A consumer guide to LED spotlights

So I decided to change all my current MR16 GU5.3 50W halogen lighting (about 30 fittings) and join the glorious LED revolution. Here’s what happened.

Conversion from halogen to LED
Before diving into the LED jungle of bulbs, watts and colours, the first task was to convert the existing fittings. All the MR16 GU5.3 fittings, except the ones in the bathrooms (more on that later), were being run off individual halogen transformers to convert the mains 240V to 12V. My transformers had a power range of 20W to 60W which meant the minimum wattage bulb that could be used is 20W. This is no good for LED bulbs where the wattages are much lower (typically around 4-8W) so the fitting had to be converted. There are really only four options for this:

  1. Replace existing halogen bulbs with MR16 GU5.3 LED bulbs (cheapest)
  2. Convert the GU5.3 lamp holder to a GU10 lamp holder (cheap)
  3. Use special Philips LED bulbs to work off existing halogen transformers (expensive)
  4. Replace the transformer with an LED driver (most expensive)

 

Options 2 and 4 require some work whereas options 1 and 3 require nothing more than just changing the light bulb. If you have dimmers, this also makes a difference as to what you can use.

Let’s look at each in more detail.

 

1. Replace existing halogen bulbs with any MR16 GU5.3 LED bulbs
Depending on the transformer you have have, this might be an option. The bathrooms were using one transformer to power 3x 50W MR16 GU5.3 bulbs. I had a look at the 10+ year old transformers in the bathrooms but there was nothing on the labels other than it was 240V in and 12V out so I contacted the manufacturer with the model number. The response from the company was that these were toroidal transformers that didn’t have a wattage range and would work perfectly well driving LED bulbs.

Result! I ended up buying a box of normal MR16 GU5.3 LED bulbs and just replaced the existing 50W MR16 GU5.3 halogens with the new bulbs. If I’d known it was this easy, I’d have switched the bathrooms to LED years ago.

Again, it might work for you, it might not. Take a look at your transformers before trying it out.

 

2. Convert to a GU10 lamp holder
I went with this option to convert all my other halogens to LED. It involves ditching the transformers completely and replacing it with a GU10 lamp holder. Not only are there more GU10 LED bulbs available to choose from, but with no transformers, that’s one less thing to go wrong. As a bonus, you’ll also get rid of any horrible buzzing coming from the lights, especially when they’re dimmed.

The actual conversion takes a bit of time depending on how many bulbs you want to convert but the job is straightforward depending on access to the ceiling space and how comfortable you are with a couple of screwdrivers and electricity. Speaking of which, before starting, SWITCH OFF THE MAINS ELECTRICITY AND TURN ALL LIGHT SWITCHES OFF.

First thing to do is check if you can access the transformer in the ceiling recess / loft / attic as this makes it much easier. If not, or it’s too much of a faff to gain access, the next option is to remove your existing MR16 bulb and gently pull the cable to bring the transformer out of the fitting. All halogen and LED transformers are a standard width so that sucker should slip right out of a standard lamp holder fitting. Once removed, take a look at the wiring to see what’s there and how much room is available in the fitting as not only are GU10 lamp holders larger than MR16 GU5.3 but the bulbs are longer too so you’ll need a bit more space above the ceiling for a GU10 LED lamp.

My MR16 GU5.3 lamp holders were connected to the transformer via a junction box that clipped to the existing lamp fitting so I could just reuse the junction box to connect the GU10 lamp holder to the mains instead. Despite easy access to the ceiling recess (all the lights to be converted were on the top floor), a few were inaccessible because they were tucked away under the eaves so I changed these from the rooms below and then spent the rest of the day crawling around in the loft to finish the job.

Here are the detailed steps I took for the actual conversion. Before starting SWITCH OFF THE MAINS ELECTRICITY AND TURN ALL LIGHT SWITCHES OFF. Then DOUBLE CHECK MAINS ELECTRICITY AND ALL LIGHT SWITCHES ARE TURNED OFF. Finally, ARE YOU SURE THE MAINS ELECTRICITY AND ALL LIGHT SWITCHES ARE OFF? If in doubt, get a qualified Sparky round to do the job.

  1. Disconnected the mains cable from the transformer. This left the transformer with a “tail” power cable connected to the junction box.
  2. Disconnected the transformer tail-end power cable from the junction box which completely removed the transformer.
  3. Disconnected the MR16 lamp holder from the other side of the junction box. This left the junction box with nothing connected and the MR16 lamp holder could now be completely removed.
  4. Connected the new GU10 lamp holder to the junction box.
  5. Connected the mains cable to the other side of the junction box.

