For a while, it looked like compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) might become the primary replacement light bulb in people’s homes as we started going green with lighting and legislation started putting pressure on incandescent bulbs. But in the past few years, there have been tremendous advances in LED bulbs, driving popularity and demand. But LED lighting has many applications beyond replacing the traditional A19 style house bulb, and these advances could help to shape our new lighting landscape.

In this article, we’ll look briefly at how LED lights work and what applications they’re useful in. If you’re looking for information on costs and savings of LED lighting, don’t miss our article, “Are LED Bulbs Worth the Investment?” We also recommend our in-depth blog, called The Ultimate Guide to LED Light Bulbs.

What are LEDs and How Do They Work?
LED stands for Light Emitting Diode. An LED is a crystal with positively and negatively charged sides that meet at a “p-n junction” (positive-negative junction). Extra electrons from the negative side meet with “electron holes” from the positive side. This is a place where atoms have room to take on new electrons in their outer shells. When this happens, a photon (particle of light) is released. The energy state of the photon determines the color of the light we see from the LED.

In the case of an LED light bulb, other components include the electrical wiring along with a bulb and a heat sink, both of which are being challenged by new designs trying to lower the cost of LED bulbs. For instance, a traditionally-shaped bulb is used by some LEDs simply because of consumer demand, even though that bulb shape may not make for the most efficient lighting. These bulbs can also add to one of the big challenges with LEDs -- the heat they create. This is the reason for heat sinks, which whisk away the heat to keep the bulb running. New designs that lower the excess heat, however, may be able to eliminate heat sinks -- and by doing so, lower the cost of the bulb.

The first visible-light LEDs produced a red color, but developments have continued. The first blue LED was produced in the 1990s, and mixing this with a yellow phosphor coating produces a white light, which is what we normally now use in LED bulbs for general lighting. It’s also possible to blend three LED colors -- red, green, and blue -- to create white light. This is used in LED TV screens, for instance. Those three colors, blended at different rates, can also be used to create any other color, and you’ll see this in some special applications, including programmable LED lighting for the home.

How Can LED Lights Be Used?
Most people are now familiar with LED bulbs as an option for their home lighting needs. The traditional light bulb shape you see in a lamp is called an A19, and there are now very good LED replacement bulbs for the old incandescent A19 (or CFL bulbs). While early LED A19 bulbs were expensive and didn’t produce the color that people were looking for, today’s bulbs range from the traditional warm color (about 2700K) to a bright, daylight white (5000K or more). Many of them also look like traditional bulbs, and they last for years. In fact, despite their greater initial cost, they pay for themselves quickly (often within 2 years), and many people’s hesitation to use LED bulbs is simply the upfront cost, even though it will ultimately save them money. (Some hesitate because of the color, perhaps not knowing how similar LED now is to the incandescent color.) It’s likely that ongoing advances will drive LED bulbs to under $5 each and make LED an easy decision for almost everyone.

Meanwhile, though, LED comes in other forms to fit almost any kind of lighting need. For instance, there’s a wide selection of LED downlights, from LED BR bulbs, MR16 bulbs, and PAR bulbs to LED elevator bulbs, sign bulbs, and more. For office settings, LEDs can replace traditional fluorescent T8 tubes; in factory settings, they can replace traditional high bay lighting; and yes, many cities are now replacing street lights with LED options.

Is It Time to Upgrade to LED Lights?
Of course there will always be early adopters and those who wait to see results that others are getting. In some cases, this can make sense because the payback isn’t as fast -- for instance, LEDs are more efficient than fluorescent bulbs, but the difference between LEDs and incandescent bulbs is much greater, so the energy savings stack up more quickly when you replace incandescent lights. And if you take a commercial setting where linear T8 bulbs are needed, LED T8 bulbs today still cost quite a lot up front and may not yield any long-term savings over fluorescent TB tubes as a result.

However, some will still look to LED benefits. For instance, there is no mercury in LED bulbs, and LEDs won’t be replaced quite as often. Since LED bulbs simply dim over time, you can organize a time to replace many at once, saving time and money here as well. Not so with fluorescent bulbs -- when they go out, they're out. LEDs also generate less heat, which can have an impact on air conditioning costs.

So is it time to upgrade your lights to LED? If you're replacing incandescent lights, the answer is often “yes.” And if you can make the initial investment, it might be a good bet in other commercial settings as well, but this depends on your unique needs. Of course Lighting Supply is glad to help make an assessment when you’re buying bulbs -- just give us a call at 877.231.2852.