THE NEW YORKER: Right or Wrong on LED Life?

JB MacKinnon’s article in THE NEW YORKER, “The LED Quandary: Why There’s No Such Thing as Built to Last,” available here, makes an argument for lighting product durability. (Cory Doctorow makes the case in short here.)

As an example, he points to the “Light Bulb Conspiracy” of the early Twentieth Century, in which it’s alleged the major lamp manufacturers established a 1,000-hour life for incandescent lamps. This ensured product obsolescence and steady sales. LED lamps can last 25,000 hours, but manufacturers have begun to offer 10,000-hour lamps at a lower cost. Meanwhile, cheap, shoddy foreign lamps are entering the market.

It seems to me MacKinnon is getting this wrong. Manufacturers aren’t limiting the life of their products. They’re offering shorter-life, lower-cost options to appeal to contractors and homeowners and compete with said cheap, shoddy foreign lamps. A 10,000-hour lamp instead of a 25,000-hour lamp is hardly going to solve the problem of socket saturation. In an average American living room, with the lights on 1.7 hours per day, 16 years will pass before the lamp should be replaced. By then, it’s appealing to think whoever owns the home might want the latest-generation product.

What do you think? Feel free to leave a comment.

7 Comments

  1. I think lamp life is the least of the problems when it comes to selecting LEDs for home use. There are many more issues regarding health, replacements, color quality, flicker, dimming, to list a few.

    Try them out and see if they work for you. I do not think they are the best solution for residential lighting. Just a personal opinion.

    Howard

  2. Dennis says:

    A reality of SSL product lifespans – the 50,000 or even 25,000 lifespan
    claims for LED luminiares conveniently neglect to factor in the MTTFs for drivers and e caps. Those 4 digit numbers are a much better indicator of LED lighting wares true lifespans.
    I guess truth in advertising has its’ place … but it’s not so vital to concerns making exaggerated SSL lifespan claims – those kinds of admissions hurt the SSL purveyors bottom line. It’s a case of let the buyer beware! (and informed)

  3. Ian Ashdown says:

    Cory Doctorow’s summary on BoingBoing is somewhat undermined by his (or his editor’s) choice of illustration — an MR-16 replacement populated with 40 or so 5mm epoxy-encapsulated LEDs. I am surprised such a primitive device (circa 2002) survives even 500 hours of operation before becoming one of Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Great Balls of Fire.”

    Doctorow makes valid comments regarding IoT and privacy (as I would expect of him), but he is clearly out of his depth on this topic.

    As for the New Yorker article, I have two words: cheap shot. We surely do not need yet another example of the maxim, “You get what you pay for.”

    Incandescent lamps have one active component, the filament; LED lamps with their built-in drivers have perhaps 100 components. Do a reliability study on the system (with special attention paid to the electrolytic capacitors) and it quickly becomes evident how and why manufacturers design for market requirements. (An AlInGaP red LED from the 1970s will earn “burn” continuously for 100 years or more, although the DC power supplies driving it will fail numerous times.)

    Planned obsolescence was introduced by automotive manufacturers, if I recall correctly, and today manufacturers of everything from safety razors to residential homes follow this business principle. All the New Yorker article has done is resurrect a well-known story about the incandescent lamp cartel and imply that the LED industry is doing something similar today. There is clearly no need to do so when the consumer insists on the cheapest possible garbage.

    Cheap shot.

  4. The article is right on the mark. I carefully monitor the lighting in my house. I have had two construction phaes in upgrading the residence in the last several years. Virtually all the lighting is standard garden variety incandescent lamps. It keeps my wife happy.

    Phase 1, 3,1500 square ft. renovation: In 18 years of service only 8 of the over 60 lamps have failed.

    Phase 2: 800 sqare foot renovation: In 10 years of service there has only been a single failure.

    True that all the lights are on dimmers and carefully operated. In my personal opinion there is no better light soource for residential use than Edison’s great invention.

    Dr. Howard M. Brandston, FIES, Hon. FCIBSE & FSLL, FIALD.

  5. Scott Randolph says:

    The article is missing one of the strongest points for the use of LED, efficiency. Compare the lumens per watt output of the standard incandescent lamp to the current LED lamps available. A LED lamp can be up to 6 times as efficient as an incandescent lamp and the efficiency of LED lamps is improving almost monthly.In California every new home built after January 1, 2020 is mandated to be zero net energy. Longer lamp life is an additional benefit.
    My last point is that the best lighting control companies and the best LED manufacturers are working together to eliminate the flicker, dimming problems, etc. that the early adopters to LED experienced. LED lamps are also available in many different colors (2500K – 6000K) and some manufacturers offer lamps which will change colors when using the proper controls.
    With the move to energy efficient lighting, whether required by government mandate or by choice, the LED lamp is one of the best options available to the home owner and electrical contractor.

  6. Mark Cywinski says:

    As a follow up to Howard’s comments I’d like to share my personal experience with the lighting in our home. Several years ago we tried CFL lamps but they failed my “wife” test. They took too long to warm up to full output. Also they were advertised as 10,000 hour lamps, but my guess is they were tested on a 3 hour cycle time, base down. Both are not real world residential conditions so guess what? They did not last 10,000 hours.

    We remodeled an area of our house in 2001 and put in 37WIR MR-16 halogen lamps on dimmers. I’ve had to replace 3 out of 24 in the past 15 years. Tried several LED “MR-16” replacements but there was drop out way too soon in the dimming range as compared to halogens and my wife did not like the fact that the color temperature stayed the same as they were dimmed, so we relamped with the 37W IR lamps. Recently I have seen some LEDs that dim to warm, and new products seem to be available every month.

    My suggestion is a tried and true mockup.
    Buy a few and see if they meet your needs. Is there flicker when dimmed? A different dimmer may be needed. How low will they dim? How well do they reflect the colors of the objects being illuminated?

    Finally, when it comes to lamp life, LEDs don’t mind being switched on and off like CFLs but they do mind heat. So, if they are on for extended periods of time and are base up (i.e. in a downlight housing) the ambient temperature will affect their rated life.

    Mark Cywinski

  7. A reality of SSL product lifespans – the 50,000 or even 25,000 lifespan
    claims for LED luminiares conveniently neglect to factor in the MTTFs for drivers and e caps. Those 4 digit numbers are a much better indicator of LED
    lighting wares true lifespans.

    I guess truth in advertising has its’ place … but it’s not so vital to concerns making exaggerated SSL lifespan claims – those kinds of admissions hurt the SSL purveyors bottom line. It’s a case of let the buyer beware! (and informed)

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