They named it the "White City," the 1893 Columbia Exposition World's Fair in Chicago, because of the white plaster buildings lit by millions of new incandescent bulbs that lit up the fair grounds. It was the first bright lights, big city wonder, and inaugurated the age of electric light.
Flash forward to London and the opening ceremonies of the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, when the entire arena was transformed into a circular display, lit by millions of LEDs.
Perhaps this Olympic exhibition of light emitting diode lights won't have the affect on our bulb buying habits the way Chicago's White City did more than a century ago - but it should.
Over the last few months, I've been chatting with folks in the lighting business trying to figure out how to convince consumers that LED isn't the light of the future, but your bulb choice of the present.
Why should you choose LED over incandescent? Reasons 1 though infinity: one LED bulb can last 25 years or more. Why don't you? They cost 25 times more than an incandescent.
To help win you over despite the deceptive price differential, over the next four days I'll attempt to address every aspect of replacing your incandescent or even compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs with LED bulbs. I'll cover the following topics:
- What exactly IS an LED light bulb?
- LED Aesthetics
- Why LEDs Are Both Cold and Hot
- Incandescent Equivalency
- The Color of LED
- Economics of LED
Yup, LED bulbs designed to replace standard incandescent bulbs (the design of which hasn't changed all that much since Edison perfected them) are U-G-L-Y. Why?
Because LED light bulbs aren't really "light bulbs" at all.
Instead of heating a filament or exciting some gas inside of a vacuum tube, inside an LED enclosure (it's not really a bulb, really) is a bunch of computer chips. An LED "bulb" (a term which I'll use for simplicity) a solid state device. Really.
An LED bulb is a closer relative to an AV receiver, a thumb memory stick or an iPad than an incandescent light bulb. That's one reason why an LED bulb is heavier than their incandescent or CFL counterparts.
Makers of LED bulbs are forced to unnaturally disguise what is essentially a computer to look and act like the old fashioned light bulb with which you're familiar and comfortable, sort of like why robots are often designed to look human even though this resemblance actually detracts from its functionality. Same thing with LED bulbs. Plus, it has to fit into the century-plus-old Edison screw bases (yes, not only is the incandescent light bulb more than 13 decades old, so is the screw base, making it possibly the oldest electrical product still in use).
But since LEDs don't NEED to look like an old-fashioned light bulb, LEDs are available in a ridiculous variety of almost unimaginable shapes and sizes that enable all manner of creative lighting designs. Check out the hundreds of lighting possibilities resulting in a simple "LED light design images" search result.
Hot and cold LED
Adding to the degree of LED design difficulty is heat. Yes, LEDs feel cool to the touch, but they do produce heat, but in the way electricity always produces heat not because there's actually something burning in there as in an incandescent.
To get the LED to feel cool to the touch, LED bulbs contain a heat sink to disperse this heat, which adds to an LED fixture's weight. This is why many LED bulbs look like ice cream cones - the cone is where the heat sink is located.
This ice cream cone shape also accounts for why LED bulbs often project their light upward like a beacon rather than ambiently like an incandescent or CFL. This lack of ambient projection make some LED bulbs poor choices for table lamps for reading light. Look for an LED bulb that promotes itself as shining more spherically.
The need to dissipate LED circuit heat is one reason you haven't seen any 100-watt equivalent LED bulbs - the higher the LED wattage, the more bulky the bulb's heat sink. As LEDs become more heat-efficient, we'll start to see brighter LEDs.
Last year Philips started selling a 75-watt equivalent bulb and will soon start selling a 23-watt 100-watt equivalent, the EnduraLED 23-watt. A couple of months back, GE also announced a 100-watt equivalent LED, which requires 27 watts to light, due on store shelves early next year.
Both are also predictably ugly. Fortunately, like all bulbs, they'll be hidden under a lamp shade.
In Part 2, we'll tackle the power and light equivalency and the quality of LED light.