in short order, to change my mind:
  1. Two weeks ago, my Dollar Stretcher newsletter featured a story called, "How Much Do LED Lights Really Save?" The article itself didn't really answer its own question, as it only compared the energy costs of LEDs and CFLs and not their purchase cost, but it brought the topic back to my
  2. At some point last week, I stumbled across a reference to how much LED bulb prices had fallen. It mentioned a well-rated brand of 800-lumen LEDs now selling at Home Depot for $8 for a pack of four. I found that hard to believe, since we'd just recently checked out the light-bulb options at Home Depot and found most brands were selling for about twice that much, but when I looked on the website, sure enough, there they were.
  3. And then yesterday came the clincher: the light bulb in our stairwell fixture burned out. Actually, there were two bulbs in there, so we came to the conclusion that one of them must have burned out some time ago without our noticing, but the result was the same: a darkened staircase, which is a big tripping hazard (particularly with two cats that are hard to see in the dark).
Now, this particular light fixture is a real bear to deal with. It's mounted on the ceiling way above the stairs, which is the best place for keeping them well-lit, but the worst possible place for changing its bulbs. The only way to do it is to get out our giant extension ladder, put one end of it about halfway up the stairs, lean the other end against the wall, climb about halfway up it, then carefully turn yourself around so you can reach the light fixture and unscrew the "nipple" that holds it on. Then, since you've only got two hands, you have to take off the light cover, carry it down the ladder, set it aside, and climb back up the ladder to remove the bulbs. Then you have carry them down and make a third trip up to install the new bulbs, and finally a fourth trip—the trickiest of all—to put the cover back on, balancing on the ladder and holding the cover in place with one hand while you screw the nut on with the other.

The last time Brian went through this process was shortly after we bought the house and had that stairwell light installed. So the two CFL bulbs he put in at that time (or at least one of them) lasted about nine years, which isn't bad. But for a bulb that's this much of a pain to replace, it isn't good enough. Clearly, if there was any fixture in this house that cried out for light bulbs that would last for decades, this was the one.

So today, Brian and I finally bought our first package of 21st-century light bulbs. We ended up going with that same set of Philips bulbs that was on sale at Home Depot, because they had both a great price and excellent reviews from users. (We also checked out the selection of bulbs at IKEA, since we happened to be there earlier today, but we found it unimpressive. They didn't offer any bulbs at all in an 800-lumen brightness, so our only real choices were 400-lumen or 1,000-lumen bulbs. And since the 400-lumen ones cost $4 for a pack of two, the same price per bulb as the Philips ones, there was really no advantage to choosing them. I found it quite disappointing that IKEA, a chain that claims to specialize in environmentally friendly products in general and energy-efficient lighting in particular, couldn't offer a better bulb than our friendly neighborhood big-box store, and I'm hoping this isn't a sign that the whole chain is losing its commitment to eco-friendliness. (To add insult to injury, our favorite UTZ-certified chocolate bars weren't available anywhere in the store. Apparently the whole line has been recalled due to possible nut contamination, prompting Brian to remark, "But they could have just given them all to me!"))

The bulbs are now in place, and the stairwell is looking brighter than it has in quite some time. I can't be sure if these bulbs are actually brighter than the 15-watt CFLs they replaced, but two working bulbs are definitely brighter than the one we had before—and with an estimated lifespan of 10,000 hours, they should stay bright for quite some time. In an e-mail to his dad, Brian described all the hassle he'd just been through changing the bulbs and concluded, "The next time I have to replace them, I'll just use my anti-gravity boots. Or perhaps get the robot to do it."
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