Monday, November 26, 2012

LED, CFL, GU24: Lighting in 2012

I am a DIYer and an energy efficiency nut of sorts, so I am frequently butting heads with the changing face of lighting technology as I add and replace light fixtures. Compact flourescent light bulbs (CFLs), introduced something like 30 years ago, are familiar to pretty much everyone these days. Legislation has already signaled the beginning of the end of indandescent bulbs: starting in 2012, 100 watt incandescent bulbs were no longer allowed to be made or sold in the US. Starting at the beginning of next year, 75 watt bulbs are on the chopping block, and in 2014, 60 and 40 watt bulbs go too.

In this article I will describe some issues I've come across, as well as good solutions for household lighting that provide a reasonable balance of cost and performance, particularly when it comes to finding energy-efficient bulbs that work well with dimmers.

Compact fluorescent bulbs are unacceptable for use with dimmers. 

I'm not kidding. They are awful. There are some that claim they work with dimmers. They are lying to you. I've tried many - none have been satisfactory.

CFLs do not work well with dimmers.
  • Problem number 1: price. Really, who's going to pay $10-$20 for a single bulb? (OK, I admit it, I have done so - but it hasn't made me happy - especially when it didn't work very well). But really - plain old CFLs can now be bought at Home Depot for a buck each (sometimes even less) in multi-packs. To pay 10 or 15 times as much for a bulb that can be dimmed seems crazy.
  • Problem number 2: they suck at dimming. Really, they do.  They only dim to about half of full brightness... and that's the good ones. They buzz. They flicker. They don't work with older dimmer switches. They just suck. I've never used one that is in any way satisfactory. And believe me - I have tried a lot of them.
  • Problem number 3: They fail a lot. Many reviews echo this, and my own experience has been the same. This makes the giant price tag sting that much more.
This is a bit of a problem for people like me who love dimmers. I've survived so far by using old-school bulbs when dimmers are required. But I didn't really like doing this since they waste so much energy. And then, of course, they will only be available on the black market soon. Lately, a new technology has greatly improved matters in some situations: LED lighting (more on this later).

Out of the frying pan and into the fire: The GU24 base

As if this wasn't bad enough, there's a new wrinkle: the GU24 base. This is supposedly the future of light sockets - it's a new way to attach a light bulb to a fixture. Instead of a screw-type socket, as has been used for the last century, light bulbs of the future will have two pins that lock into the socket with a short twist.

The point of this new convention is to ensure you can only use low-wattage energy-efficient bulbs in a fixture. It's kind of like when they changed the size of the nozzle so you couldn't put leaded gas in cars designed for unleaded back in the day. (Oh, you don't remember that? You don't even know what "leaded" gas is? Well when I was a boy... oh... never mind.)  The point is, it's not because the old bulbs won't work, it's because they want to prevent you from using them.

There's a good chance you have never heard of this. My first exposure was a ceiling fan I bought a couple years ago. It's light fixture had a single GU24 socket, and came with a single 23 watt bulb (about 100 watt equivalent). I have never been that thrilled with it, because 100 watt (equivalent) is not enough to light a room, and of course it's not dimmable.

So now you've got two problems: the GU24 socket, and the nearly interolable CFL dimmable situation.
GU24 base CFL

Combine those two. Try to find a dimmable GU24 CFL. I dare you. Oh they exist, supposedly, for around $13 or more each. Meaning, if you have a chandelier with 6 or 8 bulbs, you will be spending more on light bulbs than the chandelier cost.

Now try to find one that doesn't have abysmal reviews. That, my friend, is something you cannot do. I looked high and low. CFLs are generally terrible at dimming in the first place, and now you've got about one twentieth of the selection you have for regular bulbs. Good luck.

