One of the reasons I enjoy doing DIY projects is because I love saving money. But not all DIY projects are created equal — and the least equal is replacing light bulbs. I hate replacing light bulbs. I feel very little satisfaction after doing it, and I often put if off until enough bulbs in a room have burned out that it makes my wife
pester me nicely remind me to get it done. I’d seriously rather replace a toilet than replace a light bulb.
But what if there was a way to save money, while at the same time massively reduce the frequency of light bulb changes? That’s exactly what LED light bulbs and fixtures can do for the DIY handyman (or handywoman).
But be warned: not all LED lights are created equal. There are some specifics to watch out for, and tips for picking the right ones for your application. I’ve purchased plenty of the wrong LED bulbs in my search for the ones I like the best. I’ve also had bad luck with a few manufacturers, and great luck with others. The purpose of this blog post is to help you learn from my mistakes, and pick the right LED bulbs the first time.
LED vs. CFL
Maybe you’re reading this blog post thinking “Bah. I don’t have to worry. I’ve already got CFL bulbs at my house. Those are just as good as LED, right? RIGHT? Please say I’m right, Steve!”
Sorry… I can’t say you’re right. But I’ll try to let you down easy. Yes, CFLs (Compact Fluorescent Lamps) were first on the residential scene, and so they got a lot of attention initially, and they’re still around on store shelves. And because they’ve been available longer, they’re slightly less expensive than LED options. But the LEDs really are superior in practically every way. LED’s are even more efficient, they last longer, they turn on to full brightness instantly (CFLs are notorious for needing a “warm up” period every time they’re switched on), they’re available in “warmer” color temps, they’re more likely to be dimmable, and best of all, you don’t have to look at that weird curvy tubing trying to pass itself off as a bulb! So when your CFLs burn out, replace them with LEDs. Trust me, you’ll be happier.
Choose the Right Color Temperature
Probably the most important, yet most overlooked, factor in choosing an LED bulb is the color… or more precisely, the color temperature.
Let’s geek out for a bit. Light that is visible to the human eye ranges from red on the “low” end of the visible spectrum to purple (or violet) on the “high” end. Our eyes can’t see light that’s “below” red (called infra-red) or light that’s “above” violet (or ultra-violet). We can see everything in between, but how we perceive and interpret light differs based on where it falls within the visible light spectrum. Visible light that’s closer to red is interpreted by our brains as “warm,” while visible light that’s bluish or closer to violet is perceived as “cool.” So keep that in mind when choosing a color temperature for your LED bulbs, based on the “feel” you’re trying to achieve in the space you’re lighting.
Most LED bulbs and fixtures will have labels that say “soft white” or “bright white” or even “daylight.” My advice is to completely ignore those labels. Instead, flip the packaging over and look for a section on the packaging that shows the color temperature in degrees Kelvin. That’s the only true indicator of how “warm” or “cool” the light output will be. Check out this chart:
Notice that the lower the number, the “warmer” the light. The higher the number, the “cooler” the light. Standard incandescent light bulbs output light that’s around 2500K in color, which is soft and just slightly yellow. The warmest LED lights I’ve been able to find are 2700K, and that’s a perfect color temp for nearly all interior spaces in a residence (bedrooms, kitchens, bathrooms, living areas, etc.). Even if the package says “soft white,” don’t be fooled. I’ve seen plenty of 3000K bulbs that are labelled as “soft white,” and there’s nothing soft about them. As you can see from the above chart, that’s the same light color as a standard fluorescent bulb… which is not at all what you want for your living spaces. This picture shows (approximately) 3000K on the left, 2700K in the middle, and 2500K on the right:
For garages, utility rooms, and maybe even pantries, 3000K is fine. You can still get away with 2700K, but I personally prefer something a bit more “industrial” and cooler for those types of spaces. Again, ignore the words on the package and look for the number.
For exteriors, either 2700K or 3000K will work… depending on the look you’re going for. The 2700K bulbs are a softer more traditional look, while the 3000K bulbs are slightly harsher, but not too harsh that it looks bad.
