A troubling trend in lighting?

A troubling trend in lighting?

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For those who may not have been paying attention, the last 20 years in the lighting industry have been an absolutely wild ride. Pretty much all thanks to these things - the light emitting diode. This is an incredibly important technology and we should thank our lucky stars (and of course the countless folks who contributed to its invention and refinement) that we can take advantage of it.

But it’s also made everything so much more complicated! At this point, the very concept of the light bulb... is pretty much over. Oh, sure, you can still buy light bulbs in a dazzling array of varieties, and a few old-fashioned ones hang around for those special cases. But most of ‘em these days are a far cry from the hot glowy tungsten wires in fragile globes of glass us olds grew up with. Frankly, modern LED light bulbs aren’t so much light bulbs as they are electronic devices that mimic light bulbs in form and function. And the key part of this video is that the form and function of a light bulb is actually pretty handy.

But at the same time, it also kinda stinks. Looks like we found one of them situational situations, huh? Today, I’d like to talk to you today about these things today. They’re starting to become quite commonplace, and they’re only possible thanks to the LED. They’re a clever implementation of the technology and have several distinct advantages over the drop-in light bulb replacements you’re familiar with. But these particular things are also not really any different at all. They have pretty much the same guts as any other LED bulb, but those guts just so happen to connect to a couple of wires sticking out the back.

This isn’t a light bulb; this is the spirit of a light bulb plonked into a cheap light fixture. And I have feelings about this. Which you’re now about to hear.

If you’ll indulge me with a little bit of electric lighting history, we can see why this is at once great and awful. When you get right down to it, all you really need to make an electric light is a thing which makes light from electricity somehow and a way to make that thing touch energized wires. The Edison screw-socket is an ancient (and pretty bad frankly) way to do that, and the traditional light bulb (which remember is really just a piece of wire which gets real hot when you run current through it) was designed to work holistically with the socket. It provides both electrical contact and a mechanical interface to mount the bulb.

The socket provided two key benefits. First, it provided a marginally safe, and standardized interface between the energized electrical system and the light bulb, and second it did that in such a way that the bulb could be easily replaced by the user when it failed. Early incandescent lamps really did not last long at all, and while improvements were made with time, they never got too far beyond one or two thousands hours of runtime. And yes, there are those stories of light bulb cartels and planned obsolescence which are fun to tell and rile people up, but there was a real, actual trade-off you made when you designed an incandescent lamp that lasted longer and that was a not-quite-as-hot filament which produces a duller light less efficiently, so there was some reason to that rhyme and it annoys me that nobody ever talks about it! I mean, incandescent light bulbs are very simple and once the tech was refined became pretty cheap so people would rather spend a little bit more and replace them more frequently than have dull light bulbs everywhere.

But anyway, I digress. Ordinary light sockets provide raw mains AC power. Take a look at this bare-bones thing and you’ll see that the terminals for hot and neutral go straight to the bulb socket. In some cheaper designs the terminals and the lamp contacts are literally the same piece of brass. Really, the socket is just a rudimentary interface between the light bulb and the electric grid.

It just has to get the hot wire touching the bottom bit and the neutral wire touching the side somewhere. And that’s fine for incandescent lamps which are nothing but resistive electrical loads. However, making light that way is just not a good way to do it, and every other technology out there requires an intermediary device to handle the electricity and drive the light-producing bit. That’s not new. We’ve had those technologies for a long, long time.

Fluorescent and discharge lamps require a ballast and starter to drive them properly, which are integrated into the fixture. That made the fixtures more expensive, however the lamps lasted many times longer than incandescent lights, and they were much more energy efficient. They had severe performance and light quality penalties which made them less suitable for general use, but fluorescent tubes found their way into some places at home. Regardless, no matter which of these long-lived technologies we’re talking about, re-lamping was eventually necessary. Lamps wear out, it’s just a fact of life.

And so, even the light fixtures which housed the most enduring of lamps were always designed in such a way that the component with a limited life-span - the lamp - could easily be replaced. The lines started to get blurry, though, around 25 or so years ago. In a desire to bring the efficiency of fluorescent lighting technology to more places with a simple drop-in device, the self-ballasted lamp was born. Now, I made a video on a weird, early device which was more of an adapter than it was a self-contained lamp, so I’m not counting that in this discussion.

Instead, I mean these things. I also made a video about my appreciation of these as an important stepping stone technology. They’re not great, and they have problems, but hey.

