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December 2013
Guest article

Shedding Light on LED Light
Copyright (C) 2013 Ron Josephs, P.Eng., TLJ Engineering Consultants Ltd.

What is a LED light?

A LED lamp is a light-emitting diode (LED) product that is assembled into a lamp (or light bulb) for use in lighting fixtures. LED lamps have a lifespan and electrical light-emitting diode (LED)efficiency that is several times better than incandescent lamps, and significantly better than most fluorescent lamps, with some chips able to emit more than 100 lumens per watt.

Like incandescent lamps and unlike most fluorescent lamps (e.g. tubes and Compact Flourescent Lamps - CFL), LED lights come to full brightness without need for a warm-up time; the life of fluorescent lighting is also reduced by frequent switching on and off. Initial cost of LED is usually higher. Degradation of LED die and packaging materials reduces light output to some extent over time.

With research into organic LEDs (OLED) and polymer LEDs (PLED), cost per lumen and output per device have been improving so rapidly according to what has been called Haitz's law, analogous to Moore's law for semiconductor devices. (Moore's law is the observation that the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles approximately every two years)

Some LED lamps are made to be a directly compatible drop-in replacement for incandescent or fluorescent lamps. An LED lamp packaging may show the lumen output, power consumption in watts, color temperature or description ("warm white") and sometimes the equivalent wattage of an incandescent lamp of similar luminous output.

LEDs do not emit light in all directions, and their directional characteristics affect the design of lamps. The light output of single LEDs is less than that of incandescent and compact fluorescent lamps; in most applications multiple LEDs are used to form a lamp, although high-power versions are becoming available.

LED chips need controlled direct current (DC) electrical power; an appropriate power supply is needed. LEDs are adversely affected by high temperature, so LED lamps typically include heat dissipation elements such as heat sinks and cooling fins.

General-purpose lighting needs white light. LEDs emit light in a very narrow band of wavelengths, emitting light of a color characteristic of the energy bandgap of the semiconductor material used to make the LED. To emit white light from LEDs requires either mixing light from red, green, and blue LEDs, or using a phosphor to convert some of the light to other colors.

Comparisons to current lamps

Incandescent lamps (light bulbs) generate light by passing electric current through a resistive filament, thereby heating the filament to a very high temperature so that it glows and emits visible light over a broad range of wavelengths. Incandescent sources yield a "warm" yellow or white color quality depending on the filament operating temperature. Incandescent lamps emit 98% of the energy input as heat. A 100 W light bulb for 120 V operation emits about 1,180 lumens, about 11.8 lumens/W; for 230 V bulbs the figures are 1340 lm and 13.4 lm/W.

Incandescent lamps are relatively inexpensive to make. The typical lifespan of an AC incandescent lamp is 750 to 1,000 hours. They work well with dimmers. Most older light fixtures are designed for the size and shape of these traditional bulbs. In the U.S. the regular sockets are E26 and E11, like E27 and E14 in some European countries.

Compact fluorescent lamps' specified lifespan typically ranges from 6,000 hours to 15,000 hours.

Fluorescent lamps work by passing electricity through mercury vapor, which in turn emits ultraviolet light. The ultraviolet light is then absorbed by a phosphor coating inside the lamp, causing it to glow, or fluoresce. Conventional linear fluorescent lamps have life spans around 20,000 and 30,000 hours based on 3 hours per cycle according to lamps NLPIP reviewed in 2006. Induction fluorescent relies on electromagnetism rather than the cathodes used to start conventional linear fluorescent. The newer rare earth triphosphor blend linear fluorescent lamps made by Osram, Philips, Crompton and others have a life expectancy greater than 40,000 hours, if coupled with a warm-start electronic ballast. The life expectancy depends on the number of on/off cycles, and is lower if the light is cycled often. The ballast-lamp combined system efficacy for then current linear fluorescent systems in 1998 as tested by NLPIP ranged from 80 to 90 lm/W. For comparison, general household LED bulbs available in 2011 emit 64 lumens/W

Table 1. Cost Comparison (U.S. electricity prices)





LED (Generic)

LED (Philips)

Purchase price






Power used (watts)






Lumens (mean)












Color Temperature Kelvin












Lifespan (hours)






Bulb lifetime in years @ 6 hours/day






Energy cost over 10 years @ 15 cents/kWh






Total cost






Total cost per 860 lumens







In keeping with the long life claimed for LED lamps, long warranties are offered. One manufacturer warrants lamps for professional use, depending upon type, for periods of (defined) "normal use" ranging from 1 year or 2,000 hours (whichever comes first) to 5 years or 20,000 hours. A typical domestic lamp is stated to have an "average life" of 15,000 hours (15 years at 3 hours/day), and to support 50,000 switch cycles. 

Lamp sizes and bases 

LED lamps are made that replace screw-in incandescent or compact fluorescent light bulbs, mostly replacing incandescent bulbs rated from 5 to 60 watts. Such lamps are made with standard light bulb connections and shapes, such as an Edison screw base, an MR16 shape with a bi-pin base, or a GU5.3 (Bipin cap) or GU10 (bayonet fitting) and are made compatible with the voltage supplied to the sockets. They include circuitry to rectify the AC power and convert the voltage to an appropriate value. 

As of 2010 some LED lamps replaced higher wattage bulbs; for example, one manufacturer claimed a 16-watt LED bulb was as bright as a 150 W halogen lamp. A standard general-purpose incandescent bulb emits light at an efficiency of about 14 to 17 lumens/W depending on its size and voltage. According to the European Union standard, an energy-efficient bulb that claims to be the equivalent of a 60 W tungsten bulb must have a minimum light output of 806 lumens. 

A selection of consumer LED bulbs available in 2012 as drop-in replacements for incandescent bulbs in screw-type sockets.

Some models of LED bulbs are compatible with dimmers as used for incandescent lamps. LED lamps often have directional light characteristics. The lamps have declined in cost to between US$10 to $50 each as of 2012. These bulbs are more power-efficient than compact fluorescent bulbs and offer life spans of 30,000 or more hours, reduced if operated at a higher temperature than specified. Incandescent bulbs have a typical life of 1,000 hours, and compact fluorescents about 8,000 hours. The bulbs maintain output light intensity well over their lifetimes. Energy Star specifications require the bulbs to typically drop less than 10% after 6,000 or more hours of operation, and in the worst case not more than 15%. LED lamps are available with a variety of color properties. The purchase price is higher than most other, but the higher efficiency may make total cost of ownership (purchase price plus cost of electricity and changing bulbs) lower.  

Several companies offer LED lamps for general lighting purposes. The technology is improving rapidly and new energy-efficient consumer LED lamps are available.

This guest article has been published with permission by:

Ron Josephs, P.Eng.
TLJ Engineering Consultants Ltd.

#301, 301 - 14th Street, N.W.
Calgary, Alberta, Canada


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