CFL Bulbs Suck. However, I Like LED's

A number of years ago, there was a push by many Leftish technocrats for the government to mandate a standardized cell phone power cord.  Beyond demonstrating that there is no personal irritation too trivial for some to demand government action, this would have been an awful idea.  Why?  Because when these demands for action came, cell phone power cords were just that, power.  If a standard cord had been mandated, then current designs that use a USB connection for both data and power would have been illegal, at least without the vendor also putting in a connection for the government standard connector as well.  There is always danger to the government setting arbitrary standards, but these dangers are an order of magnitude higher when the technology is still in flux.

So enter light bulbs.  The government has decided to ban incandescent light bulbs and while not mandating them, it has actively encouraged people to purchase expensive CFL bulbs.  The only problem is that CFL bulbs suck.  The light from them has bad color qualities, many take a long time to warm up, they are hard to dim, and they contain toxic substances.  They also have nothing like the multi-year life we are promised.  I have tried CFL bulbs of many, many brands and none have consistently achieved their promised life.

But as much as I hate CFL's, I am coming to love LED-based lights.  LED lights use even less energy than CFL's and last a really long time.  The technology allows for color tweaking better than CFL's, and already the warm white LED's I am buying (color temperatures around 2900K) are better to my eye than CFL's, and there is no fast-flicker problem that gives some people headaches.  Dimable versions are coming out, and prices are dropping but they are still expensive.   About half my house is LED now, and I am told that landscape lighting is quickly going all LED.

The main cost to LED's is that they all have to have a transformer.  LED's run at low voltages, like 5v, so house current has to be stepped down at every bulb.  LED's in theory should run cool and be cheap, but they are expensive and run hot because of the transformers.

Which leads me to wonder whether we may start wiring houses for 12v in parallel to 110v.  When I grew up, nearly everything I plugged into the wall -- lights, motors, appliances -- ran on 110V.  Now, most everything (other than appliances) that I plug in the wall actually needs 5-12v  (computers, cell phones, all my audio equipment except big amps).  I don't know enough about power lines to know if this is feasible.  I am pretty sure the resistance losses for 12V DC would be too high, so it would have to be 12V AC, but a diode bridge and some capacitors is a hell of a lot smaller and cheaper than a full blown transformer.  I know my landscape lighting has long runs of 12V, that seems to work OK.  It is also a hell of a lot safer to work with.


  1. John VI:

    Well, a home electrical circuit is usually broken up into zones inthe home, often with each zone having its own regulations (bedrooms, bathrooms and kitches especially) But each circuit is also set to have a maximum draw of power, usually 1500 WATTS or so ( which is laughable when my computer has a 6k watt power supply). This breaks down to about a 10 circuit per fuse rule so as to not overload a circuit.

    But if you could get LED lights without transformers that only pull 5 volts or so for power? Well, you will start to see the entire light circuit of the house go on one fuse. Since the draw is so low on them, you can get 20-30 light fixtures per single circuit now. It would be trivial to set up a circuit for lights, they are all mostly in the roof anyways, and just adjust the switches so that they deal with the lower power limit. Once thats in, you will see people start to add extra outlets for specific zones as hobbyists, and it will take off from there. ( My office, with multiple computers is 8 x 10 foot with 24 outlets on 3 separate circuits for just the one room. )

    Especially when an electrician shows that this circuit will save them on thier monthly electrical bills. Which is really the primary driver for most people making these kinds of choices.

    (My biggest peeve with the CFLs is that fact that they dont fit into any of my older lamps. The shape is wrong, so I had to replace all my antique lamps in order to replace thier bulbs)

    (and by antique I mean old, beatup and ugly, but working and not $100 a lamp modern artsy crap)

  2. Don:

    Actually, my vote is POE. 48V DC and Ethernet everywhere. Think of the home automation options!

  3. a_random_guy:

    There are two problems with running 12 volt lines. The AC/DC isn't one of them - DC would be fine. The first problem is this: if you need 100 watts of power with 110v, you need a wire that will carry 1 amp. To get the same power with 12 volts, you need a wire to carry 8 amps, so it needs to have roughly 8 times the amount of copper.

    The second problem is, as you suspect, resistance. Long wires - running the length of a house - do have a fair bit of resistance, and this manifests as a voltage drop. In the two cases above (the 110 volts and the 12 volts) you have pretty equivalent situations, and will get similar voltage drops. If the resistance of the wires is enough to drop your voltage by 4 volts, you've lost 4% of your power on the 110 volt lines - you'll hardly notice. On the other hand, you've lost 50% of your 12 volt power. To get the loss down to 4%, you will need to increase the size of the wire by another factor of 10 (again, roughly speaking).

