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by Steven D. Johnson
Racine, Wisconsin

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Absolutely Ready (Finally) For Prime (Shop) Time

Click on any picture to see a larger version.

Just a shade over a year ago I replaced two of my twenty-eight fluorescent tubes with LED bulbs. (You can read all about the installation and see the color and light output comparisons by clicking here .) The transformation, while a bit laborious and not quite elegant was, and still is, amazing. Even now, a year later, the space under those LED bulbs is the brightest, best, most pleasingly lighted area in the shop.

At the time, the LED conversion was actually a retrofit, requiring that the ballast in the fluorescent fixture be bypassed and that "mains" current be connected to the 48" long LED bulbs. Holes had to be drilled in the fixture housing to accommodate ungainly wires leading from the LED tubes. It was a lot of work, and the two LED tubes cost $60. I deemed LED replacements for fluorescent lighting to be promising but "not ready for prime time."

Figure 3 - The Cree LED tube is a true "plug and play"
replacement for fluorescent tubes"

Well, that was last year, and technology and innovation marches on. The other day I stumbled upon LED replacements for 48" fluorescent bulbs that require no rewiring, drilling, or bypassing of the ballast. Simply swap these tubes for any regular fluorescent tubes in any fixture with a T8 instant start, rapid start, or dimmable electronic ballast. The cost for two is around $40. Now we're talking!

The new LED tubes are made by Cree and are available at some home center and hardware stores… you might have to "hunt" a little to find them, but it's worth it. The tubes are shatter-resistant (they even "flex" a little), contain no toxic mercury, light instantly when turned on, produce outstanding color rendition, and are effectively much brighter than conventional fluorescent tubes.

Figure 4 - Determining the actual energy savings
will require a longer term test

Regular T8 fluorescent tubes draw 32 watts, the Cree LED tubes draw "as little as 18.5 watts," as claimed by the manufacturer. I used my Kill A Watt P3 meter to try to verify the manufacturer's claim ( click here to read about the Kill A Watt ), however the cumulative reading after one hour with each set-up indicated a kWh difference beneath the reliable resolution of the meter. A longer test is necessary and is underway, but will not be completed in time for this article. It doesn't really matter. Energy/cost savings are just a fraction of the value equation. The first two bulbs cost $40, but after seeing the quality of light and the ease of installation, I didn't hesitate the next day to race back to the store and buy four more. I was actually afraid they might have already sold out! The difference in my shop is just stunning… so much so, that I don't know if I can replace the rest… it might just be too bright! No hum and no flicker either!

The Cree tubes are rated to last 50,000 hours. That is not a misprint… fifty thousand hours! A regular fluorescent bulb is rated for 1,000 hours. Be sure to cut the UPC symbol from the box and hang on to your receipt, because Cree's warranty requires those documents. This is excerpted from their warranty:

This product has a 5 year, free replacement warranty. If this product does not operate for 5 years from date of purchase in residential usage when used as directed, return the product with UPC code proof of purchase, register receipt and your name and address to Cree, Inc. Cree will send you a replacement or at Cree's option refund the original purchase price.

Figure 5 - With conventional fluorescent tubes the color was "off" and the apparent light output was lower. Note the mismatched color between the two bulbs. Figure 6 - The LED bulbs are bright and render a very natural color. Camera settings were exactly the same and no post-processing of the photo was done.

In total, four of my fourteen fluorescent fixtures now have LED bulbs. Three have the new Cree bulbs and one has the Feit set I installed last year. Soon a fair bit of my woodworking will become a nighttime vocation (a long story, that) and they will definitely be well tested. But I suspect, from what I see now, to be thrilled. Grab a couple… a pair is about the same price as a sheet of plywood… and see if you don't agree.

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