Our first LED light bulbs!

We’ve been wanting to try out LED light bulbs for quite some time now, but the cost has always been a bit too high. We had been holding out for the Switch bulbs after I read a Wired article on them about a year ago, but they took a long time to be released, not to mention that they didn’t come anywhere close to the promised $20-25 price point (they are $40-50.) When I saw the initial version, I was ready to remove every shade in the house and just use the bare bulbs – they were that awesome – evoking vacuum tubes and 1960’s visions of robots of the 2000s (where are those robots, by the way?). Unfortunately, the final product became a little more…well, boring, so it was a hard sell to pay double the cost for something that just looked utilitarian. We could have gotten one or two just as a novelty, but there was no way we could swap out many bulbs at that cost.

Switch prototype…full on steampunk!

Final product…still nice but much less exciting

I had considered the Phillips bulbs, which are highly regarded, but the bright yellow plastic wouldn’t have looked good in our living and dining room box beam fixtures, where you can clearly see the bulbs.

Nice light but looks like a toy when off

Enter Cree. A couple of weeks ago I found out about the Cree bulbs, which are currently available only at Home Depot. They hit all the check boxes…low cost ($10-13!), 10 year warranty, dimmable, warm white version available and they look pretty similar to incandescent bulbs. I ordered a handful of 40 and 60 watt equivalents to try out in our house. The 60 watt versions are still on backorder, but we got the 40 watters a couple of days ago.

The most impressive thing about these (the 40 W equivalents) bulbs is that they use only 6 watts. That’s insane. Of course, it’s not a huge difference from a CFL’s 10 watts when comparing both to an incandescent, but it’s nice that it uses 40% less energy than a CFL. And even better that you don’t have to be concerned about dropping one and releasing mercury vapor in your house.

Here is one of our Cree LEDs:

Cree 6W bulb

First Impressions

The bulbs are obviously heaver than an incandescent, but they also feel very solid. They have an odd rubbery coating on the outside, which I think it supposed to minimize shattering as well as act as a diffuser. We popped one into a fixture, and it looked very similar to the incandescent next to it. The diffusion is far from perfect, though, as you can clearly make out a ring of LEDs around the middle. The light looks slightly brighter than the incandescents because of this unevenness. As a result, they don’t put out as much light out of the top of the bulb, which in our case means less pointing towards the floor. That’s nitpicking, though, as none of this was extreme enough to notice if we weren’t looking for it.

The difference in wasted electricity is very noticeable…it is a very cool thing (pun intended) to be able to touch a lit bulb and barely even be able to feel any heat. In our dining room, once we change out all 8 bulbs to LEDs, we will drop from 320 watts down to 48. We would have changed out the bulbs to CFLs when we did the rest of the house, but the thicker bases of the CFLs prevented them from being able to screw in fully in our antique fixtures. And the inability of most CFLs to dim was also a factor.

Bulb Color Challenge

One of our considerations with any bulb is the color temperature. We strongly prefer the look of incandescents. We’ve made the mistake of trying “daylight” bulbs before, and we don’t like them. I think they’d look great in a sleek, modern house, but old houses call for a warmer light. So once we got the bulbs, I wanted to compare them to an incandescent and also to a warm CFL.

I did a quick test to check on the relative color temperatures of the different bulb types. I set my camera to capture the bulbs with the white balance set to 5000K, which is equivalent to direct sunlight. That allowed me to capture and compare the color temps. As you can see below, they are actually all pretty close to each other. For the RGB table and chart below I normalized the bulbs to the same green value, so that I could see the variability in the red and blue components. I actually had to exaggerate the scale somewhat to highlight the differences, since they were so minor that viewing the whole range of 0-255 made it hard to see them.

LED, CFL and incandescent bulbs…fairly good color match between the 3 bulbs

The terms “bare bulb” and “on paper” in the chart below indicate whether I was taking the Photoshop dropper readings from a picture of the bulb itself or from a piece of white paper illuminated by the bulb. I think that the bigger variances in the “bulb” readings are due to the non-uniform lighting of the CFL and LED. It was very hard to find sections of the bulbs that were lit consistently. So I tend to trust the “paper” readings more, and they really are pretty close to the incandescent, with some minor deficiencies in the red and blue.

RGB chart

RGB values table

By looking at sample crops of the “paper” pictures, you can see how similar these bulbs are. I think that the CFL is just a wee bit closer to the incandescent than the LED, which kind of surprised me. But again, they are all so close that you’re not going to notice, especially if the light has a shade.

Color swatches for each bulb

And I think this picture does a better job of showing the LED’s illumination in “real life.” While you can clearly see that it’s not as diffused as an incandescent, it looks just fine. And if you aren’t looking at the bare bulb, you’d never even notice.

LED pattern from below

And now it’s time to see if you’ve been paying attention. Which one is the LED?

One of these is not like the others…

The Downsides

Actually, other than the cost, which will be “paid off” over time with lower electric bills, there is only one problem that we’ve encountered. While these bulbs do dim well, I noticed a slight buzzing noise coming from them when dimmed. If you search for LEDs and dimmers on the internet, you will find a lot of frustrated people. It turns out that they only work properly with certain dimmers, and less well or not at all with others. After reading some of the horror stories and finding that some specialized dimmers cost $70(!), we decided to just live with our minor buzzing. We can get rid of it by turning the bulbs up to full power, and even after just a of couple of days, I hardly notice it. I think in most fixtures the buzzing would be completely unnoticeable, but the shades in the above picture act as acoustic horns, amplifying the sound. I do want to reiterate that the sound is very minor, and they are completely silent when not dimmed. And if one had an LED-specific dimmer, they would also be noiseless.

So what do we think?

I have not been this pumped about lighting since first grade when my friend Justin got a Star Wars watch that had an LED display. It could only display the time when you pressed a button, otherwise the battery would drain in minutes. These are much better, since they can be on all the time. And now I can stop harping on the kids for leaving on all the lights in the dining room. It is seriously amazing that all 8 bulbs use just a tiny bit more than a single incandescent did. I want to get some more, so we can do the same in the living room. And while there’s no rationale for preemptively swapping out CFLs, we will gradually migrate those to LEDs when each stops working.

I’ll try to add more to this after we get the 9.5 watt bulbs (60 watt equivalents) and have some more time with them.

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