    To cut a long story short: There's just no practical way to run 12 volt lines around a whole house, unless you only need small amounts of power. However, you could easily have a 110-12 volt converter for each room, or even built into each plug.

  4. a_random_guy:

    Sorry, not paying enough attention to my quick'n'dirty math. You lose 33% of your 12 volt power, so need 8 times the wire.

  5. David:

    Also, already having the Cat-5e/6 around is extremely helpful. I don't know how much amperage POE can carry, but I presume it's low.

  6. Daublin:

    Based on the popularity of USB, 5V would seem like a better standard. Lots of things are already designed to charge off of a USB cable.

    As for what to do right now, you can start by changing just the wall plates:

    Potentially later it might make sense to have a centralized AC-DC converter rather than to have one in each of several wall plates. I couldn't say.

  7. Jon Nyman:

    Power lines wouldn't be efficient with DC (this was argued between Tesla and Edison - Tesla's 3 phase idea was the better and won out, thank goodness).

    But since houses are small you can make them DC powered. You can use many appliances used with RVs if you wanted to go all out. I would think it would be too hard to wire a house up for DC. Just a lot of work.

  8. LoneSnark:

    While it would be nice if you could, the losses come from the low voltage, not AC or DC. As such, while losses of LED lights would be perfectly tollerable for your house at 12V, trying to run a bunch of stuff (say a TV, a desktop computer, even charging a cell-phone) at such a low voltage would be a horrible idea in terms of efficiency. It would be nice if your LED lights could operate without a power supply, but they couldn't even if the line was 5V because no two LED manufacturing technologies require exactly the same voltage and it would be silly if your lights dimmed the more you plugged into the circuit. As such, they will need a power-supply anyway, and once you have a power supply it doesn't matter all that much if it is running off 110V AC or 5V DC.

  9. Kevin K:

    For a little while I worked on LED lighting projects at Whirlpool, the appliance manufacturer. One great thing about LED lighting is the ability to tune the light properties to almost anything you want, especially when it comes to the color temperature of the "white light." I never realized before working on this project that the preference for lighting color temperature varies quite a bit around the world ... in Asia consumers tend to prefer "cooler"/bluer white light more in the range of 6,000-8,000K; in N. America we tend to prefer a more "pure" white in the range of 4,000-5,000, though many Americans still seem to prefer something a bit "warmer"/yellower, more in the 2,500-3,000K range; Europe tends to also prefer the warmer light in the 3,000K range. You can get a good idea of the color temperature scale and how warm or cool it is on a chromaticity diagram:

    One thing to watch out for with LED lighting in addition to the color temperature is how well the lighting "renders" color. Incandescent light not only has a color temperature we tend to like, but it also renders certain colors, like reds and yellows, far better than CFL and even most LEDs. At Whirlpool we were trying to balance the color temperature and color rendering ... because we didn't want food in a refrigerator to look "grayed out" like it can with poor color rendering. In other words, even though an LED may have a "warm temperature" it doesn't necessarily make things look the same color as does incandescent light (or sunlight) - this is especially challenging for reds. The industry is still working - as far as I know - on determining a standard Color Rendering Index (CRI) to be able to compare LED lighting to incandescent and/or sunlight (here is a nerdy Wiki article: and a quick blog post that shows two different photos to illustrate CRI:

    Unfortunately, you tend to get more light output (lumens) from LEDs that produce cooler (higher color temp; more blue) light ... so warmer, better CRI LEDs are more expensive!

  10. ap:

    What brand of LED did you get? I have tried LEDs once or twice, but the color of the light was awful, so I put the bulbs outside and stocked up on incandescents.


  11. MingoV:

    It is impractical to deliver 12V electricity to homes, but it would be practical to have a rectifier adjacent to the breaker box that converts 120V AC to 12V DC. There will be some loss of current in the wires, but since most DC devices use 6V or less that shouldn't be a problem.

  12. sabre_springs_mark:

    You probably have a transformer in your house to provide 24V current for your doorbell and furnace thermostat. It might be better just to provide the current through the power plug. there are several power plugs you can purchase now that have a USB port. @25 bucks a pop, I am not sure if it is worth it.

    Interesting - the USB outlets have come down in price considerably $14 now

  13. sabre_springs_mark:

    Color rendering: Here in San Diego, there are tons of places with Low pressure sodium lights in parking lots. They are 1700K I believe, but they are also monochromatic, - there is no distribution of light wave lengths higher or lower, so everything looks grey, as you say. It is an eerie look and takes a bit of getting used to.

