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How exactly, is an LED environmentally friendly?

Time: 2014-06-23    Writer: After several months of researching the web, there does appear a small glimmer of consensus about the real benefits and disadvantages of LED lighting, and where consensus is present; solutions to problems are often resolved in a much more effective way.



This is very encouraging when considering that one of the main advantages of LED lighting is that, unlike Compact Florescent Lighting, LED technology has (immense) room to grow – which means that the industry has the ability to master the product and fulfil market needs as the world changes. By 2017, it is estimated that LED lighting will save a further cost to our planet as replacement material for the aluminium heat sink is produced. The problem with the aluminium is that there is a large amount of resources to extract, refine and transport. However, once this challenge was accepted by manufacturers and suppliers alike – there have been concessions such as recycled aluminium and research into a more suitable substance for the future.  Other future orientated improvements for the LED will include colour rendering, higher energy savings and even brighter light.
The only other real challenge to the LED’s new reign is the price. An article in Popular Mechanics explained it well – no matter how long-lasting and energy-saving, nobody can afford to spend a thousand dollars on ten lights.  That however, is very quickly changing, especially in places like South Africa where consumers have had to pay higher prices because of a ‘slow-to-catch-up’ market. Now that people have caught on however, there will be game-changing drops in price.
In a similar sequence of events to Compact Disks or CD’s  LED Lighting will decrease in price as popularity pushes product up.  It’s a classic demand and supply dance, but as South Africans, we can look forward to reaping the benefits of being in a market as open as this one.
In order to best understand why the LED is more environmentally friendly is to understand its predecessor’s faults. This is because the LED is a product innovated by need: the need to find a solution to the waste created by incandescent lights bulbs and CFLs.
The advantages of using LED lighting are vast and varied – starting and ending with how they are made. This means that not all LED lights are of the same quality, and in order to enjoy the benefits you need to make sure the LED product you are buying is all it’s cracked up to be. If you can, pick it up and feel the weight of the light. If the product it is light (weight) or flimsy to the touch, the casing has not been made with high quality materials which could indicate that the LED chip or driver was also poorly made. If the light makes a sound when you shake it, there could be a problem with the LED’s driver (similar to the motherboard of a computer).
The most popular advantage of an LED – and its biggest selling point – is that it saves up to 90% of the electricity needed to create light. For example, by replacing a 50Watt (electricity used) halogen (incandescent) light with a 5Watt LED you are using one tenth (90% of the power. Adding to this, is that the brightness of an LED Light is now outweighing the incandescent, so you wouldn’t even need 5 Watts of electricity. In fact, to get the same amount of lights a normal 50w uses, LED’s only require 4 watts.
Let’s look at an example: for simplicity’s sake, let us consider a standard three bedroom home, which has forty halogen down lights through-out the house. Each down light uses 50watts of electricity and costs around R20 per bulb. On average, a home will have the lights switched on for a minimum of 6 hours a day (depending on season/activities/household), and Eskom charges us R1.11 per Kilowatt that we use.
Now, if you take 40 lights using 50watts of electricity for 6 hours a day, this household will be paying R 4 861.80 a year on lighting. Further to these costs, a traditional incandescent or halogen light bulb will last, at MOST, 1500 hours. This means, that although it only cost you about R800 to purchase the lights initially, because of unreliable use and regular ‘blow-outs’, just over 58 down lights will need replacing in a year – resulting in a yearly cost of  R1168.00.  In total then, you are spending R 6 029.80 just on running those 40 down lights for one year!
Let us then use the same scenario to compare the expenses and savings when replacing those halogen bulbs with a Homie 4w LED down light at R65 per bulb. This gives us a starting total cost of R2600.00. In this new scenario however, each of the 40 down lights is only using 4 watts of electricity – resulting in a yearly running cost of only R 388.94! This gives us the first saving – that which you see on your electricity bill – of a whopping R 4 472.86 in the first year. You’ll notice, we have already made back the R2600 we spent on replacing the lights by nearly double.
