Are you in the dark about which lighting option to choose for your business, or building? The world of lighting technology has advanced by leaps and bounds, and it’s time to resolve the LEDs vs. traditional (typically incandescent) lighting debate, once and for all. Will traditional and nostalgic incandescent bulbs have a fighting chance in a world rapidly replacing them with LEDs?
Concerns surrounding incandescent lighting, and its environmental impact, have been rising for decades. In this article we’ll explore the basis for these concerns, the impact lighting has on the environment, and how much of a difference LEDs really make when they replace traditional, incandescent lighting.
The impact of lighting on the environment is bigger than you might expect. According to a Popular Science article, about 15% of global electricity consumption and 5% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions worldwide can be attributed to lighting alone. In addition, If every household in the USA replaced one incandescent light bulb with a CFL bulb, it would save enough energy annually to prevent GHG emissions equivalent to what 800,000 cars would produce. LEDs are even more efficient than CFLs, so replacing incandescent light bulbs with them would save even more energy, significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions and energy bills.
Recently there have been some bans placed on the sale of incandescent lighting, for example the ban on the manufacture and sale of common incandescent lighting in the USA went into effect Aug 1, 2023. Like most news, this has caused some controversy. Some critics of the new rules are concerned because they have sentimental attachments to incandescent lightbulbs, and consider them a historically significant object.
For example, the Republican Party of New Mexico tweeted, “Thomas Edison brought the incandescent light bulb to the masses, and in 2023 Joe Biden banned it in America.”
Thomas Edison invented the incandescent light bulb in 1879. Although it wasn’t the first electric light bulb (that was invented in 1802 by Humphry Davy), it acted as the first electric lighting option that burned long enough to light a home for many hours. The problem is that, since Edison invented incandescent light bulbs, they have hardly evolved, and thus remain just as inefficient as they were in the late 19th century.
Before getting into efficiency, let’s dive into how incandescent light bulbs work. In general, incandescent lightbulbs operate on a simple yet elegant principle of physics. In their core, they contain a coiled filament, typically made of tungsten. When an electric current is applied to the filament, resistance within the wire causes it to heat up to extremely high temperatures, reaching around 4,500 °F (2,500 °C). This intense heat causes the filament to emit visible light. As the filament heats up, it emits a broad spectrum of light, creating warm and soft illumination that we’ve come to associate with traditional incandescent bulbs. As you might expect, this method is inherently inefficient. About 95% of the electrical energy consumed by the bulb is converted into heat, meaning only 5% of the consumed energy is converted to visible light. To put this in perspective, for the same amount of light produced, CFLs (fluorescent bulbs) use around 60-80% less power and last 8 to 15 times longer than incandescent bulbs.
There are other types of incandescent light bulbs; these types usually vary in base type, shape, wattage and typical application, but not in how they work or how efficient they are. The most common incandescent lightbulb is the A19 bulb. These have a standard (E26) screw base, and are typically used in residential applications. Tubular bulbs are another type of incandescent lighting. They are often used in ovens (where energy being converted to heat is actually beneficial), and they can have various base types. Not all tubular incandescent bulbs will be phased out due to the aforementioned federal ban in the USA, as the new rule does not apply to appliance lamps, as well as an array of other types of bulbs, including bug lamps, infrared lamps, plant lights, and flood lights.
Other types of incandescent bulbs are:
LEDs are largely the ideal replacement since the phase out of incandescent lighting in the USA and elsewhere, so let’s dive into its history, how it works, and its efficiency. To clarify the ban in the USA mentioned above, the new rules don’t actually outright ban incandescent lighting, just make it impossible for it to meet the new efficiency standards. The new rule is that lighting must emit 45 lumens per watt in order to be sold or manufactured in the USA. Incandescent lighting only provides about 15 lumens per watt, so it is far from making the cut. Lumens per watt (lm/W) describes a light’s energy efficiency, as it measures how much visible light (lumens) a light source produces for each unit of electrical power (watt) consumed. The ban thus encourages the widespread implementation of LED lighting, which provides upwards of 75 lumens per watt. Some high-end LED lighting companies, like Omnify, boast lighting options with significantly higher lumens per watt. For example, Omnify’s LumiStick™ offers 100 lm/W, and their LumiSheet™ Pro offers 130 lm/W.
