LEDs can light your way to a greener Christmas

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By Bill Sullivan
Green Right Now

In Omaha, Neb., Travis Freeman is a bit of a local Christmas legend. Not only does he own and operate Brite Ideas Decorating – which specializes in both commercial and residential seasonal lighting – but he also is known for his efforts in putting together the Salvation Army’s  Tree of Lights, a big part of the local holiday landscape.

Omaha Tree
Omaha’s Tree of Lights uses LEDs (Photo: Brite Ideas Decorating)

Christmas, of course, isn’t a famously “green” time of year, unless you are talking about the trees we cut down or the currency that seems to fly endlessly out of our wallets and purses. The spirit of the season almost insists that we throw caution (and energy) to the wind when it comes to fancying-up trees and winning the arms race on outdoor decorations.

For years, the Salvation Army was no different.

“When we had our tree outside the Crossroads Mall, Travis used incandescent lights on real evergreen trees offered each year by local residents…not very green!” recalls Susan Eustice, Divisional Director of Publications and Communications for the Salvation Army. “Travis encouraged us to think a bit more green…”

That process started about five years ago, when Freeman began to dabble in new kinds of lighting. This year, he may have outdone himself.

The 2009 Tree of Lights, made of metal, weighs more than 6,000 pounds, stands 75 feet tall, and will be illuminated by 55,000 lights and 100 starbursts. The 10-foot base features an additional 16,000 red and green lights, and the tree is topped by a star illuminated with another 2,500 lights.

An electric bill only Warren Buffett could afford?

Hardly. Freeman’s creation is built entirely with LED (Light Emitting Diode) bulbs. By his estimate, this year’s tree will use about 90 percent less energy than a similar display using traditional incandescent lighting.

“It takes about one-tenth the energy to run LED lights as it does incandescent lights,” he said. “It used to take 180 amps to run that tree. Now, the whole thing draws about 19 amps.”

When you go shopping for lights this season, you’ll find no shortage of LEDs vying for your attention, sitting on shelves right next to their incandescent brethren. Those boxes will tout savings of 80 percent or more over the older technology, an environmentally-friendly edge that could take some of the sting out of those post-holiday bills. Claims that the lights will burn twice as bright and last up to 20 years are pretty attractive, too.

The catch: A significant difference in your up-front costs.

Outdoor LED multi-colored lights
Outdoor LED multi-colored lights

During an early November visit to a local home and garden store, we priced the incandescent mini lights we’ve used on our outdoor display in recent years against similar LEDs. A string of 100 incandescents  on a 25.5 foot length were offered at $4.99. A string of 60 warm white LED minis (20.33 feet) came in at $14.99.

Bottom line:  Making the switch is the “green” way to go on several fronts, but you’ll have to part with considerably with more cash up front to do so.

Bottom line 2: If you can pony up that cash, you’ll probably get your money back over the long haul…and maybe save yourself some other aggravations in the process.

Most folks are accustomed to trudging to the store in November after discovering that a significant number of last year’s strings mysteriously passed away in a closet, basement, or attic. And anyone who has known the joy of seeing that middle string on the tree burn out after the ornaments, tinsel, etc., have been added can appreciate the prospect of more dependable, longer-life lights.

While acknowledging the cost, Freeman says he is finding more and more customers willing to dig a little deeper on the short end.

“It’s an easier sell, because people are keeping their lights. They’re not throwing them away; they’re taking better care of them. With the old ones, they’d buy new lights every year. It’s not even worth it to keep them.”

Mindful of the price gap, some retailers are offering creative incentives. From Nov. 5-15, The Home Depot offered customers a $3 credit on old or broken strings (up to five redemptions) toward purchase of LED lighting. Online retailer HolidayLEDs.com offers a 15 percent discount for shoppers who send in their old strings to be recycled.

For those unfamiliar with the new kids on the illumination block, LEDs are a type of semiconductor that generates light when an electric current passes through positive and negative materials. Different colors and efficiency levels result from altering the composition of those materials. Early on, LEDs found applications in traffic lights, DVD players, cell phones and other electronic devices. Ongoing improvements in the technology are allowing LEDs to expand into new markets.

Today, LEDs seem to be leapfrogging compact fluorescent lights (CFL) as the next significant change in lighting technology. More than a year ago, lighting giant Philips announced it was shifting its focus from CFL to LED moving forward. Others seem to be following suit.

“We know the cost will come down and the technology will improve,” Kevin Dowling, vice president of innovation at Philips Color Kinetics, told the San Jose Mercury News.

While making the monetary commitment to LEDs can be a difficult call for the average consumer, manufacturers find themselves in a quandary as well.  Conventional business has been based on the assumption that customers need to replace bulbs regularly. Philips and others must weigh the advantages of cutting costs with the knowledge that better bulbs mean less frequent sales.

And, like hybrid cars, LED lighting is cutting edge, with all the good and bad that implies. Both have clear advantages, with a few bugs yet to be worked out.

Angel LED light (Photo: 1000Bulbs.com)
Angel LED light (Photo: 1000Bulbs.com)

“The one thing, and it’s getting better, is the colors,” Freeman says. “Particularly with the whites and warm whites, it’s getting consistency. The reds, the blues, the greens are definitely better.”

Good enough that the citizens of Omaha will be getting an eyeful this holiday season.

“It’s an amazing tree,” Freeman says. “Every year, more and more people are attracted when we light it.”

This year, they’ll be seeing more than colors and holiday cheer. They might just be getting a glimpse of Christmas Future, too.

Copyright © 2008 Green Right Now | Distributed by Noofangle Media

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