You can find 3500K LED bulbs for residential use, but I’d stay away from them. That color is so cool that it has a blue tinge to it, kind of like modern Xenon headlights. It’s not at all pleasant to look at, or live with. And please… for the sake of your neighbors, don’t use them on the outside lights of your house or around your driveway. They’re way too harsh and visually abrasive. You don’t want your house looking like a gas station:
Be Consistent with Your Color
Regardless of which color temperature(s) you go with, you need to be consistent. Don’t mix 2700K and 3000K fixtures outside your house — it sticks out like a sore thumb. I won’t say which neighborhood it’s in, and since we’ve got houses in three different places, I won’t be “outing” any of my neighbors by saying this, but I have a neighbor near one of our houses that has one 3500K light in one soffet and a 2700K bulb in the one next to it… and every time I drive by it at night, it drives me crazy! That 3500K color is overly harsh, but it’s made worse by being near a much softer light. You’re better off buying the proper color to replace all your exterior lights at once, and then spend an afternoon putting them all in.
Get the Same Lumens for Fewer Watts
Apart from your light’s color, you also need to decide how bright you want your light to be. Color is measured in Kelvin, while brightness (or light output) is measured in lumens. Most homeowners can’t conceptually visualize the difference between 900 lumens and 450 lumens. But because we’ve all been raised with traditional incandescent bulbs, we can generally visualize the difference between a 40 watt compared to a 60 watt compared to a 100 watt bulb… even though wattage is a measurement how much power the bulb burns while lit, and not light output.
The “problem” (if you can call it that) is that LED bulbs are insanely more efficient than incandescent bulbs. They can put out the same amount of light output (lumens) as a traditional 40 watt bulb… while only burning 8 watts! That’s why you’ll often see LED bulbs with a “wattage equivalent” shown on the package. So pick the equivalent wattage for the light output you want, but make a note of the lumens (which will also be on the package). As we move away from traditional bulbs, start trying to think in lumens you want for a fixture, not watts. Here’s a comparison chart to help you choose the lumens you want:
Also, if you’ve got a light fixture with a warning label on it that says something like “60 watts max” — keep in mind that’s a limit on the energy usage of the bulb, not the light output. So if you found a 100 watt “equivalent” LED bulb that actually only uses 14 watts, that’s fine to run in that fixture.
LEDs aren’t just Cool, they’re Cooler
Another major benefit of LED bulbs is that they operate at a much cooler temperature (actual temperature, not color temperature) than traditional bulbs. That means you don’t have to worry as much about them melting or burning lamp shades, you can touch them sooner after turning them off, and they won’t raise the temperature of the room while they’re lit.
LEDs Last Way Longer
For me, one of the biggest benefits of LED bulbs is that they last longer than traditional incandescent or halogen bulbs. Much longer… like decades longer. Normally, you’ll find a rating on the packaging for number of hours the LED is designed to last. The EcoSmart 6″ LED fixtures I use throughout our Seattle house are rated for 32 years, based on 3 hours of daily use. But even if I double that average daily use to 6 hours a day… that’s still at least 16 years before I’ll have to change it! Not only will that save you money in the long term, but quality of your marriage will increase as a result of not needing to be
nagged lovingly reminded that you need to replace light bulbs. 🙂
Not All Brands Are Equal
As I said during the intro, I’ve had some bad luck with a few LED brands. The worst was “Lights of America” — which are sometimes sold at Costco. They didn’t last anywhere near as long as they promised on the package… so I removed them all and took them back to Costco for a full refund.
That doesn’t mean that all the LED light brands at Costco are bad, however. Costco also sell a number of bulbs from Feit Electric (also available on Amazon), and I’ve had very good luck with those — especially for my exterior soffit lights and motion detector security lights. I can recommend you try these out, but note that their color temperature tends to be a bit on the “cooler” side, even though it says 2700K on the package. I use these small Feit BR30 flood lights in multiple places both inside and outside our houses. I prefer them outside the house, however, because there’s a very slight delay when you hit the switch before they come on. That’s not a big deal for exterior lights on a timer switch (like this one), but it’s a tad annoying to me for interior lights.
My favorite LED manufacturer, however, is CREE. They started out providing the “guts” of other manufacturers’ LED devices such as light fixtures and flashlights, but recently got into manufacturing complete bulbs. They make the internals for my favorite LED fixture, which is the EcoSmart 6 inch LED downlight, sold at Home Depot and Amazon. I wait for them to go on sale for around $25, then I buy a dozen of them. If you have 5″ or 6″ can lights at your house, replace them with these EcoSmarts. They are dimmable, the color is perfect, and they update the look of any room without being obnoxious.
