Rarely has technology so old advanced so far in so short a period of time.
Within the past two years, LED lights -- first developed a century ago but long thought of only as those little red lights that made your radio, calculator and VCR glow in the dark -- have taken a giant leap forward.
Now, the light-emitting diodes (LEDs) formerly used as beacons for electronic buttons and flashlights are bright enough to illuminate an entire room -- and not just with colored lights, but with a quality of white light that is making designers, architects and electricians, suddenly take notice.
Within the past 18 months, LEDs have begun showing up in fixtures ranging from recessed lights to wall sconces to decorative pendant lamps, finally making them an attractive alternative to fluorescent in the burgeoning green marketplace.
"It's the most exciting thing in lighting since the early '80s, when compact fluorescent hit the market," said Lee Cooper, who oversees emerging technologies for Pacific Gas & Electric Co.'s consumer energy efficiency group.
It is still just the beginning of the LED era, he emphasized. But very recent improvements in the technology are rapidly ramping it into the mainstream.
Interior designer Lauren Brandwein has a strong green aesthetic but, like many of her peers, she found that colors didn't look as good under compact fluorescents (CFLs). And yet with building codes now requiring that half of all wattage in kitchen remodels and new construction be "high efficacy," fluorescent was all but mandatory since there were no good alternatives.
After turning on to this latest generation of LEDs that are brighter, quicker, whiter, and produce a much more accurate rendering of color in their beam, Brandwein has begun using them without reservation.
"Lighting is one of the things you spend the most on in a remodel," she said, standing in a kitchen she recently made over in an Alexander Valley vacation rental. "And yet people just accept it and live with the poor light rendering given by fluorescent. It's a shame after spending the energy and time with your designer and going to the expense of buying all these beautiful materials and not really seeing what color they are."
Tilework, countertops, hardware and cabinets just don't look the same under colder fluorescent light. And yet with the new, bright LEDs recessed in 4- and 6-inch cans in the ceiling, colors appear much as they would in natural light.
The problem was so bad that many people were tempted to do an end-run around the code by switching out the fluorescent fixtures for warmer incandescent lighting after they had been installed and inspected. And that wasn't cheap, since the law requires that the lights be grounded. In other words, you can't simply swap the bulb; you'd have to remove the whole fixture, which could be quite costly if you have multiple recessed fixtures.
Mike Enright, a supervising engineer for the city of Santa Rosa's building division, said that switching out lights has probably eased in the last decade as fluorescent quality has improved. And changes that go into effect later this year will give more options for meeting the code, including dimmers and motion detectors that turn lights off after you leave a room.
LEDs can be as or even more energy efficient than CFLs. The canned, recessed LED lights that Brandwein now favors for kitchens use 15 watts and put out light equivalent to a 65-watt incandescent bulb.