Selecting an outdoor light for your home used to be as simple as flipping a switch. But in the past 5 years, plenty of changes have flooded the market. Manufacturers are using new energy-saving bulb technologies, creating more-powerful solar lighting options and adjusting their designs to meet new residential lighting codes.
LEAP TO LED. Fixtures that use light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs were on the verge of hitting the outdoor-lighting market 5 years ago (the last time that we wrote about this category). LED bulbs now are used in all solar path-light fixtures and are available in electric path lighting, fixtures that are mounted to lamp posts and entry fixtures for doorways. What’s appealing about LED lighting is that—hands down—it uses less energy and lasts longer than does other bulb technology that is used in outdoor lighting.
For instance, the average life expectancy of an LED chip is around 30,000 hours (or 20 years with regular use), compared with 10,000 hours for a compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulb and 1,000 hours for a traditional incandescent bulb. Many outdoor-lighting manufacturers claim that you’ll never have to replace an LED bulb, but, obviously, there’s no evidence to back that up.
LED lighting also uses half of the energy of a CFL bulb and about one-tenth of the energy that is consumed by a traditional incandescent bulb. As a result, you can connect up to 20 path-light fixtures to a single 100-watt transformer (or power pack) That’s good, because you won’t have to upgrade to a more powerful transformer of, say, 200 watts, which can cost at least $50 more, if you want that many fixtures on a single string. You can connect only eight fixtures that use a conventional bulb to a 100-watt transformer.
There are two significant drawbacks to LED fixtures, however, and we’re not sure when—or if—manufacturers will eliminate them. First, LED fixtures don’t emit as much light as do fixtures that use other technology. Second, LED fixtures tend to cost as much as $100 more than CFL or incandescent fixtures, although the price difference can vary among outdoor-lighting categories. We suspect that the premium that you pay for LED fixtures will drop in the years ahead as the availability of these models widen.
But when you take initial bulb and fixture costs out of the equation, LEDs come out ahead of CFL and incandescent bulbs when it comes to saving money and energy over a period of time. Based on current energy rates and the assumption that each fixture will be on for 8 hours per night, over a 20-year period (the life expectancy of an LED bulb), it would cost an estimated $720 to run a fixture that has a 100-watt incandescent bulb, an estimated $166 to run a fixture that has a 25-watt CFL bulb and roughly $80 to run a fixture that has a 12-watt LED bulb.
SOLAR SYSTEMS. The only way to improve the energy efficiency of outdoor lighting is to go with solar-powered fixtures. And today—unlike 5 years ago when solar power was used only for path lighting—you can get solar-powered fixtures in all outdoor-lighting categories. You’ll now find solar-powered options for deck-post caps, wall- and post-mounted fixtures, and utility fixtures.
But we have the same concerns about solar outdoor lighting that we did 5 years ago. For the most part, the performance of solar-powered lighting doesn’t hold up to that of more expensive electric lighting. Most important, solar-powered lights typically emit a dimmer glow than do other technologies, and the lights and frame materials that are used on solar fixtures tend to wear out much faster than do those in electric systems, because they are made of less durable materials, such as plastic or a thin, pressed metal. So, in general, we believe that solar-powered lights are suited only to providing a decorative glow.