LED (Light Emitting Diode) lighting has a fascinating history that spans over the course of several decades. While the concept of electroluminescence was discovered in 1907 by British scientist H.J. Round, the practical application of LEDs began to take shape in the early 1960s. It was in 1962 when Nick Holonyak Jr., a researcher at General Electric, created the first practical visible-spectrum LED. Holonyak’s creation used gallium arsenide phosphide to emit a visible red light. Over the years, researchers and engineers continued to refine LED technology, expanding the color range and increasing efficiency. In the 1970s, yellow and green LEDs were developed, followed by blue LEDs in the 1980s, paving the way for the development of white LEDs. The pioneering work of Shuji Nakamura in the 1990s, led to the creation of high-brightness blue LEDs, and this was a pivotal moment in LED history. The combination of red, green, and blue LEDs allowed for the creation of white light, leading to the widespread use of LEDs in lighting applications. Today, LEDs have revolutionized the lighting industry, offering energy efficiency, durability, and a wide range of color and brightness customization possibilities, such as tunable white and tunable RGB LEDs.
The reason that LEDs provide more lumens per watt than incandescents, is because their diodes require less electricity to produce light output. This enables them to use less energy, and last longer, than other lighting options. As we mentioned above, incandescent bulbs convert most of their consumed energy into heat, and only 5% into visible light. In contrast, LEDs are designed to convert about 95% of their consumed energy into visible light, and only lose about 5% of their consumed energy as heat. Incandescents also have shorter lifespans than LEDs (typically of only about 1200 hours), meaning they have to be replaced more often. This results in more waste in landfills that can be attributed to lighting products. Ultimately, these are the two main reasons why switching to LED lighting reduces our society’s carbon footprint.
Although LEDs are inherently our most efficient lighting option, they can still be made even more efficient. It’s common that LEDs are made to last up to 100,000 hours, but usually they only end up lasting about 25,000 to 50,000 hours. They also often end up annoyingly flickering before they ultimately fail. The reason LEDs die prematurely is not usually because of the diodes themselves, but because of their inefficient, connected drivers, which contain AC to DC converters (rectifiers). To explain further, LEDs operate on direct current (DC) power, which is one of two types of electricity. The other type, alternating current (DC) power, flows through our walls and ceilings. Power grids distribute AC power because it won the war of the currents over 100 years ago. However, because LEDs need DC power to operate, they have to convert AC into DC power. This conversion is typically executed by inefficient drivers connected to LED bulbs or fixtures. The solution is to distribute DC power directly to LEDs, and there are a few options to do so, including Power over Ethernet (PoE), DC microgrids, and Class 4, fault-managed power systems. You can read about these topics in articles written by Cence Power. Powering LED lighting directly with DC power usually reduces their energy consumption by about 20%, and enables them to last up to the full lifetime of their LED chips, which could be 100,000 hours (this is 2 to 4 times longer than their lifetime without receiving DC power directly).
In the ever-evolving world of lighting technology, the debate between LEDs and incandescent lighting has illuminated the path to a brighter and more sustainable future. The environmental impact of lighting cannot be understated, with traditional incandescent bulbs consuming substantially more energy than LED lighting, and contributing far more to greenhouse gas emissions and landfills. By transitioning to energy-efficient LEDs, we can significantly reduce our carbon footprint and energy bills, thereby creating a positive impact on the environment. LEDs are also far more versatile than incandescents, as light panels can be customized to unique shapes and letters, and the color temperature of LED lighting can also be modified to suit the environment or time of day. For example, modifying LEDs to emit a warmer light at night promotes better sleep, and a more blue or white light during the day promotes productivity.
Aside from LEDs having the ability to supply higher lumens per watt, LEDs can also be more efficient than incandescent lighting because of their compatibility with smart infrastructure. For example, LEDs can be automated to save energy through daylight harvesting; brightening lights when there is less natural daylight, and dimming them when plenty of natural light is lighting a space. Daylight harvesting typically reduces energy consumption in lighting by about 40%.
The efficiency regulations put into place in the USA, and other places around the world, coupled with the advancement of LED technology, has led to widespread adoption. LEDs have come a long way since their inception, and their efficiency, durability, and customizable features have propelled them to the forefront of the lighting industry. With a significantly higher lumens per watt rating and a longer lifespan, LEDs come out on top when comparing them with incandescent lighting. Thus the transition to LED lighting around the world is not only an environmental win, but also a step toward brighter, more cost-effective, and long-lasting lighting solutions.
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