LED lighting to the rescue... mostly

So far it probably sounds like I'm venting against the technology. That's not my point. I love the technology... I hate the confusion it's caused and the lack of information available to most consumers. We shouldn't all have to be guinea pigs. So my purpose here is not to grouse, but to provide advice in dealing with a frustrating problem. There is no question that the technology situation is leaving consumers with a bit of a void right now, but here are what I think are good ways to deal with the various situations.

LED lighting is a relatively new technology. It offers a lot of advantages over CFLs, not the least of which is that it's possible to make LEDs that dim nicely. Early products didn't work all that great, but there are excellent ones on the market today. The prices are a bit higher than CFLs. But when it comes to dimmables, they are a far better value:
  • They actually work
  • They don't seem to burn out prematurely 
  • Did I mention they actually work
As with CFLs, there's still a range of quality, but my experience with LEDs has been far superior to CFLs. They are not without problems, though.

One, they can be very, very expensive. But this is changing rapidly, and many utilities are offering rebates. For example, at Costco in Maryland right now (Nov. 2012), after a Pepco rebate, you can get a fantastic dimmable 13.5W (60W equivalent) FEIT bulb (A19/OM800/LED) for $5.99. Costco's regular price is $15.99 - a bit crazy for a single light bulb, but if your only alternative is a dimmable CFL for $10+ anyway that will suck and burn out in 9 months, then it doesn't sound so bad. This is a great bulb: excellent light color, no buzzing. I bought 10 of 'em.

The second problem is that they don't put out the same light pattern as conventional bulbs (or even CFLs). Most are about the same size as a regular 60W bulb, but much of the light emits from the end of the bulb, a bit like a floodlight. It's not really as bad as all that, but if, for example, you put them in a fixture with a glass shade, they definitely don't look right. This is also improving, and there are an increasingly wide variety of bulbs available with better light dispersal configurations. The FEIT bulb I mention above is better than most, though still not quite good enough for use in a chandelier. It's perfectly acceptable for a downlight, pendant or lamp.

The final problem is low-wattage applications, again, ceiling fans and chandeliers. If you're used to using flame or small ceiling-fan bulbs, there's not going to be an LED anywhere near the right size.

What should you do?

Here is a quick guide that should help you make buying decisions.

Rule 1:  Buy bulbs that have a light temperature of 2700K-3000K

For some reason, even today, some bulbs do not have light color printed on the package, and clear guidance about what light color means is often not present. If the light color isn't printed on the package skip it. While they could be fine, they could also look like a shop light -- a much higher light color temperature that is cool, bright white, harsh, or even bluish. You might think you want a bulb that produces "full spectrum" or "daylight" -- but you almost certainly do not. These words are meaningless and confusing. We don't have "daylight" indoors, we have light bulbs. 2700K is at the warm end of the spectrum, and produces light that closely matches the color of light produced by incandescent bulbs. 3000K is usually acceptable to me, but I'd still try to buy 2700K whenever possible. Anything higher will make you feel like prepping for surgery.

Rule 2: Use LED bulbs in dimmable applications.

While they may be more expensive than even the insanely-priced CFL dimmables, they work. They also are far more reliable. I have had about 8 or so LED bulbs in service in my home for over a year, none have failed yet, and they offer a full range of dimming.

Look for bargains. Some utilities offer rebates, such as the Maryland one I mentioned above. Even if you have to pay full price, you can expect it to last years - unlike the promises of CFLs, my experience with several different LED bulbs so far has been that they are very reliable.

Try one out before you buy a lot, and buy it from somewhere that lets you return it easily. Light color is still an issue as with CFLs, but if you keep it below 3000K you'll probably be fine. LEDs can buzz too, but they don't have to - the FEIT bulb I mentioned before is totally silent.

Rule 3: Avoid GU24 fixtures where you need dimming.

I hate to advocate avoiding new tech, but at this time GU24 is unacceptable for lamps in dimmable applications. Triple-witching hour may come to you, as it did to me with my chandelier GU24 chandelier. Finding a dimmable GU24 CFL is hard - and they're terrible anyway, so you shouldn't even bother. So how about LEDs? Just try to find a dimmable GU24 LED A-type bulb. (Don't waste your time with that link. There isn't one on Amazon.)

