Friday, 24 February 2012

LED Zeppelin

As part of our ongoing home renovation/extension project, we need to come up with some sort of a lighting plan. Generally speaking, our house currently uses downlights. We like the idea and we like the lights, so we are looking to continue relying on downlights. However, there are two issues with our specific downlights implementation: our downlights have not been properly installed, which means their 12V have all sorts of issues; and the inefficient halogen lights running the show are a major generator of heat and power bills. Now that we are renovating, we want to go one better. At this moment in time, the bleeding edge is LED lighting, and this is where we see ourselves heading. The question is, what LED lighting should we get?
Go to a lighting shop, search the Internet or go to eBay, and you will find plenty of LED downlights claiming to be all conquering. However, upon seeing these lights in action one can clearly see they tend to be significantly inferior to halogen in their intensity and coverage (they only light a narrow area, leaving gaps between neighboring lights). User stories tell the tale of lights that don’t last long, either. I was close to giving up on LEDs under the assumption they are just not there yet.
Yet technology marches on at an incredible pace. A year ago, Charles Wright, who writes The Age’s Bleeding Edge column, wrote about an Australian company called Brightgreen that designs LED lighting. Brightgreen's special K factor is in its lights being both equivalent in character to halogen, and some times better, as well as being lasting. When Charles Wright writes I pay attention, so we went to Brightgreen’s website and visited some of the shops alleged to sell their stuff.
Now, I don’t know who runs the Brightgreen website, but most of the shops it referred us to told us some pretty nasty things about Brightgreen and why they don't sell their products. The picture that started to emerge is that quality LED downlights do exist from various manufacturers like, say, Osram, but they are quite expensive with street pricing of between $100 to $150 for a set (by "set" I mean the whole hardware required to install the light, installer not included).
Eventually we actually stumbled upon Brightgreen’s own lights. We saw their D900 globe, which is supposed to be the most halogen like downlight out there and then some, but I wasn’t too impressed with it: it is wider than the common downlight, which means larger holes need to be cut in the ceiling (perfectly fine, until you decide to use other brands and need to refill the hole). The D900s are also quite expensive at around $150 each. I was much more impressed with Brightgreen’s DR700 bulb (pictured above), a globe meant to act as instant replacement for your 12V halogen downlight: it’s not much dimmer than the D900, it’s conventionally sized, it’s $70, it’s dimmable, and it can work with practically any 12V transformer out there. It seemed like we have ourselves a winner.
Or do we? The next shop we went to presented us with another Aussie brand, Eco Light Up, who claims to have lights roughly as illuminative as Brightgreen’s but at about half the cost ($40) and at only 8W instead of more than 10W. What is going on here? Every shop we go to tells us a different story, and we simply have no clue as to who is right and who is the disinformation spreader.
The problem got worse when we started looking at the various lights’ official spec sheets. They all claim to be pretty much equal, luminosity wise, angle coverage wise, and longevity wise! If that is the case then we should go with the cheapest, shouldn’t we? Then again, we already know the cheapest LED lights are up to no good!

We took action. I did some research on the Internet to investigate the various claims made to us by the various salespeople. For example, one shop told us to avoid 12V lighting and go with straight 240V lights because many "young electricians" refuse to do 12V. I was hoping that through this research I could identify the salespersons who do not shy from lying, under the assumption they would also lie about the quality of their LEDs on sale.
It worked. While learning a lot about the virtues of 12V transformers (their reliability, the power wasted on them), I also learned that specific salesperson’s claim was rather dubious. 12V lighting is doing just fine in the market, it seems.
We went further and contacted both Brightgreen and Eco Light Up, asking them to explain why their downlights are better than the other’s. Brightgreen did not bother responding, but Eco Light Up’s answer took me by surprise: they told me the Brightgreen DR700 is probably the best LED light out there, but added their products are cheaper. I was thankful for the sincere reply.

Thus far I told the story of pretty much all we know about LED downlights. Given the above, how do we move ahead with our lighting plan?
It looks like we will go with the Brightgreen DR700, both as a replacement for our old halogens and for the new extension, because:
  • They won credit from Charles Wright as well as Eco Light Up.
  • We bought a sample DR700, installed it next to one of our halogens, and were quite impressed: it did provide virtually the same light output, both in intensity and spread (a tad less in both departments, but nothing close to significant).
  • It costs much more than halogen, but as far as quality LED downlights go it doesn’t cost too much. And at 10W of energy consumption (say, 12W once you add transformer inefficiencies) it will reduce our power bills and our cooling needs.
At this point I would like to note the similarities between the LED light market and the hi fi one. In both cases the market is full of cheap crap sold next to true high quality products, and in both cases the cheap crap seems to be able to come up with the specs to show that it’s just as high quality as the genuine high quality. If anything, the cheap crap is often better on paper: a lot of the budget amplifiers from the cheaper brands boasts hundreds of watts of amplification power, yet once I put ear to it I find it clear that the 25W amplifier from the reputable brand (say, Meridian) is immensely more powerful.
The same, it seems, applies to lighting: too many LEDs boasts the lumens output and the angle coverage of the ubiquitous halogen globe, not to mention color character that’s better than the sun’s own. As with hi fi, the typical salesperson does not know much about the product they’re selling, often selling disinformation: for example, it became clear most salespeople do not know the difference between the wattage of a globe and its output in lumens. Granted, the two tend to be related; but “tend” is the key word. And last, as with hi fi, manufacturers are very slight and purposefully ambiguous about the way they measure their products, reminding me of the nasty sounding cheap amps that boast “0.0001% of distortion” when the clearly superior sounding amp specifies 0.1%.
The problem the consumer is faced with is this, though. In the hi fi world, one can listen to the separate products and form their own opinion; that is hard to do with lights that can only be sampled at a very well lit shop (bear in mind that even if you buy samples, you need an electrician to install most types of lights). Second, the hi fi world offers lots of reputable magazines that reliably review and compare products; there are no such resources when it comes to lighting. (I do feel obliged to add that sadly, most hi fi magazines do not provide reliable reviews)
I take comfort knowing that even if we will end up spending a thousand dollars extra on our lights, we would still get a product that is superior to halogen lighting. We will get a product that saves us money overall through our power bills, a product that is at the environmental cutting edge (Brightgreens are heavy metal free), and a product that will probably outlast us.

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