 

Here’s a quick text diagram of how it looked before, during and after the conversion with reference to the steps above:

KEY 
==== mains cable
---- power cable
[Tran.] transformer
[J.Box] junction box
[-MR16] MR16 lamp holder with cable
[-GU10] GU10 lamp holder with cable

BEFORE 
====[Tran.]----[J.Box][-MR16]

AFTER 
====[J.Box][-GU10]

STEPS 
1. ====    [Tran.]----[J.Box][-MR16]
2. ====    [Tran.]----    [J.Box][-MR16]
3. ====    [J.Box]    [-MR16]
4. ====    [J.Box][-GU10]
5. ====[J.Box][-GU10]

As you can see, removing the transformer and MR16 lamp holder shortened the cable length to the fitting. I didn’t have any excess slack on the mains cable so used another junction box to lengthen the cable. I had to do this for a few of the fittings so bought a few extra junction boxes and re-used the tail end cables from the transformers to lengthen the run to the fitting. Here’s how those installations looked after the conversion:

====[J.Box]----[J.Box][-MR16]

And that’s it! Once converted, the LED bulbs could be fitted.

 

3. Use special Philips LED bulbs
By far the easiest option but an expensive one. In short, Philips sells a range of MR16 LED bulbs called Master Spot that can be retro fitted in those installations where you don’t want to (or can’t) remove / change the existing halogen transformer. It does this by having some clever circuitry in the bulb to handle the higher watts but there are a few considerations:

  • it won’t work with all transformers (likely to flicker)
  • dimming performance will vary (likely to flicker) and may not even work
  • the bulb is physically larger than traditional MR16 halogen bulbs and even LED GU10 equivalents because of all the extra electronics

If you want the least hassle and a simple plug-and-play upgrade to LED, the Philips Master Spot are worth considering. I bought a few to try and they worked fine but the cost of replacing all 30 odd 50W halogens was three times more expensive than converting everything to GU10. It might work for you, it might not.

 

4. Replace the transformer with an LED driver (more expensive)
Replacing the halogen transformer with an LED driver is, in my opinion, the least sensible. If you are going to all the trouble of removing the halogen transformer, why not just convert it to GU10 which is much cheaper instead of replacing it with an LED driver?

If you absolutely want to stick with the MR16 fitting, the conversion is easier than converting to GU10 as all that is needed is to swap the halogen transformer for the LED driver. Here are some before and after diagrams of how it would look:

BEFORE 
====[Tran.]----[J.Box][-MR16]

AFTER 
====[LED.D]----[J.Box][-MR16]

The choice of MR16 GU5.3 LED bulbs is much less than GU10 LED but the light from MR16 bulbs tends to be brighter and nicer than GU10 plus dimming performance can also be smoother. No idea why but there you go.

 

Dimmer switches
If you have any dimmers, they might need to be replaced with LED compatible dimmer switches because of the lower watts consumed. Incompatible dimmer switches will cause your beautiful new LED lights to flicker more than a candle in a haunted house. I had to change all of mine as the existing dimmer range was 60W to 400W whereas the new LED’s would be pulling a maximum of 50W.

Some LED manufacturers recommend specific dimmers to use. Mine didn’t so I went for Varilight V-Pro dimmers which come in a range of finishes and have a good warranty and after service as well as being compatible with a wide range of LED bulbs.

Once again, before changing any dimmers, SWITCH OFF THE MAINS ELECTRICITY AND TURN ALL LIGHT SWITCHES OFF as you’ll be dealing with bare mains electrical cable. If in doubt, get a qualified Sparky round to do the job.

 

Which LED?

So now you have your fittings sorted, the next question, and the one that causes the most confusion, is which LED bulb to go for.

First things first, forget how many watts your old halogen bulbs use, it’s all about the lumens (brightness). This will be clearly displayed on the LED packaging and bulb and if it isn’t, find another bulb. Don’t get hung up over the actual wattage of the LED bulb either, your cost savings will be realised by going from 50W to anything less than 10W and not so much by fussing over whether to get a 6W or a 7W bulb.

Here are the other points to consider:

Colour
Do you want warm white, cool white or daylight? The colour that a lamp gives off is shown by the colour temperature of Kelvin measurement. The higher the rating, the whiter the colour is.

Warm White
A nice comforting warm yellowish white colour, like the glow from a gas fire lamp. Warm white lamps are rated between 2700k and 3000k and I went for these in all the rooms.

Cool white
Rated between 4000-4500K and gives a much cooler, crisper colour. This is quite nice to have in bathrooms, kitchens or any other work place but you can also use them around the house.

Daylight
Like daylight and rated between 5000-6200K. This is very bright but very blue and doesn’t really suit for inside a home as the lighting becomes very harsh. Best to keep these lamps for office use, outside lighting or large spaces.

