A Guide to Saving Energy with LEDs

Dragon’s Guide To A 100% Renewable Home — Part 1 (LEDs)

Clean Technica, December 9, 2016

In Southern California, actor Ed Begley Jr. is famous for going 100% renewable back when it was prohibitively expensive to do so. In 1985, he bought a stake in a wind farm. In 1990, he installed solar panels on his roof. He prefers walking and biking, but when he drives, it’s in an EV (including the EV1, RAV4 EV, and various custom models). Everything in his home is renewable powered or person powered. He’s even got his own TV show about his way of living.

For many years, my own Secret Master Plan has been to be like Ed, but I didn’t have my own house or the finances to make the plan happen. Twenty-one years after Ed started his renewable journey, renewable technology is finally in the price range of most homeowners. In many cases, you’ll save more in reduced utility bills than you pay on loans for renewable home improvements. New Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) loans let you tie energy improvement projects to property-tax payments so if you sell the house you don’t keep paying for the energy improvement.

So, here are the steps in my Secret Master Plan, followed by details of how to achieve each step:

  1. Cut overall electricity use more than 19% by replacing incandescent lights with LEDs.
  2. Nix natural gas water heating by getting a tankless electric water heater.
  3. Stop burning gasoline by buying an EV and avoiding air travel.
  4. Wipe out natural gas heating by switching to a ductless mini-split heat pump.
  5. Cover 100% of electricity used by everything on this list with solar panels on our roof.
  6. Eliminate natural gas completely by switching to an electric cooktop and electric dryer.

All of these changes save money in the long term for most people or cost a little extra for other people. Saving money wasn’t my personal goal — I’m actually trying to avoid contributing to mass extinction and collapse of human civilization.

But, you know, saving money is nice too.

Step 1: LEDs

Non-dimmable LEDs


Nanoleaf black version

If you have non-dimmable light fixtures, Nanoleaf LEDs are amazing. Every other LED I’ve seen uses 16 to 19W for 1600 lumens of incandescent-colored light. Nanoleaf uses only 12W. That’s an 88% energy savings vs 100W incandescent and 48% savings vs 23W compact fluorescent. When I said above that we cut our total home electricity use by 19%, that was by switching to a mix of CFLs and lower-efficiency LEDs — it doesn’t include our later switch to Nanoleafs. Unfortunately, we bought an EV the same month we installed Nanoleafs, so I can’t distinguish how much power they saved vs what the EV added.

You would think the Nanoleaf’s individual LEDs would cast uneven circles of light, but even in open fixtures with white or dark brown interiors, the light cast on walls is even and incandescent-like.  The only exception is when I tried a fixture with a mirror finish — then I did notice obvious bright spots being cast on walls.

LEDs die early if they overheat, so most brands warn you not to use the bulb in a fully-enclosed light fixture. LEDs that work in fully-enclosed fixtures tend to cost around $40. Nanoleaf generates so little heat that it has no warning against enclosed fixtures and only costs $18. I installed 19 of them over a year ago, many in enclosed fixtures, and they’re all still doing great.  Nanoleaf has a diameter of 3.03” and a length of 4.33” which is a little bigger than the classic incandescent “A19” bulb shape, so it doesn’t fit in a couple of our fixtures. Other than that, I think they’re perfect.

Dimmable LEDs


GE 13909

Part of the reason Nanoleaf is so efficient is that it doesn’t dim. Dimming electronics, especially those that try to maintain compatibility with incandescent dimmers, simply can’t be made as efficient. Judging by the Nanoleaf vs its most efficient dimming rival, adding dimmer compatibility adds about 33% to the power use of a bulb. However, if you put a custom dimmer in the bulb itself, it maintains efficiency. Thus, the makers of Nanoleaf created the Nanoleaf Bloom.

Bloom has two drawbacks: It only goes up to 1200 lumens (but only uses 10W), and the brightness is controlled by flicking a non-dimming light switch quickly off–on to initiate dimming, then off–on again to hold current brightness. So, if you have a fixture with a dimmer, you need to get rid of the dimmer and use a less-convenient method of dimming the light. On the other hand, if you’ve always wanted dimming ability in a fixture that has no dimmer, Bloom may be a great choice.

For the old-school X10 incandescent dimmer switches my parents use, GE 13909 is the most efficient dimming bulb we’ve found at 16W for 1600 lumen. Unfortunately, it isn’t as bright as it should be in a “can” light fixture because it casts light in all directions and some of that light is absorbed by the dark interior of the fixture. One solution to the dimness is to add a reflector like this or this — just be sure to measure the diameter of your light fixture and the depth of the bulb you intend to use in it. Another solution is to use a reflector-style light, but all the 1600 lumen versions we’ve tried do not always turn off completely in two-bulb fixtures connected to 1980s era X10 dimmer switches — the bulbs remain dimly lit when the fixture is “off.” This problem is commonly reported with LEDs and old dimmers that let a trickle current run through the light sockets even when “off.”

Outdoor LEDs


Thinklux BR40

For outdoor lights, we use Insteon motion sensors, so the lights are rarely on. The motion sensors themselves run on 9V Tenergy 200 mAh capacity batteries that last 9–12 months before a quick charge on our Ansmann Energy 8 Charger. Cheaper motion sensors we tried only lasted 1–2 months per battery and had more false-positive motion detections. Speaking of batteries, for AA and AAA rechargeable batteries, I recommend Eneloop. If you’ve ever gotten frustrated with old-school rechargeables that lose most of their charge in a drawer or don’t last long in a device, you should be pleasantly surprised by Tenergy and Eneloop.

I haven’t found any inexpensive, outdoor-rated LEDs for enclosed fixtures, so most of our rarely-used outdoor lights are still incandescent or fluorescent. However, I did install two Feit BR40 250W-equivalent LEDs in our outdoor light that’s used the most. Feit emits 2500 lumens for 36W, which is 2500/36=69.4 lumens per watt. Compare that to Nanoleaf at 1600/12=133 lumens per watt and you see that the Feit are pretty terrible on efficiency, but I wanted something as bright as possible for use as security lights. I recently discovered Thinklux BR40, which is $25 — about 45% cheaper than Feit. Rated at 2600 lumen for 30 watts, Thinklux is more efficient at 86.6 lumens per watt. Thinklux bulbs are much lighter weight, over an inch shorter, and I took a high-speed photo side by side to confirm that Thinklux are a few percent brighter. Thinklux get pretty good reviews on Amazon so I recommend them over Feit at this point.

Note that both lights are rated for damp locations but neither is rated for enclosed fixtures. Also note that Thinklux bulbs do not stay completely off in my parents X10 dimmer fixtures (I haven’t tried Feit because they’re so expensive and less efficient).

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