We all do. Side-note, there were/are other self-ballasted lamps besides just fluorescent but I’m just talking about the CFL here because it was by far the most mainstream. These twisty boys are their own itty-bitty self-contained fluorescent lighting systems which just happen to be about the same physical size and profile as the light bulbs they aimed to replace, and which just so happen to receive their electricity through an Edison screw, which conveniently also allows for convenient mounting of the device conveniently inside an ordinary light fixture. How convenient. It’s like they were designed to be backward compatible or something.

You get your line voltage here, your neutral there, and wires inside the device attach to the screw’s contact surfaces and then bring that electrical energy to a tiny little ballast inside of this part which then drives the tube out here and makes the photons happen. These became feasible in large part because of innovation in the electronic ballast, both in cost and size. Eventually ballasts became cheap enough that it made sense to produce single-use ballasts meant to be disposed of with the lamp when it wore out.

Of course, those ballasts were so cost-cut that they often failed prematurely, especially in certain circumstances… Like I said, these were problematic in various ways, but we have the LED now! Mercury-free, better light quality, more energy efficient, and longer-lasting. Usually. We’ll get to that.

However, we still have the same fundamental problem. Just like a fluorescent tube, you can’t just hook an LED up to mains voltage and expect light. Well, actually you can expect it but it would be very brief. Uh, but anyway LEDs need some sort of device to regulate the power they receive. For some reason we call that a driver and not a ballast, the reason’s not important, it’s probably because it outputs DC, but in any case we’re in roughly the same boat as before.

But now, this boat can fly. Not only can the driver for LEDs consist of just a few electronic components on a circuit board, but the LEDs themselves are teeny tiny little things. We don’t have this big tube thing anymore, we have these little chips with a dab of phosphor on them and they’re freaking neat! They can look like this, sometimes they’re a little bigger, and we can put them behind lenses to make more focused sources of light, or we can put them on little sticks of glass and make old-school lookin’ light bulbs, we can even make the sticks less like sticks and more like noodles and get all twisty again, the sky’s the limit.

And, wouldn’t ya know it, we are starting to see really interesting light fixtures for sale these days which are taking full advantage of the LED’s amazing versatility. And that is what this is. Aside from the interesting part.

This is merely a commodity, builder-grade light emitting device. This thing essentially cuts out the middle man that is the light socket and brings AC power straight to a unified driver-and-emitter circuit board. That board is then attached to a larger piece of aluminum with some holes stamped through it for mounting to an electrical box, and then a diffusing lens covers up the board (and the holes) and makes it look pretty. And if you’re in the position of constructing or remodeling a home, this is versatile, effective, easy, and cheap.

And we love those words! OK, so a little bit of background on light fixtures is required here. For those that may not know, the wiring in your home passes through and ends up in electrical boxes inside the walls. If you were to examine most light fixtures you would find that they are attached to the ceiling or wall with a couple of screws.

Those are in fact attaching it to the electrical box and not the wall directly. The purpose of electrical boxes is to provide standardized mounting points for electrical devices and a protected space for making electrical connections. Naturally, inside the electrical box are some wires.

Usually three: live, neutral and ground, though if you’re in a place like Chicagoland the wires have to be run inside of metal conduit even in residential applications and the local code often allows using that conduit as the ground path, so you may only find two. That’s why the ground lead has been snipped off this unit - simply mounting it to the box grounds it. At least, in theory.

The paint on this thing makes me a little nervous but it did get rubbed off where it was mounted (with just ONE SCREW) to the box. Yeah, I know this doesn’t weigh much at all, but c’mon! Anyway, the wires inside the box are what gives power to the fixture, and ordinarily what you’d really be doing when you install a light fixture is connecting the leads coming from its bulb socket or sockets to the wires inside the wall (please enjoy the inevitable discussion on wire nuts vs. Wago connectors that I’m confident is happening down below) and then you secure the fixture to the electrical box using its mounting screws while finagling the excess wire into the box and now you’ve got a light fixture.

Just add some light bulbs and you’re done. But what if you just slapped one of these puppies on that box? Then you’d be done in one step! Lamp, fixture, all in one solution! And, And! this thing sotra looks and behaves like the much more expensive recessed can lights which people go gaga over, even though it’s just a simple surface mount light. Say, when building or remodeling we could just put some dirt cheap ceiling boxes up there and stick these things on ‘em! Rather than go through the trouble of putting in actual cans. What a fantastic solution we have stumbled upon here! Except, oh right...

now you’re stuck with it unless you’re comfortable dealing with electrical wiring. Are you ready for some nuance? Because there be pros, there be cons. Now, I’m actually pretty OK with this particular class of product because in addition to being sleek-looking, cheap, and easy, they also have some real advantages compared to the old way of doing things. First, let’s talk about efficiency. If we were to look at the unfortunate architectural staple that is the boob light, we’d find a fixture which interferes with and thus reduces the light output of the bulbs inside of it.

