Every Christmas, fat, multicolored Christmas lights line the rain gutters of the Kelly home. My husband Patrick bought them as a protest against the proliferation of white icicle lights dripping from our neighbor’s eaves. “Santa must get confused by all that sameness,” he told the kids. Fine, I thought, but Santa’s not paying the electric bill. I started looking around for other options.
I knew LEDs use less power than incandescents, so I put in a call to Greg Thorson, owner of a website called Environmental Lights, based in Rancho Bernardo (858-521-0233; environmentallights.com). It turns out I was right about the power but wrong about the potential savings.
“An incandescent light is made from a filament that you run a lot of current through,” explained Thorson. “As those electrons run through that very thin wire, they get very hot, and the filament glows. But what’s coming off is 90 to 95 percent heat and only 5 to 10 percent light. LED lights are different — they’re semiconductors. You have a positive and negative junction, just like you would on a computer chip. When you run electrons over those junctions, you get an emission of photons. LEDs generate a lot less heat and a lot more light, and, depending on the frequency at which those photons are given off, you can get red, green, blue, or amber lights.”
The upshot is that “LEDs need only about 10 percent of the power you need for incandescents. That makes everything a lot easier. You can hook up 210 watts’ worth of lighting on a single string. A typical LED string uses about 5 watts of power, so you can put 43 strings together if you want to light up that spruce tree in your front yard. You don’t need the heavy cabling or the special circuits, which makes them especially good for large installations.”
Even so, said Thorson, “For a homeowner, the savings that comes from using LEDs instead of incandescents is pennies. It’s not a compelling factor, because LEDs are more expensive.”
There are, however, other advantages. “LEDs don’t burn out the way incandescents do…you can expect, typically, 50,000 hours. And because they’re more rugged than incandescents, they tend to do better when you drop them. You end up wasting less time replacing bulbs.”
If they do break, you can just throw them out. “LED lights don’t contain mercury, and the good ones don’t contain lead. Pretty much all of our Christmas lights are low lead — they’re ROHS [reduction of hazardous materials] compliant.”
This year, said Thorson, “The multifunction lighting [$21–$30.40 for a 24-foot string with 70 lights] is popular. A lot of our customers are pro installers making large orders, but the multifunction lights are also great for homeowners. You can buy a little controller [$9.99–$11.99] with a dial on it, and that can drive up to eight strings with eight functions — things like sparkling, fading on and off, or moving in a wave. The multifunction nets [$44–$59 for a 4.5 x 8.5-foot net] are popular, too. And we have a new product called snowfall lights [$115–$259]. The basic idea is that the lights chase down a line, like a movie marquee. We have them in several formats: a 23-inch tube and a 33-inch tube that are indoor-outdoor, and a set of ten [$119] that you can spread around your Christmas tree. It gives a subtle sense of motion — a discreet, downward strobe instead of the blinky-flashy Las Vegas stuff. We also have the snowfall lights on our ornaments [$119 for a set of five].”
Thorson granted that his prices for LEDs were higher than those you might find at Home Depot (EcoSmart 50 multicolor LEDs, $19.97) or Lowe’s (GE 50 multicolor LEDs, $18.97). But, he noted, “You also get only around three choices of products [at retail outlets]. And they might have stock for only three weeks. After that, they’re out until next year. We have over 300 products available year round on our website.
“We have homeowners who are willing to spend a lot of money to make their houses look great. If they need some advice, I’ve trained my people to answer their questions. And, at my store, you pay less [per unit] the more you buy.”