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It’s hard to pass up the cheap, easy installation of fluorescent shop lighting. With fixtures running less than an Andrew Jackson, there’s no excuse for suffering the darkness of a single bare bulb — even if that’s all the cheapskate builders installed in the house. Still, fluorescent lighting has drawbacks. Bulbs are pretty fragile, and they’re a pain in the ass to dispose of properly. And they’re not the cheapest in terms of operating cost, either.

So what about LED? Is it a viable option?

A quick Google search shows that you can easily find LED variants of pretty much all the standard fluorescent tubes. Most manufacturers also claim benefits such as no-flicker, instant turn-on, no buzzing ballasts, and up to a 60% savings in power consumption. The lights seem to look pretty decent, too. Most of them feature a two-row (or staggered, like the five side of a die) array of high-output LEDs, most commonly diffused by a sheath to make them look more like standard tubes in action.

The scary part, as you might’ve guessed, is price.

While you’ll pay about $3-$5 for any of the standard 48″ fluorescent tubes, you’re going to spend upward of $40 — and maybe more like $80 — for the LED version. And it’s not as though the old ones are unreliable. I installed six fixtures (twelve tubes) in my three-car garage when I moved into the house, and the original bulbs are still going eight years later. Add to this the fact that I regularly leave them on for family (or just forget to turn them off) and I’d make a pretty good case study for damn-reliable tubes. The more difficult question is whether or not I’ve shelled out $650 (the difference in price for my 12 tubes) in extra electricity over the years. That’s tough to determine, which doesn’t bode well for these lights.

I’ve embraced the LED for closet lights and other utility applications around the house. It’s nice to install the thing and forget about it, and the few-buck price difference isn’t enough to deter me. But $650? I could do something with that. What do you think?

LED Fluorescent Tubes [Google]


22 Responses to LED Options For Fluorescent Shop Lighting

  1. John says:

    Chuck – you can find out exactly what it would save you: http://e3living.com/cfl-savings-calculator

  2. John Seiffer says:

    I would think closets are the least economical place for LEDs because they are turned off so much.

  3. JJ says:

    The big selling part of LED tube lights is the flicker free aspect. You can buy better ballasts for fluorescent lights, but even the best ballasts from your home improvement store still flickers. It may not make a difference for most, but ive had renters who had a child that had severe epilepsy and they told me that even with an upgraded ballast their child was still at risk. So I replaced the CFL tubes with LED tubes in the kitchen,(yes its one of those ugly 90′s homes with the faux skylight with CFL tubes in them). So far no problems with the LEDs. So it was worth the extra cash to keep their child safe, and to keep them renting from me.

  4. Rick says:

    $650 is just too much of a pain point. I probably wouldn’t consider it until the price was down around $200. Even that is too expensive but I would at least think about it.

  5. browndog77 says:

    The green factor evident here isn’t likely going to drive many homeowners to these devices, but in the heavily regulated world of institutional(read school)construction there may be a push for them. Price doesn’t seem to phase the powers that be when political points are on the line. If enough of that type of use takes place, the price will lower somewhat.

    • browndog77 says:

      I posted before I had read JJ’s response, and his post brings up another compelling reason for the institutional use I mentioned.

  6. Jerry says:

    As with any relative new thing, early adopters get to pay the biggest prices while getting a product that may not be exactly bug-free. I have 9 dual tube fixtures in the shop and buy tubes in larger quantities for just over a buck each. 18 LED “tubes”, even at 40 bucks each would set me back over $700! Somehow, this does not seem to be a really great ROI. Also, I have heard (danged rumors) that the LED’s lose a lot of light over distance – 10 feet above floor – and don’t provide an equal amount of usable light. Green factor? Not at that cost.

  7. Fong says:

    I’m not an electrical engineer so maybe someone who is can explain why LED’s are STILL so expensive. Considering how ubiquitous they are in every form of consumer electronic, automotive lighting and industrial instrumentation for decades now, it seems the price of residential lighting has not made much progress.

    Case in point, in 2002 California decided to replace every traffic light in the state with LED’s at a cost of over $20M. New York spent $28.2M doing the same thing in 2004. The numbers are even more astounding if national penetration of conversions are considered. Why has the economy of scale not kicked it yet? Why is it still not a “no-brainer” decision for me to buy LED equivalents a decade later?

    I realize there probably isn’t a simple answer but tbe numbers are baffling.

    • Blair says:

      A bit off topic, but replacing incandescent lamps in traffic lights with non heat,(or low heat), has proved problematic in areas such as where I reside, (Ohio). Apparently the fact that during the winters there is hard wind driven snow didn’t occur to the powers when they did the tests. The results were that the incandescent lamps would usually melt the snow before it accumulated, where the LED lamps would be obscured, then rendered completely useless,leading to the inevitable crashes. Heaters would be a solution, as in the type used in CCTV camera housings, but the cost of the fixture would increase dramatically with the added burden of sensors, or timers for each individual fixture.

    • David says:

      Electrical Engineer here. I’m not an LED designer, but from my experience with this. I think these are still the biggest problems.

      LED efficiency
      Heat dissipation
      Drive Circuitry

      It’s true that generic LEDs have been around for a long time, but the technology hasn’t become efficient enough to really go toe to toe with commercial lighting solutions until the past 5-7 years. These high end LEDs used for automotive and lighting also have a different chemistry than the one’s you’ve seen even a decade ago. The high efficiency LEDs when purchased in millions will still cost around $0.25 a pop.

