LED bulbs buying guide
They are available for nearly every lighting task in your home, but there are a few things to consider.
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Types of light bulbs
LED bulbs are the most efficient and durable of the lot, but also the most expensive. However, prices have fallen considerably since we first tested them in 2013. They use up to 80 percent less energy than incandescent bulbs, while producing the same amount of light. Most LEDs should last at least 15,000 hours – that’s more than 13 years if used every day for three hours.
A compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) is a scaled-down version of the fluorescent tube lights common in offices and commercial buildings. They use a small tube filled with glowing gas. CFLs are generally cheaper than LEDs and have a lifetime of at least 6000 hours, about six times longer than incandescents but significantly shorter than LEDs. They take a few seconds to reach full brightness and tend to fade over time. Frequent switching can shorten its lifespan.
Halogen lamps are a type of incandescent bulb, but are about 30 percent more efficient. They’re most commonly found in the home as low voltage downlights and spotlights.
Incandescents are the direct descendants of the first light bulb patented by Thomas Edison in 1879. They work by passing an electric current through a wire filament. They are far less efficient than other types of lighting and have a shorter lifespan.
Brightness: watts vs lumens
Watts measure power consumption, whereas lumens measure light output. Wattage isn’t the best indicator of an LED’s brightness. We found there is considerable variation in the efficiency of LED bulbs.
Generally, LEDs produce the same amount of light as an incandescent bulb that has five to six times the wattage.
|Incandescent bulb (watts)||Equivalent LED (watts)||Light output (lumens)|
AGLS bulbs are now available in the 40W to 100W equivalent range.
If you want to replace an existing incandescent bulb with an LED, use the wattage of the old incandescent as a guide. The packaging of LEDs usually indicates the equivalent wattage of incandescent bulbs that produce a similar brightness.
If you want to buy an LED to replace a standard incandescent bulb, chances are the LED will appear brighter than the equivalent incandescent. This is because the beam angle of LEDs is narrower, so the light comes out more focussed.
Types of LED bulbs
LED bulbs are available at most supermarkets, hardware stores, and specialised lighting and electrical shops. Before heading off to the shops, check what kind of bulb you want to replace. The majority of light bulbs are described by a system of series designations. The most common are:
GLS (General Lighting Service) standard bulbs
Available with screw and bayonet bases, which have the designations Exx and Bxx respectively. The xx refers to the base’s diameter in millimetres.
R-Series reflector bulbs
These are often used as floodlights and downlights. They are numbered by the size of the bulb’s diameter in millimetres, R80 for example.
PAR-Series security lights and self-contained exterior floodlights
PAR38 is a common type; the 38 is the diameter of the bulb in multiples of eighths of an inch. PAR38 bulbs are 121mm wide.
MR16 and GU10 spotlights
MR16s have two thin pin bases (called GU5.3 bases), while GU10s usually have thick turn and lock “top-hat” bases. The main difference between them is GU10s run at 240V, while MR16s run on 12V and require an external transformer. There are MR16 lamps available with GU10 turn and lock bases.
What to look for
There are LED bulbs available for nearly every lighting task in your home, but there are a few things to consider.
The long lifespan of LEDs makes them ideal for hard-to-reach fittings you’d like to change as infrequently as possible, such as above stairways or in high ceilings.
Our switching test showed that LEDs could stand being switched on and off repeatedly over more than 12,000 cycles. That means LEDs are especially suitable for walk-in wardrobes, toilets, bathrooms and kitchens – places where the lights are often switched on and off.
If you want to use a dimmer you need to buy dimmable LED bulbs, and ensure your dimmer switch is compatible with the dimmable LED bulb (it will say on the packaging).
Replacement bulb or dedicated LED fitting
A dedicated fitting houses the LED and its associated electronics – the bulb is fixed to the fitting and can’t be changed like a regular light bulb.
A replacement bulb is an LED that can be retrofitted into an existing fitting to replace an incandescent, halogen or CFL.
A dedicated fitting is designed to manage the heat that concentrates at its base; overheating can shorten an LED’s lifespan. If you’re installing lights as part of a renovation, or if you’re building a new house, then we recommend dedicated LED fittings. Note that if the fitting fails you’ll have to replace the whole unit.
If your house has recessed downlights with incandescent or halogen bulbs, it is better to replace the entire fitting with a dedicated LED downlight fitting, instead of just changing the bulb. Just replacing the bulb with an LED is likely to overheat the LED and shorten its life. In addition, most older downlight fittings require generous clearances to ceiling insulation and can allow draughts through the hole in the ceiling lining. Modern dedicated LED downlight fittings combine energy efficient lighting with better airtightness and insulation can be abutted to or even laid over them. You will need an electrician to install them for you.
For non-recessed fittings, retrofitting LED bulbs is cheaper and easier than installing dedicated LED fittings, but remember to check you get the same base type and a similar shape, brightness, colour temperature and beam angle.
Warm white or cool white
An early complaint with LEDs was they were unsuitable for general ambient lighting because of the harsh white light they produced. Models capable of producing a warmer white light are now widespread. If you’re after a bulb for your living room or hallway, a warm version is a good choice to avoid a cold feel, but cool lighting is fine for the bathroom or laundry.
Colour temperature refers to the light’s colour characteristics. It varies between warm, like the yellow light of an incandescent bulb, or cool, like the bluish light of some fluorescent lamps. It is measured in Kelvins (K). The higher the K, the cooler the light.
Warm white (2700K – 3000K) brings out the warm colours in your home and is great for living areas.
Cool white (4000K) is a bluish-white light that improves the contrast between colours. Suitable for work areas where contrast is important.
