Light Emitting Diodes take energy-efficient lighting to a whole new level, and consumers are about to notice.
The design and manufacture of light emitting diodes has improved dramatically in the last few years, and other high-efficiency competitors like compact fluorescent lights will soon have to hand over the “green” crown. Because of their performance advantages over other available lighting technologies, LEDs are poised to dominate the lighting market within a decade.
Despite their high-tech reputation, LEDs have actually been around for a century. These electrically illuminated semiconductors were first developed in the early 1900s, but didn’t see practical usage until the 1960s when they began to appear in electronic displays (think giant digital calculators, or Neil Armstrong’s control panel). Design advances since then have led to far brighter LEDs, and diodes that can produce virtually any color light desired. But they’re still fairly expensive to manufacture when compared to other common light sources used in building applications. So why will LEDs soon become the top choice for commercial and residential lighting? Easy: They’re efficient, they’re durable, and they’re clean.
LEDs are far more energy-efficient at producing light than incandescent or even fluorescent lights. Unlike their competitors, LEDs actually convert most of their electrical consumption into usable light output instead of wasting it in the form of heat. Average current-generation LEDs are capable of approximately 50% more efficiency than equally bright fluorescent bulbs and more than double the efficiency of incandescents; some next-gen LEDs claim an 8-fold advantage over their incandescent rivals. An additional, indirect efficiency perk of LEDs is the lack of ambient heat generated – heat that no longer needs to be offset by ventilation or air-conditioning systems.
A second huge advantage of LEDs as a light source is their durability. Because of their sealed, filament-free design, they are not nearly as vulnerable to impacts or moisture as incandescent or fluorescent bulbs. And an LED’s lifespan is far beyond that of its competitors: whereas an incandescent bulb might last 1,000 hours or a fluorescent up to 10,000 hours, an LED can easily shine for 50,000 hours.
Finally, LEDs have a couple “clean” advantages over compact fluorescent bulbs. Besides being even more energy efficient (and therefore less polluting) than fluorescents, LEDs contain no mercury. As more homes and businesses switch from incandescent to fluorescent lighting, there are increasing concerns about the mercury from fluorescent bulbs winding up in landfills and waste disposal facilities. And along those same lines, there are worries about residents being exposed to hazardous materials in the event of a fluorescent bulb breakage.
So should we all get rid of our compact fluorescent lights today and fill our homes and offices with LEDs? Not quite yet. Fluorescent bulbs are still the best “green” option for the moment, since LED lights need a little more time before they’re ready for the mainstream. One factor still being refined is the quality of the light; just as fluorescents took a bit of tweaking before they evolved from harsh institutional lights to the nice soft lights we enjoy now, LED’s are still evolving to produce the amount and kind of light that consumers want to live with. But the biggest factor is the cost: even though long term power savings might make up the difference, an LED today can cost around $40, which is a eye-widening purchase price compared to a few dollars for a fluorescent bulb or a few cents for an incandescent. But in the next five to ten years, as design and manufacturing techniques improve, and as consumer confidence in LEDs grows, prices will certainly drop – and old-fashioned bulbs will just be a hot, dirty memory.