The LED Revolution: Outdoor Lighting

Improved LED fixtures are flooding the outdoor lighting market. However, conventional fixtures remain less expensive, and experts say using the latest LED bulbs in those conventional models produces equally good results.

By Drew Vass
Article Published: July 2014
Best Buy Recommendations: Current

Whether it’s porch lights to welcome you home after sunset or ground-level lights that give your home’s landscape a dramatic nighttime flair, you’ll find more choices of outdoor lighting fixtures than ever before.

Federal regulations require that making or importing conventional 40- and 60-watt incandescent bulbs end, because these bulbs’ efficiency, which is measured in lumens per watt, doesn’t meet new energy-efficiency standards. (A lumen is a measure of the visible light that a source emits.) Similar restrictions were enacted in 2012 and 2013 for 100-watt bulbs and 75-watt bulbs, respectively.

These deadlines were known for years, so fixture manufacturers developed models that integrate the electronic components of energy-efficient LEDs into their designs. Thus, integrated LED fixtures are easier to find than ever before. A few manufacturers went even more high-tech by marrying wireless controls with their models.

Although manufacturers made the components of the newest integrated LED fixtures replaceable—to eliminate the need and cost to replace a failed fixture after years of use—the task isn’t nearly as easy as screwing in a light bulb.

Meanwhile, outdoor lighting fixtures that accommodate incandescent light bulbs won’t disappear even though the bulbs will, because those same fixtures also accept more-efficient CFL and LED bulbs.

PRICE BLUES. Our research found that, among major manufacturers, integrated LED fixtures now make up 25 percent of their products. That compares with an estimated 5 percent to 10 percent of the market at the turn of the decade. Unfortunately, expansion of their integrated LED-fixture lines didn’t prompt manufacturers to drop prices much.

Based on our calculations, integrated LED fixtures across all outdoor lighting categories remain about 45 percent more expensive on average than are their conventional counterparts, and manufacturers say consumers shouldn’t expect prices to drop in the foreseeable future.

However, three contractors remind us that the premium that’s paid for integrated low-voltage LED fixtures over conventional versions is offset by savings in labor and wiring costs. Integrated LED fixtures operate at lower wattages and include hardware that regulates the amount of electricity that they receive and, thus, require smaller, less expensive transformers. Consequently, if you’re installing outdoor lighting for the first time, you’ll need less wiring than you would if you were to install a conventional fixture. (Unlike incandescent fixtures, integrated LED fixtures can be daisy-chained along a single strand of wire. Incandescent fixtures require additional wiring loops, depending on distances and the number of attached fixtures.) Further, integrated LED fixtures take less time to install, contractors say, and would cost less for an electrician to install than would incandescent fixtures.

Matthew Broyles, who owns outdoor lighting contractor Firefly Lighting, adds that his company replaced 120-volt, 175-watt conventional fixtures with 12-volt, 22-watt integrated LED fixtures “without sacrificing light.” Based on those wattage differences, the integrated LED fixtures would cost 87 percent less to operate than would equivalent conventional fixtures. If your landscape lighting system consisted of 10 fixtures that were on 4 hours per night, we calculate that you’d save $271 annually. However, calculating the cost of the fixtures alone, not factoring in the labor and wiring costs, a 10-fixture, integrated LED system would cost you about $400 more than would a 10-fixture, low-voltage conventional system.

As for savings that you glean down the road from replacing components in the newest integrated LED fixtures rather than replacing the entire fixture: Unless you’re particularly handy with electronics, you have to pay an electrician to remove the light fixture and ship it—at your expense—to the manufacturer for repair. You then have to pay again to reinstall the fixture. That will set you back $125–$220, electricians tell us.

MOOD SETTERS. Because integrated LED fixtures contain electronic circuitry, they adapt more easily to other technologies, such as remote control and wireless access, than do conventional fixtures.

Manufacturer FX Luminaire in January 2013 added wireless control to its integrated LED fixtures. The control lets you remotely dim or brighten a range of outdoor lights either on demand or on a programmed schedule.