I did actually manage to find one online at a specialty store, for 35 bucks. But even if I was willing to pay $210 for six light bulbs, the single product I identified is still too big for my chandelier. There simply does not exist a GU24 LED lamp that is small enough to use in a chandelier. If my fixture had standard screw sockets, I could probably use regular screw-type LEDs, which are much more common and available in various configurations. But with the adapters needed (see below) they stick out too much.

What if I'm stuck with GU24?

Use adapters and low wattage incandescent bulbs. This 2nd part is very important. GU24 sockets are not designed to handle the same amount of heat as conventional sockets. So use common sense. You are violating the imprint. In my case, I have 25 watt ceiling fan bulbs in a socket designed for a max. 13 watt CFL. They are upward-facing, so the heat rises out of the fixture. I have checked the sockets after the bulbs have been on for a while and they are still cool to the touch. However, if the shades were downward-facing, I would probably not do this, since all the heat would get trapped in the fixture. No matter what, if you violate the specifications of a socket, use common sense: check the temperature by touch, definitely don't ever use bulbs greater than 40 watts. (Even 40 watt bulbs can get pretty hot, so if you use them, make sure the fixture bases remain cool).

Even this is only a temporary solution. Things are about to get real when 40 watt bulbs are illegal in a year, and GU24 becomes more commonplace. There is currently no acceptable LED or CFL replacement in their typical use cases: ceiling fans and chandeliers, where you have many small, low-wattage bulbs - often on a dimmer.  Let's hope that there are better LED options by that time.

One final option: Retrofit

The final insult in my lighting excursion was with that GU24 ceiling fan. I bought two of them, and just got around to installing the 2nd one. While I have decided to suffer the non-dimmableness of the first one where it's located, for the new one, I couldn't live with this.

Using an adapter was impossible. The GU24 socket is mounted straight down; there is not even enough space for a regular CFL bulb. (The fan comes with one that's kind of squashed to take up less space). I'd need about 3 more inches of space to fit a single LED with an adapter, and even then it wouldn't be nearly enough light.

Luckily, ceiling fans are pretty modular, and I decided to try retrofitting it with an Edison socket-type fixture. I bought something like this light kit at Home Depot. Warning: do not buy that kit! It uses GU24 sockets, too! I couldn't actually find the one I got online, so maybe it's been replaced with a GU24 version now... this, of course, being exactly the problem I was trying to solve. If you do this, just go to Home Depot and open the box before you buy anything. It might be possible to buy just the necessary part somewhere, though I was unable to find it online.

The kit includes a socket adapter something like the one at right (though it has the two sockets mounted in a transverse configuration, e.g. side by side instead of butted together, so the lights take up less space). This is all I really wanted: I was easily able to replace the GU24 adapter from my fan's light kit with this part, giving me two conventional sockets. This required nothing more than a couple of wire nuts. I could then use regular screw-type LED bulbs in the light kit. It works great; two 13W LEDs produce more light than the single CFL, and of course they're perfectly dimmable.

A New Hope: Candelabra Bulbs

One thing I've yet to try for my chandelier situation is LED candelabra bulbs. These have the small screw base and there seem to be at least a handful of dimmable products out there. So I'd be looking at a GU24 to E26 (edison) screw adapter, and then an E26 to E12 (candelabra) on top of that. At least the 2nd adapters don't add any additional height. It all seems a bit crazy but if I can find a dimmable LED bulb that has decent light distribution and color and fits within the shade, I'll be happy. I've ordered a few samples from various Chinese companies on ebay... will report back if I find anything good.

Unrelated: Am I starting this blog again?

I have no idea, but after spending hours and hours trying to figure out what to do about my GU24 chandelier and ceiling fans, I wanted to add something to the body of knowledge. Maybe, but it probably won't be anything like it was before.