LEDs make it cheaper to blind family and friends

May 31st, 2011 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

Freedom of choice: Lots of LEDs at Yamada Denki

The government wants you to save energy this summer because of the mess they’ve made up in Fukushima. The request is for you to reduce your consumption of electricity by 15 percent. Just in time for this setsuden (electricity reduction) season, the price of LED lamps is coming down. When LEDs first appeared on the market in 2009 the average price of a bulb was ¥3,827, according to the Light Bulb Manufacturers Association. The average price as of March was ¥2,274. Moreover, discount stores like Aeon and Don Quijote sell the 60-watt types for about ¥1,650.

Of course, when you say “60-watt type” you have to qualify the designation, since a 60-watt type LED does not, in fact, use 60 watts. Neither does a fluorescent bulb with that designation, which is still used because consumers are conditioned to think of a bulb’s brightness in terms of wattage, since that’s how you measured relative brightness with incandescent bulbs: the more power, the brighter the illumination. The same goes for fluorescents and LEDs but the proportions are much different, making comparisons almost pointless. For instance, a 60-watt type LED uses about one-eighth the power that a 60-watt incandescent bulb uses, but the brightness in terms of lumens is about half. The light bulb industry would prefer that you choose a bulb based on lumens, since the “XX-watt-type” designation is basically meaningless in the LED age.

And brightness means a lot in Japan, where direct overhead lighting is the norm in homes. Most people in the West prefer indirect lighting outside the kitchen, but in Japan a room is considered dim and depressing unless every single corner is flooded with whiteness, so LEDs are not simply another over-blown marketing scheme. Just a few years ago, everybody was urged to change all their bulbs from incandescent to fluorescent because fluorescents used about one-fifth the power than incandescents do. Now they want everyone to change to LEDs.

With everything factored in, the difference in savings between LEDs and fluorescents isn’t that great. The price of a fluorescent bulb is about a third of the price of an LED. The cost of electricity for using an LED is about 40 percent less than the electricity used for a fluorescent. The biggest difference is that an LED lasts two to three times longer than a fluorescent. (Note: LEDs cannot be used in all situations. For instance, they shouldn’t be placed in globes or in recessed sockets, though you can buy special LEDs for the latter purpose.) Obviously, LEDs are more economical, but is it worth it to throw out all your fluorescents and replace them with LEDs, even though they still have a lot of life in them?

It might if you’re Japanese and use a lot of lighting. The TBS afternoon news show “Hiruobi” asked a family to participate in a test. The family is famous for their annual Christmas illumination, which uses 10,000 LEDs. However, in their home they have yet to replace their fluorescents (7) and incandescents (31) with LEDs, so TBS asked them to. They turned on all the lights in the house (apparently, a normal condition there) and took a reading of the meter, then replaced all the bulbs with LEDs and did the same. The savings in terms of energy consumption was 41 percent. Before the change, 16 percent of their ¥25,000-a-month electric bill went to lighting, which means they would save about ¥1,500 a month if they changed to LEDs. That’s substantial, though it only represents a 6 percent overall savings, meaning they have to find another 9 percent to reach the 15 percent government request.

Of course, if they turned off more lights on a regular basis, they could save a lot more, but in Japan a house isn’t a home unless everyone is squinting.

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