Design Con 2015

More fluorescent light misery, but LEDs could be just as bad

-February 25, 2010

I have four fluorescent light can fixtures in the ceiling of my porch here at the Domicile of the Future. Three of the fixtures are dead. The first problem is that the previous owner wired the fixtures to a motion sensor, so the lights are constantly cycled as people walk past the house. Actually I like that feature, so I guess the real problem is that the previous owner did not realize that compact fluorescents (CFLs) don’t like to be cycled a lot, they have a limited life since there is a sharp spike in the tube that wears out as it repeatedly strikes the starting plasma. OK, fine, so I assume the bulbs are bad, and not the ballasts. So I go to Home Depot and buy what I think are replacement bulbs. They look almost identical, but these common bulbs that you can buy have a plastic protrusion between the pins. But the pin-spacing was the same so I whack off the protrusion with a knife and try the new bulb. Nada. So I look and I look for the exact same bulb at Home Depot and Lowes. Nada. So I go to a real electric store, Bell Electric Supply over on Martin Ave. That is where I got the fabulous GE UltraMax ballasts for my 8-foot fixtures. Nada. But the counter guy at Bell, a great fellow, recommended I stop in at Liberty Lighting and Fixture Supply right around the corner on de La Cruz. There I met Deana, one of the nicest and most helpful counter persons I have ever known. She looked at the bulb and sadly informed me Lights of America made it.

Lights_of_America_sucks

Lights of America makes this non-standard CFL bulb that forces you to buy replacements from them, since the home stores don’t bother to stock replacements.

She said “They really don’t follow any standards, you have to replace them with their bulb only.” That ticked me off, but then she said that Lights of America products were often sold through Home Depot or Lowes, but they the home stores would eventually loose interest in the product line and they won’t stock replacement bulbs. Now I was pissed off. So I go home, grit my teeth and go to Lights of America web site. Sure enough, they sell overpriced replacement bulbs, but not this one. Now I am furious. So this “money saving” fluorescent bulb is going to cost me a thousand dollars of time and trouble to find new can fixtures and replace the whole shebang. What pigs. I hope the entire management of Lights of America and buyers at Home Depot or whatever store that stocked this crap immediate go burn in the 8th rung of hell, where they can hang out with the child molesters, the drug pushers, and the finance industry CEOs.

So I asked Deana at Liberty Lighting and Fixture Supply what my options were. She showed me a nice can fixture with an Edison base socket like every single incandescent light on earth fits and said it was about 15 dollars, plus a bezel that I would have to pick out for looks. So I asked her about LED can fixtures. I know these are being used by businesses in hard-to reach locations since the lifetimes of LED fixtures is, in theory supposed to be much better than CFL or incandescent. Deana was almost apologetic when she told me that an LED can fixture costs 144 bucks. It took a day or two, but then it hit me. Putting in a specialized LED can fixture was just as stupid as putting in a specialized fluorescent light fixture. Well, maybe a little less stupid since you can cycle LEDs indefinitely and you can even dim them if you want.

I asked my buddy Fran Hoffart over at Linear Technology what he does, and hard core-electronics lover that he is, he just made his own ac-dc ballast and bought some high-brightness LEDs from Digi-Key. So that was a lot cheaper than 144 bucks a fixture, but it is still a custom solution.

Fran_Hoffart

Fran Hoffart, Linear Tech power guru makes his own LED ballasts out of LT parts.

Then I realized the only rational alternative. Buy the 15-dollar Edison-base can fixtures from Liberty Lighting and Fixture Supply, and if I want them to be LED fixtures, screw in one of the Edison-base replacement bulbs like made by Warner Philips or the fine folks I met at the Strategies in Light conference. Marvell now makes chips that can do LED ballast in the base of the bulb as well as PFC, so there is sure to be some reliable cost-effective solutions. I just wish the LEDs were not so expensive, since I think this makes lamp companies scrimp on the ballast. As long as there are electrolytic capacitors in the ballasts, I have a hard time believing the fixture will last more than 5 years, since the caps run hot because the ballast is so near the bulb.

Marvell_LED_fixture

Kishore Manghnani the vice president general manager green technology products over at Marvell has come out with a chip to do LED ballasts. They even designed this demo board since lamp manufactures have almost no experience in electronics and need the help.

That is one of the tragedies of non-standardization. I know the ballasts would be more reliable if they were mounted remotely in a cool locations, but since there is no standard for the ballast, you would have to buy a whole new fixture and heaven knows, the fixtures are going to change every year just like the clowns at Lights of America do. So for now I am going to live with the lower reliability of a ballast that is located near the warm LED, since when you replace an Edison-base LED bulb, you are replacing the LED and the ballast in one fell swoop.

And don’t discount that those finance industry CEOs who are not yet in the 8th rung of hell. They may well bankrupt the whole country so we will have to go back to incandescent lights and campfires in front of our shantytown hovel. At least you will be able to still use your Edison-base can fixture. For now I call on the LED lighting industry to make a socket standard for both bulbs and ballasts, since it is the ballast that is sure to fail, long before that LED does. That way, when your ballast fails, you can just screw or snap one into the standard LED ballast lighting socket and be back in business.

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