Colour Rendering Index (CRI)
The higher the CRI number of a lamp, the more accurate and richer the colours are under that light. Most lamps are at least 80 CRI with more expensive and specialist LED’s (e.g. for lighting artwork) numbering 95. I bought a few to compare and the difference between a 95 and 80 bulb was barely noticeable. Certainly not worth the crazy premium that 95 LED’s command over 80 versions. As long as the LED you buy has a CRI of at least 80, I don’t think it’s worth paying a premium for the 95 rated LED lamps.

Dimmable
If you want to dim your lights, you’ll need a compatible LED dimmer switch and dimmable LED lamps which cost a little more than non-dimmable LED’s. If you don’t have a dimmer, there’s no point buying dimmable LED’s as the extra circuitry usually means a higher cost and a possibly less reliable lamp. The few LED’s that have failed in my setup were all dimmable versions.

Beam Angle
A narrow beam angle focuses the light on a particular spot. A wider beam angle spreads the light which tends to be softer. What you need to take into account is the height of your ceilings (higher ceiling means wider spread of light) and position of bulbs (further apart means potential darker spots between light fittings). I went for standard 45 degree angle LED lamps, the same as the halogens they were replacing.

Type / Aesthetics
There are two types of LED downlighters:

Chip on board (COB)
These have one big LED and tend to be the more expensive lamp. Because they have just the single LED, they use reflectors to spread the light which looks nicer, more like conventional halogens but with a cleaner, narrower focus than SMB. However, COB LED’s are less efficient and usually need more cooling. The choice is also much less.

Surface Mounted Diode (SMB)
The more common technology, these use lots of smaller LED’s, are more efficient and tend to be cheaper to buy. Because there is more than one LED, the light is brighter and spreads further with a wide beam angle. Most LED downlighters are SMB type so there’s lots of choice but huge variation in quality and how they look. The cheapest have no frosted lens cover, just a bare circuit board with LED’s, and look bloody awful. Others have weird arrangements of LED’s so the light isn’t spread very evenly or the lens cover looks like it has acne.

Warranty
There’s an awful lot of crap LED lamps available from dodgy Chinese companies. LED lamps also seem to be a little less reliable than conventional halogens so a bulletproof warranty is essential. I’ve had branded LED’s fail on arrival, after a few days, weeks and even months so being able to easy replace the LED under warranty is a must. Some companies want you to fill in forms to get a replacement or only offer a standard 1 year guarantee. Other companies are interested in just shifting a box load of imported LED’s before disappearing into the sunset with the money so you want to buy from a supplier who will be around.

I bought my LED lamps from an established UK supplier offering a no quibble 5 year warranty so getting a replacement has needed nothing more than just a phone call to ship a new lamp.

Watts
Along with colour and warranty, this is a key thing to consider.

When looking at 50W halogen replacements, you’ll see loads of LED bulbs advertised as “50W equivalent”. Ignore this and look at the lumens output of the actual LED bulb instead. Disregard the actual watts of the LED too because as mentioned, the cost savings between a 4W and a 5W LED bulb total about 80p per month if you had 30 LED bulbs running for 6 hours a day.

Some distributors say that you only need about 350-400 lumens depending on the quality and efficiency of the LED bulb. I decided to try this out and bought a sample of GU10 warm white bulbs from different companies. What I found was a huge difference in the brightness and quality of light:

50W equivalent 5W LED bulb with 350 lumens
Complete rubbish. Nowhere near as bright as a 50W halogen but would be OK for a 35W halogen equivalent.

50W equivalent 6W LED bulb with 450 lumens
Still dimmer than a glow worms armpit, if you have a smallish room (say 12″ x 12″), this would *possibly* be OK as a 50W replacement depending on how many bulbs are in the room.

50W equivalent 6.5W LED bulb with 500 lumens
Not bad, this is just a little dimmer than 50W halogen but would do.

50W equivalent 7W LED bulb with 550 lumens
This is more like it. Good bright light and a decent 50W halogen replacement.

60W equivalent 8W bulb with 620 lumens
Even better and as bright, if not marginally brighter, than a 50W halogen. I went for these which were the highest dimmable lumens I could find.

The 30 odd 50W halogens have now all been replaced with 8W LED equivalents giving a massive energy saving of almost 75%. In total, including GU10 lamp holders, junction boxes and 30x LED lamps, it cost me under £100 it;s already paid for itself within a few months. Result.

 

To summarise then, if you have a bunch of hungry-ass MR16 50W halogen bulbs, it’s well worth the time and effort in getting these converted to LED.

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