My favorite stand-alone LED bulb is also made by CREE, and I’ve also been able to find them at Home Depot and Amazon. My favorite is this 60W equivalent 2700K “warm white” bulb. It puts out 800 lumens of light, while only using 9.5 watts of energy, and is warranted to last for 10 years. I always keep a few of these on hand for interior lamps, fixtures, and wall sconces. CREE’s standalone replacement bulb is also available in a 2700K 40W equivalent (that only uses 6 watts of power), which is great for accent lighting. You can also pick them up in “cooler” color temps, all the way up to their “daylight” 60W 5000K bulb. But that’s way too harsh and blue-ish for anything other than a utility room, or maybe a garage. If you need more light output, they also make 75W and 100W equivalents (that actually use a fraction of that wattage). These are perfect for garages or exterior post lights.
I also love these Feit Electric candelabra base LEDs, which are perfect in our entry chandelier. That fixture takes 18 bulbs, and these all burn 4.8 watts each, instead of 40 watts each like a standard bulb. And I won’t have to change them for almost 23 years! I normally prefer 2700K for all lights inside the house, but I like the 3000K color in a chandelier because it creates a more “dramatic” look.
I also have to give a shout-out to Phillips, who have been making great LEDs for a while now. I like their color and light output, but they tend to be far more expensive than other LED options.
I recently swapped out my halogen bulbs in my driveway pedestals for some 40W Equivalent 2700K Clear Blunt Tip Decorative LED bulbs (candelabra base for the entry pillars, and standard base for the rest of the driveway and garage sconces). I love them. They burn 5 watts of energy each, and look fantastic at night.
Whichever brand you choose, I recommend keeping an empty box (or snapping a photo of the package) so you can remember which bulbs you liked for a specific application. That will help you eliminate visual differences between bulbs in the the same room or application.
Check for Dimming Capability
If you plan on using LED bulbs with a dimmer switch, make sure the bulb says “dimmable” on the package. The dimmable ones are sometimes slightly more expensive, but worth it if you need that function.
Buy and Compare
If you’re new to LED bulbs, my advice is to buy a few different versions or brands for your application, then install them and see how you like them. Keep your receipt, then return the ones you don’t like to the store and buy a full batch of the ones you’ve decided to go with.
Lots of Pros, But Also Some Cons
As you can probably tell, I’m a huge fan of LED bulbs and fixtures. But there are some drawbacks to using them.
First, their purchase cost is much higher than standard bulbs. Over the life of the bulb, you’ll save money — from energy usage as well as not having to replace them as often. But the higher up-front cost can be prohibitive. My advice is to think long term and just bite the bullet. Their costs have come down since they first hit the market, and will probably continue to do so as technology improves.
The other possible drawback is that some older timer and motion sensing switches are sometimes not compatible with LED (or CFL) bulbs. I had timers at the Utah house that turned on the exterior lights at dusk. During the day, however, I noticed that the LED bulbs were flickering a bit, albeit very dimly. When I replaced the older timer switches with these newer Honeywell EconoSwitches, the problem was solved. Most current dimmers and motion switches will support newer technology bulbs, and will say so on the package.
And speaking of the packaging, this is more of a vent than an actual drawback of the product, but it seems the packaging for LED bulbs is overkill. Most of the LED bulbs I buy come in huge plastic blister packs, or bulky boxes with excessive cardboard and 2-3 times the packaging material they really need. I realize it’s probably to help reduce theft (because the LED bulbs are more expensive), and maybe it’s to attract your attention on the shelf to convince you to try LED over traditional bulbs. But for a product that’s advertising itself as a way to save money and energy, it seems like there’s an awful lot of waste in their packaging. I’d prefer the simple paper boxes, like you get with traditional bulbs. Perhaps as LEDs become more mainstream, we’ll get there.
Again, as is probably obvious from this post, I’m an LED light fanboy. Because they use much less energy, I’m slightly less annoyed when the kids don’t turn off their lights (although that still doesn’t stop me from installing occupancy sensors in their bedrooms). I really love the fact that once I install one, I don’t have to go grab a ladder for 10, 20, or maybe even 30+ years. I like the fact that they run much cooler, and present less of a fire hazard. And as long as you keep in mind the color temperature when you purchase them, the light can be warm, welcoming, and soothing. So if you want to save time, money, and maybe some of your sanity, give LED bulbs and fixtures a try. This might be the perfect time to wrap up this post by saying something like “LEDs are helping to create a brighter future,” but ending a blog post with something so cheesy is lame. 🙂
So instead, I’ll simply remind you that I always welcome your questions, comments, and feedback below!