“How many custom installers does it take to change a light bulb?”
The answer: “Just one. But it takes several hours to first research the bulb type and load, compare it to the list of approved bulbs, replace and reprogram the new dimmer, and then change the bulb.”
That joke would be funny if it wasn’t so painfully true. If you’ve been in this business for any amount of time, and you’ve ever installed a lighting control system, then you have received or will receive the call. It’s the one where the client says he just returned from to the store and bought a bunch of the new compact fluorescent or LED bulbs that’s he’s been reading so much about, has installed them into his system, and now all those dimmers you sold him don’t work and what time are you going to show up tomorrow to fix it?
Do you remember when the hardest thing about installing a light bulb was getting out the ladder or maybe having to use that claw-thingy? Or deciding whether you wanted the soft, gentle, warming glow of a mother’s 50-watt caress versus the harsh, Guantanamo interrogation reality experience courtesy of an entire room of 100-watters?
Now selecting a bulb is a daunting case of “will it or won’t it work?” Incandescent, halogen, compact fluorescent, magnetic low voltage, LED, electronic low voltage, metal halide… Then you have to decide what kind of light you want, which often requires advanced cross-wattage mathematics calculations along with Kelvin color temperature charts and pictures of the sun at different times of the day.
But more than that, a light bulb choice has also become a kind of moral decision, where the bulbs you buy show indicate you view the world around you. Is it your own hedonistic playground, where you go out of your way to pour used oil down drains and shoot CFCs into Mother Earth’s face, or do you strum a lute while treading ever so light and gentle, recycling everything better than how you found it?
Several months ago, my local energy concern had some kind of promotion where if you walked into their store they would just give you a box of dozen compact fluorescent bulbs. Was it their way of saying, “We’re lonely! Come in for a chat!” or more of a subtle, “We realize we’ve been gouging you all these years, and now we want to complete the cycle by introducing mercury-filled ticking timebombs into your home!” But if there is anything the elder John Sciacca taught me, it’s that one does not turn away from the hand offering free bounty. So I walked into the local branch and picked up my box, which I verily took home and installed in my daughter’s room because she is the one who almost always leaves lights on the lights. I figured that with the gobs of money I’d be saving on my energy bill, I could possibly venture off the Taco Bell value menu for a change. Except that the lights were so slow to turn on you could actually watch the electrons bouncing around and getting excited and the bulbs emitted a sickly yellow color making my entire family look like we had suddenly contracted a rather acute stage of jaundice, which I’m fairly certain we hadn’t. When I finished changing all the bulbs, my daughter said, “No, daddy! No!” And the capper? The lights made a weird, “Hey! Who’s up for a seizure?” flicker with my Lutron RadioRA2 dimmers. Goodbye, CFL lights! I’d throw you away but I fear I’d be violating some hazardous materials disposal law or Geneva treaty.
Scarier than the potential life-scarring moral toxicity of choosing an incandescent bulb in the face of all other logic is the very real fact that incandescent light bulbs over 60 watts have been banned. Yep, the impending obsolescence of incandescent light bulbs is rushing at us like a speeding train. And not a fun speeding train like one Superman would race and then high-five at the finish line, but a scary speeding train like that one in Unstoppable that was all, “You can’t stop me, Denzel! I’m an out of control train full of chemicals!”
According to Wikipedia, “Since incandescent light bulbs use more energy than alternatives such as CFLs and LED lamps, many governments have introduced measures to ban their use, by setting minimum efficiency standards higher than can be achieved from incandescent lamps. In the US, federal law has scheduled the most common incandescent light bulbs to be phased out by 2014, to be replaced with more energy-efficient light bulbs.”
In a nutshell, the phase out of incandescent bulbs began in January, starting with 100-watt bulbs. In 2013, 75-watt bulbs will no longer be produced and in 2014, 60- and 40-watt bulbs will join the “extinct” list."
What to do? Well, going forward, you would be smart to start spec’ing in phase adaptive dimmers. I’m pretty sure these things have been forged in Mordor, because they work with about any kind of lighting load that you could throw at them. Both Lutron and Control4 offer these, and while they cost a bit more up front, they will cost way less in headaches down the road when your client decides they want to play light bulb roulette and just start randomly throwing in different things around the home. Remember, it isn’t like incandescent bulbs may go away or that LED may become the bulb of the future.
