LED Lights Bring Glimmer of Hope

The technology of LED is able to convert electricity with virtually no waste heat.

The acronym stands for light emitting diode, and this technology uses a tiny fraction of energy consumed by conventional incandescent and fluorescent bulbs for a given amount of light. The working life of LED lights is measured in tens of thousands of hours, too. 

LED technology is poised to boost the energy efficiency and reliability of area lighting in a big way. Poised, but not quite there yet for all applications.

Until four or five years ago, the main place you'd see LEDs was the illuminated readout screens of VCRs, microwaves and the occasional ancient calculator from the 1970s. The first high-profile breakout from these uses was Christmas lights. Nowadays, an entire string of colourful LED lights uses less energy than a single incandescent holiday bulb did from yesteryear.

All this got me watching and waiting to see how long it would take before LED bulbs became available for serious, interior lighting applications. We don't have to wait for the technology anymore, though high prices remain a stumbling block, at least for now.

LED bulbs are so efficient because they produce light in an entirely different way than other bulbs. Instead of using electricity to heat up a metal filament, for instance, LEDs produce light by channelling an electric current through a semiconductor material. This approach converts almost 100 per cent of the electricity into light, with virtually no waste heat produced.

It's now possible to buy LED equivalents for various types of household and specialty light fixtures that were originally designed for much less efficient bulbs. You won't see many of these new LED bulbs on hardware store shelves in a big way yet, but leading Canadian specialty suppliers are beginning to offer a growing lineup of promising LED bulbs. One such pioneer is Michael Salerno.

Salerno left 20 years in corporate Canada to start AllPurposeLEDs .com (416-889-2719), one of a handful of LED bulb suppliers emerging as this technology becomes cheaper and more effective.

"At the moment, ambient or accent LED lightin i's the most suitable use for average homeowners because the cost of LED bulbs is high relative to their output," explains Salerno.

The price of an MR16 LED to replace a traditional halogen design runs from $35 to $60 for a single bulb. That's about five to eight times more money than halogen, but the LED lasts 20 to 25 times longer while using 90 per cent less energy. Facts like these are why LEDs do make especially good sense in applications where lights stay on a lot, where the heat buildup of traditional bulbs is a problem, or where it's difficult to change bulbs after they burn out.

"Commercial-residential applications are one area where lights are switched on in hallways, stairwells or elevators 24/7, for example. LEDs make good sense here. They're also useful for exterior residential applications. They last for years and function well in cold temperatures. In our studies, we've even found that unlike halogens, fluorescents and incandescent bulbs, LEDs don't attract insects. They don't emit UV rays, either, so LEDs won't cause fading of fabrics and surfaces."

All the changes that ripple through our modern world can be traced back to the same, basic dynamic: a new pressure that triggers a subsequent response. LED lighting is a response to the pressures we're all feeling as energy costs rise. The cheap, plentiful sources of energy we've built our world upon are starting to crumble. We've also developed a keener sense of the hidden costs of our extravagant energy use.

Some day, our kids and grandkids will smile and shake their heads as we tell them about light bulbs in the olden days that burned so hot you couldn't touch them.

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