The beam angle measures how the light spreads out from the bulb. Beam angles of LEDs vary greatly and depend on their application. The shape of an LED bulb determines the direction light is emitted. However, when buying downlights ensure you get a bulb that emits light only from its end.
Narrow angle bulbs – less than 30 degrees – are usually used when placing multiple downlights close to each other, such as in a hallway or when lighting cabinetry. Larger beam angles are used with high-power LEDs for floodlighting. If you’re replacing incandescent or halogen lamps with LEDs, make sure the beam angle is similar to the old bulb.
Very large beam angles are sometimes found in pantries or walk-in wardrobes. As beam angle increases, you require more lumens (light output) to maintain the light’s intensity.
Which light where?
Good interior lighting can create various moods, highlight your interior décor, and provide pleasant light - without burning up the power bill.
The days of a light bulb starkly hanging on a cord in the centre of a room are long gone. Nowadays you have a vast choice of lighting products, increasingly using various energy-efficient lighting technologies. But which products work best - in what parts of the house?
The lighting requirements of the rooms in our houses vary - depending on what the room is used for. Different light levels are required in various parts of the house – and even within some rooms. The colour of the light is also important – it can change the mood of a room and can make a difference to dining, reading and other activities.
Choosing the right lighting products can also save money on your power bills.
You need intense light to read or to do close-up tasks, but if you lit your whole lounge to that level the glare would be uncomfortable.
An easier approach would be relatively soft background lighting using ‘warm white’ LEDs or to create a relaxing mood. You can also use dimmable LEDs to provide the flexibility to set the mood for any occasion – but make sure you have an LED-compatible dimmer.
Hallway and stairs
You need moderate light levels, but lights in these locations are likely to be left on for many hours, especially in winter, so it’s important to use energy-efficient bulbs. The long lifespan of LEDs makes them a great option for hard-to-reach places such as high-ceilinged hallways or above staircases.
If you’re retrofitting LEDs into spotlights or downlights, it’s better to replace the entire fitting with a dedicated LED downlight fitting, instead of just changing the bulb. Just replacing the bulb with an LED will often overheat the LED and shorten its life.
For a kitchen you need background lighting (brighter than in the lounge) because a higher level of shadow-free light is required – so you can see in the cupboards. Extra task lighting will make sure bench tops, stoves and walk-in pantries are well lit.
Take care when installing energy efficient lights directly above a sinks or stovetops. LEDs and CFLs have small circuit boards in their base which can short if exposed to large amounts of steam. Ensure that the fitting adequately encloses the base of the bulb, or use new generation halogen bulbs.
A relaxing bath with soft lighting is one of life’s pleasures. But not being able to see to shave or put on make-up is not. You need moderate background lighting, and brighter, directional lighting for mirrors. The light should shine on your face - not on the mirror.
To achieve this blend of a functional yet relaxing space consider using separate switching for different lights or adding a dimmer to the main lighting. There are now efficient bulb replacement options for most bathroom lights and an ever increasing range of stylish fittings designed for both efficiency and good looks.
Light fittings above a shower and tub should be steam-proof. If you’re installing LED fittings make sure they are rated for damp locations.
Outdoor lighting can range from a simple porch light to spot lights for lighting up deck or entertainment areas, or to create dramatic effects for illuminating driveways, paths and garden areas. For lights likely to burn for a long time, use energy-efficient options in suitable outdoor fittings.
There are now LED floodlights available which match the brightness of their halogen equivalents. Keep an eye out for PAR38 LEDs when replacing your outdoor security lights.
LED bulbs have a claimed life expectancy of between 15,000 and 50,000 hours, so can be expected to last for more than five years of normal domestic use. However, their lifespan can be considerably reduced if they get too hot, as can happen when they are retrofitted into recessed downlights and spotlights. Make sure they have a way to dissipate excess heat or replace the entire fitting with a dedicated LED downlight fitting.
Care should be taken if you’re installing LEDs in environments where they are likely to be exposed to steam. The bulb housing contains a small electronic circuit which can short if it gets damp. LEDs retrofitted into bathroom heater units will probably have a reduced lifespan due to increased temperatures generated by heat lamps.
One thing that won’t affect the lifespan of your LED bulbs is frequent on-off switching. They also reach their full brightness instantly – in contrast to some CFLs which can take up to a minute (although warm-up times have improved in recent years, and “instant-on” CFLs are available).
Both LEDs and CFLs fade over time, but this is more pronounced in CFLs.
Energy savings and payback time
Despite the higher upfront cost of LEDs compared to other technologies, you can expect to save money in the long run through reductions in your power bill.
Let’s compare a mid-range LED to a standard incandescent bulb. The LED has the same brightness as a 60 watt incandescent while only drawing 9.5 watts. The LED costs $18 and has an expected lifespan of 15,000 hours, while the equivalent 60 watt incandescent bulb costs 50 cents but lasts for 1000 hours. If the light is on for three hours each day the incandescent will use $17.08 worth of electricity in a year, compared to $2.70 for the LED. That’s a saving of $14.38 per year.
The LED will have paid for itself in a little over a year. It will then keep going for another 12 years if used for three hours every day, while the incandescent bulb will need to be replaced every year. These figures show you shouldn’t wait for your incandescent bulbs to blow – it’s more cost effective to replace them with LEDs now.
Find out how much you could save by switching to energy-saving bulbs.
- Figures for savings are indicative only. Assumptions below.
- The most savings can be made by switching to energy saving bulbs in areas where the lights are on for the longest, such as living rooms, hallways and stairs.
- We assume you replace 100 Watt ordinary bulbs with 20 Watt energy efficient bulbs.
- We haven't factored in the costs of the bulbs because although energy saver bulbs are more expensive than ordinary bulbs they last much longer, so overall bulb cost is approximately the same.
- We assume electricity costs 25 cents per kWh.