A general-purpose light bulb spreads light in all directions, and that means a lot of the light it produces ends up getting absorbed on the top inside surface of the fixture before it even has a chance to be further attenuated by the glass on its way out. You can have really efficient lamps in here, but they’re always going to perform somewhat poorly because not all of their light actually makes it out to where it’s useful. These things, on the other hand, have entirely down-firing diodes. Essentially all of the light output from those diodes makes its way out of the fixture, so the 950 lumens these things are rated for will seem much brighter than a boob light with a single 950 lumen bulb in it. And of course that means you need less energy to get the same actual light output, and that’s always good. To be fair, there are plenty of LED bulbs you can buy that work just like this.

Most diffused flood lights, for instance, are pretty much this exact device, just packaged a little differently. But these are designed for the most part to work in recessed cans or spotlight fixtures which you may not have or want. The other significant advantage these have which makes their design less of a... crime is that they can also be more reliable than a typical LED bulb because, if designed right, it can more effectively deal with heat. Premature failures of LED light bulbs are unfortunately somewhat common, and in a great deal of cases those failures occur because the lamp couldn’t keep itself cool. Heat stresses electronic components, particularly certain capacitors, and even when that’s not an issue thermal cycling as the lamp heats up and cools off with use can lead to fractures in solder joints on the circuit board if those thermal swings are too extreme.

And that’ll lead to all sorts of problems. Rather unfortunately, lots of cheaper LED light bulbs have barely adequate cooling. I mean, just look at a bulb like this.

While many of them utilize materials with decent heat conductivity, this is the only surface it can radiate from (the plastic diffuser is just covering an air pocket). That’s not a lot of surface area, and so even in open air these units get pretty hot. And you make things even worse when you stick ‘em in enclosed fixtures which trap in that heat. Some clever lamp designs have temperature sensors on the driver board and will reduce their light output slightly to prevent exceeding a certain design temperature, but that’s almost never marketed as a feature so it might as well not exist. Devices like these, being free from the massive design constraints that crop up when emulating a light bulb, can rather easily be optimized for a long service life.

Of course, that doesn’t always happen because we can’t have nice things, but this particular model seems to have done a pretty good job in my estimation. The circuit board with all the parts that get hot is made of thermally conductive material and is bonded to a large aluminum housing. That spreads the heat produced by those components away from the board, keeping it relatively cool, and all this surface area allows that heat to dissipate into the air before anything gets too hot. And of course, this won’t be enclosed inside a light fixture because… it is the fixture! Taking a look at it with a thermal camera reveals that yeah, it’s just not getting that warm even after being lit for a half-hour. The light saucer is dissipating about the same quantity of heat as this LED bulb, but with much more surface area to go around, nothing manages to get that hot.

Again, some designs are gonna do better than others, but for the record I think this one is quite good. I especially like how the electrolytic smoothing capacitor, arguably the single most prone component to failure from heat damage with time, was attached to long leads so it could be mounted away from the circuit board entirely. Smart thinking. I imagine that this thing outperforms nearly every LED drop-in bulb when it comes to component cooling. And lastly, I mean you gotta admit these things are wonderfully versatile. You can stick ‘em pretty much anywhere, and have a sleek, effective, and efficient light.

If you have a light fixture somewhere that just isn’t cutting it, and you can’t put bright bulbs in it because they keep cooking themselves to an early grave, products like this one might be a great solution for you. They also satisfy certain code requirements, for instance in closets. These days simple bare-bulb fixtures aren’t allowed because it’s too easy to break the bulb and potentially cause electrical or fire hazards.

So it’s no surprise that these are popping up everywhere in new construction, and you might be looking for something similar when remodeling. And, good news, models with pull-chains exist for closets where the box is unswitched. But despite how much I kinda admire this idea, I’m probably never going to buy one of these.

In fact, I’ve taken them down from my new home because, unlike some of you weirdos who want their home to feel like a hospital for some reason, I much prefer cozy, warm lighting and not just because I live in a cold place and evidence seems to suggest that's a pretty good predictor of color temperature preference but because I’m right. And these are balanced at 3000 kelvin degrees. Now, that’s pretty warm, but you see I like to go with the true incandescent look of 2700 kelvin, and these two lights were both in places where they turned on with another light fixture, and if there’s one thing I like less than cool white color temps, it’s clashing color temps, so these had to go.