      Their physical packaging gets complicated because the die inside led may be less than .5mm x .5mm and have three watts of power going through. Designing the casing for the LED gets complicated because of the heat sinking requirement. The heat sinking strategies are usually to embed metal into the LED package to reduce the thermal resistance or to replace the FR4 of the PCB with an aluminum core. Not dissipating heat properly will result in a shortened lifetime for the LED. Usually knock off LED suppliers ignore heat dissipation and you don’t notice till your expensive knock offs fail. (Capacitors blow open or LEDs reduce in brightness).

      Drive circuitry is another complex problem. A lot of standard electronics are designed for a spec of -10C – 50C. for reliable lighting a lot of people design towards the automotive spec which is 110C. This is because under a hot sunny day in Arizona any electronics mounting in lighting can reach this. The drive circuitry must be able to handle a high temperature of the environment and the power going through it. Cheaper holiday light strings will not have any drive circuitry and they will stack a bunch of LEDs until they reach 120V. Then they will call it a day and you will have a set of lights flickering at 60Hz Mains. Good drivers will use a higher frequency so you won’t have a flickering effect.

      This is a long rant and I definitely missed some stuff. I subscribe to a free magazine called LED Magazine. They talk a lot about LEDs.

    • Toolaremia says:

      They have come down quite a bit, and that rate is accelerating. 25 years ago (before 1989) useful blue LEDs couldn’t be bought for all the money in the world. They just didn’t exist. 20 years ago I paid $20 for one “useful” weak little blue LED that put out very little light. About two months ago I paid $14 for a white LED bulb that puts out more light than a 60 Watt incandescent.

      LEDs are exponentially increasing in brightness and decreasing in cost, you’re just not used to being at the beginning of the curve. Just wait; CFL’s will be forgotten, if not flat outlawed, by 2020. LED bulbs will be under $5 (today’s dollar).

      One nice side effect is that all of my X10 lamp modules are 100% useful again with LED bulbs! They are useless with CFLs. Long live X10!

      Now we just have to get rid of the obsolete and unnecessary Edison base and bulb shape…

  8. Mrten says:

    @JJ: modern electronic ballasts make the fluorescent flicker at a few kHz. No epileptic will have problems with that. Those ballasts are more expensive (around $50) though.

    @Fong: LED fixtures are expensive because there’s usually a lot of LEDs in a fixture. So you have to pay for a PCB, some copper, a lot of LEDs, soldering, etc.

    $20M for all-LED trafficlights is not too much I’d wager, considering the fact that there will be a *lot* less bulb replacements needed.

    LEDs are, though better than tungsten, not really all that efficient at producing light. Around 8-12% (tungsten ~2%) of the energy is converted to light, so there’s still a problem of heat dissipation to solve. LEDs have a downside in that regard: they’re small.

    Fluorescents fare around 10-15% (modern T5 bulb) of energy converted to light, so there’s no energy savings in these LED fluorescents.

  9. Mike47 says:

    The LED traffic lamps seem not to last very long. Some I’ve seen in CA are already flickering and displaying pattern failure after only 2-3 years duty.

  10. islanderwi says:

    Do you need to change ballasts when you swap out to led lamps in the flourescent fixture? I believe the savings on LED’s are mostly that you get more lumens per watt, so when you replace say an 80 watt incandescent bulb you put in a 10 watt led to replace it. I have no personal experience on flourescent to led swaps.

  11. fred says:

    The big savings in a large commercial building relates to the labor needed to constntly replace fluorescents and ballasts as they fail. No ballasts and much longer life with the LED’s leads to to saving not the energy use differential. But time will tell – and if we get poor QA and premature failures out of a “crop” or two of the LED bulbs – then the labor savings may be less than expected

  12. Barks says:

    “cheapskate builders” install the type, quality and quantity of fixtures, as well as materials, that cheapskate buyers will pay for. There are builders who install high end fixtures and use high end materials. These builders charge much more for their houses.

  13. fred says:

    My local Menards has sales on T8 fixtures for $15, ive started replacing the whole fixtures, rather than rewiring them like Krasnow.

  14. dave says:

    These will not have the same efficiency as a FL tube does, though it seems to be almost the norm these days that off-brand manufacturers will falsely rate their products.

    Not only will you never recoup the cost, you may not even recoup the interest on the money, unless the way they achieve lower wattage is by producing less light but then you have to buy even more of them to achieve same amount of light and of course consume a correspondingly higher amount of power.

    On a side note the LED bulbs pictured do not use 3W LEDs that someone else referred to, they look like 0.5W (per LED) LEDs at most, but considering the # of them it’s even more likely that no matter what the max wattage rating is per LED, that they’re operating at under 250mW per.

    LED bulbs are very close to being more efficient than 4′ FL tubes but it requires use of specific high efficiency LEDs, as well as a good driver circuit. Stepping up to FL voltage then back down to whatever the series of LEDs in these need doesn’t make a lot of sense, for higher efficiency the entire light fixture could be replaced but again the cost soars even higher.

  15. 99octane says:

    Actually, leaving a fluorescent tuve on greatly improves its duration. It’s switching on and off that shortens tube duration.
    LEDd don’t suffer from frequent switching on and off.

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