    They had a push around here to save Palomar observatory. Apparently it is easier to filter out the mercury vapor and LPS lights, the High Pressure sodium is so scattered it makes it more difficult for the observatory to look at stars and such.

  14. Rick:

    Don't know where you're buying your CFLs but it's the wrong place. At Home Depot you can get a four pack of 60 watt 2300 K warm white, 4200 K bright white or 5300 K daylight color for under $10.00 a pack. I've used the bright white bulbs in my house exclusively for 7 years, not because I'm a green weenie, but because I'm lazy and don't like changing bulbs. I date each bulb when i install it and most of them have lasted at least 5 years and many are over 7 years now.
    I'm a contractor and improper color temp is one of my pet peeves in my customers homes. I usually install bright white CFLs for the color rendition but show them LEDs as well. I just bought 3 new LED bulbs in 3 colors to show clients but so far all but one have turned them down due to the close to $30.00 each price tag. At 15 times the price of a CFL I doubt there would ever be a payback on saved electric.

  15. mesaeconoguy:

    Warren, wheres the huge light-synch video?

    Geez, it's Dec 1 Monday already.....

  16. mesaeconoguy:

    PS, should we redo our kitchen with LED under-cabinet AND ceiling fixtures?

  17. Barak Pearlmutter:

    For efficiency of both transmission and low-loss transformation of voltage, and conversion to regulated DC, the ideal is apparently higher frequency AC. This also allows the transformers to be really small.

  18. Eric H:

    Concur. When CFLs first came out (they actually had a large reusable base and a replaceable glass envelope), I put one in an overhead lamp with an incandescent. After something like the 5th or 6th incandescent burned out, I replaced it with a CFL and did not look back.

    Regarding the flicker-induced headache, this is a myth on the scale of vastly increasing storm activity due to global warming. One thing that made CFLs viable was the switch from huge transformers to very small ones because of the higher frequency operation. The old magnetic ballasts ran the lights at 60 Hz, which is at the edge of what you can sense (film runs at 24 Hz, video at 60 Hz, and you aren't aware of the intermittency). The new ones run at over 10000 Hz. See for example, I think this is a case of guilt by association.

    There are places that I prefer incandescents, but not many. Those may eventually get the LED treatment.

  19. frankania:

    What a coincidence, I wired our solar-powered vacation cabin here in Mexico with dual voltages at every outlet. Between the ground hole, and the neutral slot is 12 volts dc.
    And, between the 2 normal flat slots is 120AC. We also use 12-volt LED lamps purchased at an auto-parts store--very cheap. (because they need NO transformer).

  20. frankania:

    buy your led's at an auto-parts store--cheap and all 12volt.

  21. Rick:

    I would. I use a lot of 16' LED strips that I buy off Amazon for about $10.00. The dastardly transformer is another $13.00 or so but it can be located anywhere. They come in warm white, bright white and daylight and are peel and stick.
    The LED cans are still too expensive to be effective even though I really like them. If you really want to go with LED go with a regular 4" can, about $10.00, a $30.00 LED bulb and a plan trim ring, about $5.00, if you want to save money

  22. Rick:

    LEDs come in at least 3 colors, warm white which is yellowish, bright white which is white and daylight which has a blue/white color.

    Switching any of your light bulbs to CFL or LED in Bright White will amaze you. If you switch your bathroom and closet to bright white or daylight your wife will love you since her clothes and makeup will look correct.

  23. Veracitor:

    Coyote, my friend, LED bulbs don't contain transformers. They usually contain switch-mode voltage converters (power supplies) to drop 120V down to whatever the LED lamps want (different voltages for different colors and combinations (e.g., series wiring) of LED emitters, actually). Those switch-mode converters are pretty efficient and because of the way they work, would not lose much bulk if offered low-voltage DC instead of 120VAC. Most of the bulk of current LED "lightbulbs" is heatsink for the lamps. One concern with high-output LED's is that they are physically small for the amount of power going through them so they have trouble shedding heat (the surface-area-to-volume-ratio problem) and if they get too hot they burn up. Actually, the same concern is why the glass envelope of an incandescent bulb is so much bigger than the filament-- the surface area of the bulb has to be great enough to allow heat to leave it on the outside as fast as it arrives on the inside, for some equilibrium temperature low enough that the glass doesn't melt (or even get too frangible). The "light to heat" ratio of an LED bulb is way better than that of an incandescent, but the LED's still get hot and they have noticeably less tolerance for heat than incandescent filaments or globes or bases. Anyway, today's LED's have to be attached to large heatsinks to transfer their waste heat to ambient air.