And the fact that I needed entirely new light *fixtures* and to be comfortable replacing them just to fix that problem... is pretty sad. Now I should point out that there are a number of products like this that are available with selectable or sometimes even tunable color temperatures.

That’s nice, but you’re still locked into however good or bad the actual LEDs might be in those devices. The diodes in here are pretty good. I've left of number of these in place because, where they aren’t clashing with some other lighting, I find them totally fine - surprisingly good, actually. I have no issues with them at all. But if they had, for instance, a really bad color-cast or had a poor color-rendering index, well there’d be nothing I could do outside of taking the things down.

And what happens when it fails? That’s gonna happen eventually, and it may happen in a rather unpleasant way. You’ve seen dying LED lighting, I’m sure, and rather unfortunately this often means flashing, pulsing, or even rapid strobing. To be clear, that’s largely a fixable problem. The driver, if it’s smart enough, could notice when that's happening and shut itself down. But smart designs cost money and so are frustratingly rare. Frankly, for the sake of folks who can be significantly affected by such flashing lights, I feel like some regulatory action might be warranted on that front.

But regardless of how these meet their eventual demise, when they go you now have a problem which can’t be solved with a light bulb. Now you need electrical work! It’s simple work, yeah, and someone like me will be confident doing it. But it’s not correct to assume everyone is, nor should we assume people will want to learn. They shouldn’t have to, that is a completely unreasonable expectation. And, uh, some folks might try who, let’s be frank...

shouldn’t which presents some risk of danger. Plus, let’s not forget the swaths of renters who couldn’t do it even if they wanted to and knew what they were doing. Even if we assume a best case scenario and you are totally confident and competent around electrical wiring, let’s say you bought a number of these things, put them in a nice arrangement inside your remodeled kitchen, and 5 years down the line one of them fails.

Now the model you installed isn’t available anymore. What now? Do you buy an entirely new set? Or do you live with one of them not matching the rest? Best case scenario you bought some spares five years ago, but the ones that remain in service have shifted their color a bit or worn in some other way, and the spare you have annoyingly is not quite like the others. That’s not gonna bother some folks but it definitely would bother me. Still, I appreciate these things for what they are. A very good, incredibly flexible and inexpensive solution; models similar to this cost about $10 each. That’s very cheap for such a sleek looking light.

And arguably these are a better use of resources than the same electronics packed into a light bulb which can’t keep itself cool and dies way too early. But the cost of the problems it solves is paid for by the new ones it creates. And unfortunately, this concept is creeping into more and more light fixtures. Some of them, like I mentioned way back in the beginning, are genuinely quite interesting designs which are only possible thanks to the freedom of the LED. But a lot of them are just rehashes of old concepts but made disposable. Like this thing.

This is just another boob light but worse! It’s got selectable color temperatures, yeah, but it doesn’t go all the way down to where I want it and its CRI is quite poopy. And you know each of these has a custom driver board so serviceability is probably zero. Seriously, don’t even entertain fixtures like these, get it out of your head. If you want this look, find something with light sockets.

Then buy whatever bulbs you want. Every time you install one of these light fixtures, or even something like this, you’re locking yourself or someone else out of future choice. Maybe it’s the wrong color temperature for that person’s preference. Or your future preference.

Maybe you’d like to put in a smart bulb but now you can’t because this thing has nowhere to put a bulb. Or even simpler, as technology progresses LEDs get more efficient and have better light quality, and this might be pretty great right now, but it’d be unwise to bet on it being the gold standard in 10 years. Or even just five. User-serviceability is a pretty good thing, and we nailed that concept over a century ago with the light socket.

And these days not only is it giving us the ability to replace a dead light bulb, but it's giving us options to customize our lighting. Maybe it’s best to hang onto it, for just a little while longer. I’d like to end with a bit of advice. If you experience a lot of premature LED bulb failures you might want to give the filament-style bulbs a try. They come in frosted varieties now if you’d prefer that look, just look for “traditional glass style” or some other marketing language like that, and it’s my personal assessment that these tend to have more effective cooling thanks to two key design differences: First, the driver ends up separated from the diodes so the heat those two components make isn’t compounded together.

That’s good as neither gets as hot. But also, since the driver is inside the metal screw-base which is in physical contact with the light socket, a lot of the heat the driver produces ends up getting sunk there, where the surface area of the socket then helps to dissipate that heat. Bonus points if your fixture has a porcelain socket since there’s a lot of thermal mass to slow the warm-up and cool-down processes, reducing thermal cycling stress.

