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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.

Kichler Lighting

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.

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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.