  24. John Beckwith:

    I did not know such a receptacle existed. Now I will be installing 2 instead of tearing up my wall to put in a 4 place receptacle. Thanks.
    This discussion is a great example of how we'd be better off letting this innovation take its course without coercive government policies. CFLs have their place but so do LEDs and Incandescants. We are so fortunate to be living at a time when so many choices exist. With LEDs we'll eventually have different wiring setups in our homes and view the 'bulb' as part of the house rather than an expendable item. Fixtures can have new, architecturally interesting shapes as we gradually evolve away from the edison bulb interface.
    The fact that the 100W incandescant ban started with higher, rather than lower, wattages shows how lame the regulators are. It's easy to replace a 25W bulb with a low energy alternative, still very hard to replace a 100W. The mercury concerns about CFLs are real too. Funny that we regulate the heck out of mercury in so many areas but mandate it into fragile items that commonly break on ones home.

  25. Ron H.:

    Those outlets are cool, but depending on a person's needs, these might be more versatile, and cheaper.

  26. Ron H.:

    "Well, you will start to see the entire light
    circuit of the "
    house go on one fuse. Since the draw is so low on them,
    you can get 20-30 light fixtures per single circuit

    It's not just load. One of the reasons for using multiple circuits is so that you don't lose all lighting if a breaker trips. Every room in your house most likely has circuits on more than one breaker.

  27. peteswordz:

    Tim Worstall linked to your post & we've had quite a chat over there about 12V & 5V house supplies, in the comments. If anyone's seriously considering doing it, I'd suggest they hop over for a read. OK, I wrote a lot of it, but there's others will confirm it ain't as simple as you might think. Put it this way, at 110V AC & make a mistake & you might get a surprising non-lethal shock. At 12V or worse 5V DC you could end up burning your house down. Yes, I know it's non intuitive, but so's life.

  28. peteswordz:

    Whoever wrote that is barking mad.

  29. JKB:

    I'm not sure why some feel this won't work. Ships used to run on DC and still today are required by law to maintain a DC, i.e., battery backup, General Alarm system that wired almost every space on the ship. I believe they run at 48 but might be 24v and power bell relays although not continuous.

  30. Old Salt:

    Low voltage DC! Count the number of "wall wart" transformers that you have and imagine them gone. My vote would be for a 12 volt DC transformer at the service panel. Good luck getting something like that past a code inspector though.

  31. epobirs:

    The flicker induced headache is real but most people don't realize why it is happening to them. It isn't just the flicker of the one light source. It is multiple light sources with different rates.

    I used to do testing at a computer game company in the days when most home computers still connected to TVs or monitors with scan rates tied to the electrical feed. When testing games for the UK/Europe market it could be a real problem having the monitor be out of sync with the overhead lights. We would usually set up the PAL equipment in a small windowless office with a door and a desk lamp, so we could test with the lights out without imposing darkness on anyone else, turning on the desk lamp when the tester needed to make notes.

  32. DOuglas2:

    Monochromatic, as I discovered to my detriment when I wrote down the address of my dinner-host abroad and set out walking to find the house. Once on the correct street, I pulled out my note to check the house number, only to find that instead of the paper with a number written in giant red marker, I had an apparently blank sheet of paper.

    If I rant out into the path of oncoming cars and placed the sheet within the beam of their headlamps, I could read the number...

  33. Joshua Vanderberg:

    Actually the LEDs themselves are what shed all the heat - not any sort of transformer. I've got a string of LED xmas lights, which has some sort of step down transformers on the plug end. The transformer (or whatever it is) doesn't get hot - the individual lights themselves however get considerably warm. OLED phones actually have the same problem - the display itself will get warm with continued usage.

  34. sabre_springs_mark:

    You know what is really cool, they have LED strip tape for lighting. Really expensive but you can attach it anywhere, Some of the stuff comes with 3 color LEDS and you can adjust the voltage so you can mood light your room in thousands of different colors.

  35. Mike K:

    CFL's may work in some areas. They do not work in cold temps like where I reside. I have had to use them for the last several years and have found the life-span is terrible, the warm-time takes much longer than I would normally even have the light on, and they are a pain to throw away. I await the day when CFL's die an early death like Betamax, 8-track players, and the US Football League. LED's have already proven to be a superior light (hopefully, I won't have to use my last secret stash of incandescent 75 watt bulbs).