By Bill Sullivan
Green Right Now
If you’ve been in the business of shopping for holiday lighting the past few years, you’ve probably noted some not-so-subtle changes in the offerings at your local home and garden store.
Those old-style incandescent lights? They’re still around, certainly. But more and more, they’re being crowded out by the new kids on the illumination block: The longer-lasting, more energy-efficient Light Emitting Diode (LED) option.
LEDs have been around for a few years now, and they’ve got quite a bit going for them. Promotional materials tout energy savings of 80 percent or more over their incandescent brethren. Claims that LEDs will burn more brightly and last up to 20 years are sure to get your attention, too. If you’re really looking to go all-out, they come in configurations that are easily programmable, too.
Of course, there’s usually a catch, and it won’t take you long to figure out this one.
For the third straight year, we made our pilgrimage to the local Home Depot to check out the best and brightest of this year’s holiday lighting options. Mostly, we were interested to see if industry claims about LED prices coming down were actually true.
The answer: Yes…and no.
A year ago, we priced a box of 150 white C6 LEDs (a 49.8 foot string) from Home Accents Holiday at $28.98. This year, the same string was selling for $24.97.
A string of 200 LED minis (66.4 feet) from the same company that sold for $28.98 in 2011 was offered for $27.97 this time. And a string of 50 white C5 LEDs (16.3 feet) that cost $12.98 a year ago was available for $11.97 this year.
So, yes, prices have come down, but not dramatically. And those costs still make it prohibitive to buy in much volume, particularly when compared to the following incandescent options:
- 300 white minis (68.6 feet) from Home Accents Holiday for $8.98, down from $9.98 a year ago.
- 100 white minis from General Electric (24.7 feet) for $5.48, same as last year.
- 100 white minis from Home Accents Holiday (20.7 feet) for $2.69.
To try to compare apples to apples, you could get 10 strings of Home Accents Holiday white minis (1000 lights) for $26.90. Or you could get one box of 200 LED minis for $27.97. To come up with 1000 LED minis, you’d have to shell out $139.85 versus $26.90 for incandescents.
Of course, we’re really not comparing apples to apples. While the two sets of lights may not look all that different, they definitely are.
When we made the fateful trek into the attic to retrieve our holiday lights recently, our first box yielded 10 strings of three-year-old green LEDs and 12 strings of incandescents purchased within that same three-year span.
The LEDs all fired up dutifully and seemed to be as bright as ever. Of the 12 strings of incandescents, however, two were completely dead and two more were missing anywhere from one-quarter to one-half of the string. On two more strings, the color had faded so significantly that they were no longer of any use.
To simply get back to last year’s inventory, I would have to go back to the store and buy six new boxes of incandescents (assuming I could find the same kind). Meanwhile, my LED replacement bill was $0.
There are other advantages to LEDs. They stay cool, greatly reducing any potential fire hazard. They’re also easier to work with. While most boxes of incandescents advise against putting more than five strings on a single outlet, LEDs can accommodate 15 to 18 strings on a single plug. If you are planning any kind of elaborate outdoor display, that kind of flexibility can make planning a whole lot easier.
Avoiding unnecessary aggravation during the most wonderful time of the year is a good selling point, too.
My wife is in charge of decorating the Christmas tree in our living room. A few years ago, after spending hours winding multiple strings through just the right places on each limb, affixing each ornament in just the right location and deciding all was good, she plugged in the lights.
Voila! The perfect Tannenbaum!
A few minutes later, she returned from the kitchen, celebratory beverage in hand, only to find that a string – in the center of the tree, of course — had given up the ghost. All of a sudden, an investment in LEDs seemed quite a bit more reasonable. (And, we agreed, they looked better, too!)
For those unfamiliar with Light Emitting Diodes, they’re a type of semiconductor that generates light when an electric current passes through positive and negative materials. Different colors and efficiency levels result from altering the composition of those materials.
Early on, LEDs found applications in traffic lights, DVD players, cell phones and other electronic devices. Ongoing improvements in the technology are allowing LEDs to expand into new markets.
While making the monetary commitment to LEDs can be a difficult call for the average consumer, manufacturers find themselves in a quandary as well. Conventional business has been based on the assumption that customers need to replace lights regularly. Now, companies are forced to adapt to a different business model, acknowledging that better products means less frequent sales.
If the stock at our local home and garden store is any indication, more homes and businesses are making the switch. While LEDs accounted for perhaps a third of the lights offered just a few years ago, the mix last year was about 50-50, and LEDs seemed to have a slight edge in our less-than-scientific survey of 2012.
We conclude that many consumers have figured out that LEDs make sense in the long run, saving enough electricity to make up for their higher upfront cost.
The EPA’s Energy Star program put the choice into perspective with this example: “The amount of electricity consumed by just one 7-watt incandescent bulb could power 140 LEDs — enough to light two 24-foot (7.3-meter) strings.
The math makes sense.
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