The system consists of a Wi-Fi module that attaches to the company’s Luxor ZD series of controllers, both of which can be installed outdoors or indoors by using a separate mount accessory. A light assignment module (LAM) that you temporarily plug into your smartphone or tablet computer allows you to organize your fixtures into groups, and you can control the fixtures individually or in groups by using a free Apple iOS or Google Android mobile application.

FX Luminaire’s system isn’t for the light-walleted: The Wi-Fi module ($199), LAM ($99) and mount ($19) cost a total of $317. Unless you already own a Luxor ZD controller, you’ll have to spend another $899 for the least expensive of those. Plus, the least expensive compatible fixture costs $139.

Meanwhile, Kim Lighting, which is a Hubbell Lighting brand, in April 2013 introduced its LightVault 8 in-grade (in-ground) fixture. Unlike FX Luminaire’s approach, no additional hardware is required. LightVault 8 fixtures link directly to your smartphone or tablet and can be activated, deactivated, dimmed and aimed remotely through a free Android or iOS app. All you have to do is pair, or link, each fixture with your mobile device via Bluetooth.

However, Kim Lighting’s approach isn’t for the budget-conscious consumer either. The least expensive model that has this capability is the LTV83, which starts at $500. That nets you control over just a single fixture—LightVault 8 wireless features are individual to each fixture.

Two other manufacturers, Designers Fountain and Litman, tell us that they’re developing wireless controls for their outdoor lighting fixtures. Neither reveals whether those technologies will be based on Bluetooth or Wi-Fi or require additional components, nor do they suggest a price.

BETTER BULB. Manufacturers that make integrated LED fixtures insist that the fixtures deliver more light output per watt and do a better job at projecting light in the desired direction than do conventional fixtures that can hold an LED bulb. They also say that, because the electronic components and heat sinking (cooling) mechanisms are integrated into the fixture, integrated LED fixtures do a better job of keeping LEDs cooler than can be achieved in an LED bulb. However, two experts with whom we spoke disagree.

“There was a time, just recently in fact, when integrated LED fixtures made more sense,” says Nadarajah Narendran, who is the director of research for the independent Lighting Research Center. “Now that LED technologies have improved, LED [bulbs] are just as good.”>

Improvements in LED technologies mean that an LED bulb now takes fewer watts to produce the same amount of light as an older LED bulb did, while generating less heat. Consequently, Narendran says, a 5- or 6-watt LED bulb now is “perfectly sufficient” for entry lighting, for example.

When it comes to projecting light, LED bulbs have caught up here, too, Narendran says. LED bulbs now typically are designed to be mounted in certain directions (up, down, sideways) and project light in different patterns (conical, fanned out, focused). So correctly paired LED bulbs and conventional fixtures project the right type and amount of light in the desired directions and patterns as well as a comparable integrated LED fixture does, he says.

Finally, with regard to total costs, although integrated LED fixtures are more energy-efficient, you’ll save more money over a fixture’s lifespan by buying a conventional fixture and using an LED bulb. We compared a typical integrated LED fixture that’s rated at 40,000 hours of life and the same fixture configured with a conventional socket that would use two 20,000-hour LED bulbs over the same lifespan. The integrated LED fixture costs $173; the version that uses LED bulbs costs $93, including the bulbs’ price. When average national electricity prices are figured in, the total cost to buy and operate the integrated LED fixture over a 40,000-hour lifespan is $217. The cost of the LED-bulb version is $144.

Narendran believes that in uses where aesthetics remain a consideration, such as wall-mounted porch lights, the number of integrated LED fixtures that are available will continue to increase. “In every other area, you’re going to see folks stick with changeable lamps,” he says. Manufacturers tell us that LED fixtures are here to stay.

Regardless of the type of outdoor lighting fixture, two designers tell us that they’re salivating over the future of LED outdoor lighting. You could create customized light displays for different seasons and special occasions. “You might have a ‘people coming over’ scheme and employ more-impressive lighting for those occasions than you would when it’s just you pulling into your own driveway,”” Broyles says, as an example of just one bright idea.

Drew Vass is a regular contributor to Consumers Digest. He has written about a wide variety of home-improvement topics that range from home heating systems and replacement windows to kitchen remodeling.

This story has been revised to correct information about replacing components in integrated LED outdoor lighting systems.

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