But what if you have a legacy system? It’s not like you can just go back in time and invent a phase adaptive dimmer and install it. I went through this with a customer not too long ago who had a home full of Lutron smart dimmers. Unfortunately for this customer, he had RadioRa and not Ra2 so I couldn’t just pull out a few dimmers and upgrade them. That left us with the choice of completely upgrading his lighting system. Of course, I voted strongly for this choice, because it meant like $20,000 to me. But my client felt that was a little extreme to just get new light bulbs in two rooms. That left us with either replacing the Ra dimmers with switches, giving him simple on/off control only, or removing the smart switches and replacing them with non-system compatible dimmers. Suffice to say, my client has been living with his cake and eating it too for years, and neither of these Sophie’s choices—losing dimming or losing automation control—were too appealing.
That same day—no joke—out of nowhere I received an email pitch from Cameron Reed, account executive at FleishmanHillard that literally sounded too good to be true. Cameron wrote, “The new Cree LED bulb (starting under $10) finally offers a compelling reason to switch to LED by looking and lighting like an incandescent, while using 84-percent less energy. Unlike twirly CFLs, Cree LED bulbs turn on instantly and produce warm light homeowners desire, without containing mercury. And, they’re accessible at neighborhood The Home Depot stores offered with a 10-year limited warranty. I’d love to send you a Cree bulb to test it out.”
As I mentioned, daddy didn’t raise no fools, and if I was excited about bringing toxic-toxic mercury into my home, then I definitely wanted some nature-loving LED. But the pitch got even better. These Cree LED bulbs are designed to be placed in typical fixtures throughout a home, last up to 25,000 hours—or 25 times longer than a typical incandescent—and replacing just five incandescent bulbs will save me up to $61 per year in electric costs. That is a lot of tacos.
But then I got to the greatest bit: they are designed to be dimmed with most standard dimmers.
Want one bulb? Hells no. I want a houseful of them. We compromised and Cameron agreed to send me four of the “60-watt incandescent replacement” day light (5500K) bulbs that deliver 800 lumens and consume only 9.5 watts.
Too Good to Be True?
The bulbs arrived and I whipped out my trusty ladder and swapped out the bulbs in my kitchen as they were the most frequently used bulbs in our house and would thus maximize my savings. The Cree bulbs felt much heavier and more solid than my regular incandescent bulbs. Much like the comfort you get from the heft of a solid piece of electronics, the Crees felt like they were packing quality. They screwed into my existing fixture easily enough and then when I hit my RA2 dimmer they…turned on! None of the weird ramp-up period, just lights on when I hit the button. No flickering or anything, and the light was bright and white and looked very similar to the incandescent bulbs in both brightness and color.
Then it was time to see if this battle station was truly fully operational; it was time to start dimming.
I pulled out my iPad and opened the Lutron Home+ app and slowly dragged the light levels down… down. The bulbs were responding. By God, the LED dimmers were dimming with my standard dimmer! There was no weird humming or flickering or wailing of unnatural spirits. I was cheating the Fates!
And then I got to about 25 percent, and the dimming appeared to stop. Where the incandescent bulbs have a noticeable analog dimming range from 1 to 100 percent, these seem to stop dimming at about 25 percent. And by 25 percent, the light appeared to be half as bright as it was originally. (I’ll give you a moment to sort out the math on that statement).
I shared my observations with Cameron, and she spoke with the Cree engineers and they responded, “In many cases, a bulb dimmed to 20 percent of initial lumens will appear to the observer to be about half as bright as a bulb that is fully on. The Cree LED bulb, depending on the dimmer, will dim down to between five to 20 percent of initial lumens on. At 20 percent, observers often feel that it appears to be 50 percent of the light. Also, in most cases, consumers are conditioned to expect the bulb to get warmer (more orange) as the light dims. Cree LED bulbs don’t get warmer as they dim, which can contribute to a perception of brightness when directly compared with the incandescent bulb.”
In practical terms what does this mean? The Cree LED bulbs definitely dim, and depending on the dimmer, could possibly dim even further. The light color and output is great, and between lower energy costs and massive life expectancy, they will very quickly start paying financial dividends. Also, at $9.97 for the warm white 40-watt replacement, $12.97 for the 60-watt warm white replacement and $13.97 for the 60-watt day light, the cost of entry is very reasonable compared with other technologies. But, for people that want to have a truly dim room, they won't deliver the same range that a traditional bulb does.
For your clients facing bulb upgrade Russian roulette, the Cree bulbs might be the perfect solution. They are proof that old and new technologies can marry, make sweet-sweet love and then continue living together in accord. More importantly, they point to a hopefully harmoniously dim future.
John Sciacca is principal of Custom Theater and Audio in Myrtle Beach, SC.