Highly efficient but expensive, LED lighting has improved enough to make it a practical alternative

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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.

"Right there you're saving 50 watts -- which is significant -- per bulb," she says. And with 11 fixtures inset in the ceiling, the savings can quickly add up.

They still cost significantly more than fluorescent. Kick Buckman of KB Electric in Santa Rosa, working with Brandwein, installed 19 in the Healdsburg kitchen of Roger and Hilary Bartels. He said the price was about $200 per can compared to under $100 for a comparable fluorescent recessed can.

And yet, with a projected life of 50,000 hours, they can potentially last up to 20 years. A typical incandescent bulb is rated to last up to 5,000 hours and a typical fluorescent up to 10,000 hours, according to Buckman.

"So yes, you may be saving energy on a daily basis but you may also be saving a whole lot on not having to replace those lights. Longevity is a nice attribute," said PG&E's Cooper. He noted that the potential savings for municipalities using them in street lights could be enormous, and the beams can be more easily aimed down to the street, doing away with those annoying beams shining into bedroom windows that have confounded sleepers for more than a century, ever since electricity replaced oil.

Greg Courdy, of Energy Plus in Santa Rosa, said the transformation in LED technology just in the past 18 months is phenomenal.

"We kept going to lighting shows but we weren't happy. We weren't bringing them in," he said of the old LEDs. "They were too purple. They didn't have the right color temperature and they weren't giving enough light. So if you went into a showroom it was like walking into a haunted house. It was nasty."

But now he says many manufacturers are offering LEDs, including Bruck, Cree, Juno and Gemini. And the selection is advancing rapidly. They can be found in colorful decorative hanging pendant lights and contemporary sconces, rope lighting and step lighting as well as recessed cans. Some companies like Elite also are making single bulbs. But at $40 a lamp as opposed to $3.95 for a halogen bulb, the upfront cost may still be prpohibitive to many consumers.

Hilary Bartels is happy with her investment. Working with Brandwein, the busy Kaiser emergency room physician, competitive cyclist and mother of two was looking for low-maintenance as well as environmentally sensitive materials and technology for her new kitchen.

She has 19 different recessed LED fixtures in her big open kitchen and breakfast nook, illuminating different areas from over the island to under cabinets.

"It's more than adequate. It's fabulous light no matter where you are," she said. "And I like the fact I'm told I will never have to change a light bulb until the day I die. Not that that's a big issue, but it's nice to know you don't have to worry about one of them blowing out. More importantly, they're green. They use so much less energy."

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