Further, the lifetime of Homie’s 4w is 50 000 hours – which means far fewer replacements! But, for arguments sake let us say something goes wrong and you have to replace two of your 40 LED downlights in a year – a cost of R130 a year, saving us R1038 in maintenance. Therefore, in total, just by changing to LED lighting, this three bedroom home have saved nearly R30 000 in the first 5 years of use.
Now- those are just the monetary advantages of changing to LED. But what about all the environmental claims relating to LED lighting.
Let us look beyond the individual benefit and consider the impact an incandescent light makes on the environment. The first disadvantage of using incandescent lighting is the strain on the Earth’s resources. Even though we have various renewable energy options, our major contributor to the energy grid is the burning of fossil fuels. Power plants burn coal to supply electricity – the more energy we use, the more coal has to be burned. It is a simple concept, and yet one that society ignores. The burning of coal releases pollutants such as soot or carbon dioxide and mercury into the atmosphere. These pollutants mix with clouds, and can return to the earth as acid rain, but usually they are soaked up into the atmosphere and are one of the largest contributors to problems like the Greenhouse Effect or damage to the Ozone Layer (our own protection from the sun’s radiation). Traditional incandescent bulbs are ‘bad’ for the environment in a lot of ways, but their inefficiency is their worst trait. By converting 90% of the supplied electricity into heat instead of light, the incandescent light bulb is asking for more power than it can use.
In an attempt to rectify the problem of wasted energy, the CFL or energy saver light bulb was created. Using completely different technology, the Compact Florescent Light creates light using a chemical process. Rather than the outdated glowing filament – the part of the traditional light bulb that breaks (hence a common test for a light bulb is to shake it) – the CFL uses gases made from heating argon and mercury within a spiral tube, through which electric current is passed, exciting the gas molecules and creating a bright light. By making better use of the drawn electricity, this form of light does not waste as much as the incandescent does, as much as 75% in fact. However, while solving one problem, the manufacturers of the CFL created another.
After the 10 000 hours of use, the CFL will eventually fail, and when it does there are certain complications. Firstly, if the bulb has broken, there is a risk that the mercury inside has leaked, and the home-owner needs to follow certain precautions. If not correctly cleaned up, any traces of the mercury (can be in liquid or powder form) can be inhaled or touched, resulting in mercury poisoning. The symptoms range from minor headaches to tremors or cognitive problems (memory, attention). Children and pets are at the highest risk, and clean up precautions (http://www.energystar.gov/ia/partners/promotions/change_light/downloads/Fact_Sheet_Mercury.pdf) require them to leave the room, among other precautions such as proper ventilation and cleaning.
Unwanted creature control aside, if a broken bulb warrants such care in a home, how do you throw it away?  Let’s follow the broken CFL bulb to its grave. It breaks, the area is cleaned and ventilated, and the bulb is thrown into a lined kitchen dustbin. There is a risk small child or animals are exposed even at this stage, especially if the bin is low to the ground. Once full, the kitchen dustbin is thrown into a larger (usually black) wheelie bin for collection, and if not a wheelie bin, then probably the pavement. Looking down a street you wouldn’t think there was anything truly toxic in those black bags lining the street, but should our bag have split and mercury leaked, the risk of mercury poisoning reaches birds and other small animals, as well as plants (even trees) nearby.
Once collected by the bin-men, our bulb will travel to the outskirts of the city or town you live in, most likely in a very diesel hungry truck, until it is poured into a landfill with other non-recycled waste. Without cover from the rain, the mercury (among other substances) will trickle down the landfill until it reaches the soil, where it will sink into the ground and contaminate the land around it. Should that soil be filtered through the earth to the extent that it reaches water, even years later, the mercury within will have an effect on the ecosystem it infiltrates. The more light bulbs needed, the more are thrown away, and the more mercury accumulates.
Where then, does the LED fit into this? Well, firstly they require much less (90%) electricity than traditional light bulbs and a further 15% than CFLs. They contain no toxic chemicals or gasses, as they use a process described by physics as Solid State Lighting (SSL). Easily dismantled for recycling, the LEDs will last a lifetime should they fail. This double-pronged approach allows for fewer light bulbs ending up in landfills, and far less energy being required.
That, in a nutshell, is why LED Lights are a good first step in saving the planet. By lowering the requirement for energy, and by limiting waste.
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