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Holiday lights choice hangs on initial, long-term cost

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  • Terry McGowan

Question: With Christmas having just passed, it’s not a bad time to reflect on the bright subject of holiday lights and their effect on the consumer pocketbook. A big and growing dilemma for many people is the conversion from incandescent to LED lights used to decorate trees, homes, boats etc. At what stage would you say this conversion is?

Answer: Still early in the process. I see about half-and-half traditional versus LED decorations — strings of lights — in stores now, although a few stores have gone completely to LEDs. Given the higher price of LED decorations, that’s still a bold move.

Q: There seem to be two main cost factors to the issue: the cost of the lights and the cost to operate the lights. Let’s start with the operating cost. How does that compare between the two types of lights?

Terry McGowan

>> Title: Director of engineering and technology
>> Company: American Lighting Association
>> Headquarters: Dallas
>> Email:
>> Career history: Involved in the lighting industry for more than 40 years as a researcher, engineer, educator and application manager mostly with GE Lighting in Cleveland, and as a contractor for the Electric Power Research Institute of Palo Alto, Calif.

A: I think there are at least three types of holiday lights to compare: traditional C7 incandescent bulbs; so-called midget incandescent bulbs; and LED bulbs. The C7 bulbs have a very traditional look, but draw 7 watts. Midget bulbs are the tiny, bright bulbs that often frustrate consumers because, often, when one bulb fails, the whole string goes out. These are rated for 0.5 watts. LED bulbs are tiny, like midget bulbs, but much more efficient. They are rated for 0.1 watts.

If electricity costs 34 cents a kilowatt-hour and bulbs are on from 5 p.m. to midnight from Dec. 1 to 31, the cost for a 50-bulb string of lights per season would be $24.99 for C7 lights, $1.46 for midget lights and 34 cents for LED lights. 

Q: Why are LED lights cheaper to power?

A: Because they convert more electricity to light than incandescent bulbs. An incandescent bulb converts about 10 percent of the electrical power used to visible light. The rest of the power used is emitted as heat. By comparison, LEDs can convert more than 30 percent of electrical power to light and generate little heat in the process. Heat from holiday bulbs often caused tree and house fires due to the heat of the bulbs. Midget bulbs reduced that problem, but LED bulbs are cool to the touch and so the fire hazard has been greatly reduced by both midget and LED string sets in recent years.

Q: If you put up holiday lights, what kind do you use?

A: I have lots of midget string sets (white and various colors) and a few C7 sets. Three years ago I bought several LED string sets, and they are working very well. I like the brighter colors, especially blue and green. But I found that the LEDs didn’t work well indoors because they flicker and are annoying to some people. Outdoors they’re fine. I don’t know if the LED flicker problem has been completely fixed. Manufacturers tell me it depends upon the type of LED and circuit used.

Q: What is the difference in the cost to buy the types of lights?

A: I think a general statement is that LEDs are about double the price of midget incandescent bulb string sets right now.

Q: How have prices come down over time, and do you think that will continue?

A: Prices for LEDs continue to drop, but it’s worth shopping around as retailers often have sale prices on these products.

Q: How do the life spans compare between the two types of lights?

A: Incandescent bulbs are typically rated for 1,000 hours, and LEDs for 25,000 hours. But those numbers are based upon laboratory testing in the case of incandescent bulbs and the time it takes for LEDs to drop in light output by 30 percent. LEDs, in other words, don’t burn out; they just emit less output as they operate. Often with holiday light strings, the wiring or sockets will fail before the bulb due to weather and physical wear and tear. My midget bulbs have now lasted for 10 seasons with a few failures that I’ve fixed. My LED strings are in their third season with no failures.

Q: Does all this mean it makes financial sense to throw out incandescent holiday lights and replace them now instead of waiting for them to fail?

A: From an energy savings standpoint, yes; but from an overall environmental standpoint, that’s a difficult question to answer and would depend upon how the incandescent string sets are recycled. They are mostly plastic and copper wire. Personally, I’m moving to LEDs as my midget sets fail or deteriorate and I get a better idea of how reliable LED string sets are.

Interviewed by Andrew Gomes, Star-Advertiser reporter

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