I have had great luck with this bulb style from various manufacturers, even dimmable versions. While I had some premature failures, I remember only two, and they both happened within a month of installation, so they were almost certainly just due to some manufacturing defect. As far as the rest? I installed… 21 of them in various styles back in the fall of 2016, several of which were run for many hours a day at various dimmer settings. And they all were working flawlessly through the spring of 2021 when I moved out.

Now, none of those were in enclosed fixtures, so they did have that going for them, but I figured I would share that with you. Four and a half years without changing a light bulb is pretty great. Though, I did take them down once to dust them… Frankly I’ve had great luck with LED bulbs in general for the past 6 or 7 years, and every time I’ve had a premature failure — regardless of the bulb style or manufacturer — it’s happened super early. My experience is so long as the bulb makes it past a month or two, it’s probably in it for the long haul. I really don’t know what’s happening to all the folks who claim they can’t even get an LED bulb to last as long as an incandescent.

I think you’re just cursed or something. OK, I’m gonna cut in here because I decided to put one of these LED filament style bulbs in front of the thermal camera to get a sense of how it dissipates its heat. And this is very interesting, this confirms something that I had read at one point but since this was at the very end of the video I didn’t bother fact-checking it, which was that these are actually filled with a gas which is pretty thermally conductive.

So the heat that’s being produced by the LED, uh, emitters on the sticks of glass is actually convecting inside the glass and getting to the outside surface. Now, the number that the camera is showing is almost certainly inaccurate because glass is a bad surface for an infrared camera to detect heat from, however clearly it’s getting warmer and, ya know, I can just feel it with my hands. The glass is actually pretty warm, it’s about as warm as the surface of the, uh, surface mount light fixture.

The other thing is we can see that clearly the socket is sinking some of its heat. Uh, this is a plastic so it’s gonna be more accurate as far as the numbers, let me see what it reports… about 32 degrees Celsius at the top there. And, uh, yeah it’s warm but not very warm.

Uh, and if we unscrew the bulb… again the metal surface, because it’s shiny, isn’t a good indicator but we can see the plastic ring right around at the bottom and that is plenty warm. So, the… this is the lava lamp behind there that you’re seeing. So anyway, I’m pretty confident in saying that actually this design is pretty great when it comes to its thermal performance, and so again if you keep having issues with LED bulbs that are failing quite frequently, you might want to try these.

Particularly in those fixtures that might be problematic for you. Oh, and if you have can lights or some sort of spot light situation going on, I would highly suggest you look for an LED bulb which emulates PAR lamps. Putting in a frosted lamp is fine but the difference between a diffuse light and a directed light can make a dramatic impact on a space. It’s pretty popular to put these LED adapter thingies into can lights, and they can be a great refresher especially if your cans have old trim rings, but they’re usually frosted.

You really oughta try something like this if you can, it makes a surprising difference. This doesn't really have anything to do with lamp lifespan, but I recently got some high CRI floods at 3000K and I gotta tell ya they look exactly like halogen lamps to me. And they also demonstrated quite well that color temp and CRI figures don’t necessarily mean a whole lot. This is also 3000K, but it clashed badly with the 2700K lighting in the room.

Yet the PAR 38 bulbs I put in the kitchen don’t at all despite being 3000K. At least, they don’t to my eyes. Color rendering and perception is really complicated. Have you heard about brown? ♫ serviceably smooth jazz ♫ But it’s also made everything SO MUCH MORE COMPLICATED-AH They’re only possible thanks to the LED. They’re a clever implementation… is that right? I guess it is! They're a clever implementation of the technology and have several distinct… I wasn’t... You probably couldn't see that but now I’m worried that you could.

Early.. *coughs* Bleughuh But, there is a real, actual trade-off you made when you designed an incandescent lamp to last longer and… oh, there’s a... There’s a tense problem in the sentence. Did you catch it? I did. That’s why I’m starting over.

I don’t like how that sentence started. Let's just ignore how weird it is and keep going. There were slash are other self-ballasted lamps because… whoops! Besides! Yeah I know it doesn’t weight much at all but c’mon *clunk* anyway... [laughs] They’re designed to work in recessed cans or spotlight fixtures which you may or not have want need what now? Sorry for being away for so long. I was moving. Which was great because, as you can see from this video, it has presented the opportunity for CONTENT.

Anyway, yeah, I don't hate the idea, exactly, but I find it quite troubling. Do what you want, though, I won't stop you. YOU CAN'T CUT BACK ON USER-SERVICABILITY! YOU WILL REGRET THIS!

2022-03-05 14:43

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