Is my house killing LED bulbs, or is it bad luck?
October 4, 2014 2:00 PM   Subscribe

I've been switching to LED bulbs in our house as the old bulbs burn out. But despite their advertised long lifespans, the LED bulbs seem to have been burning out fairly quickly. Am I unlucky with bulbs, or could it be another problem?

We just bought the house a year and a half ago, and started replacing bulbs as they burned out. I first noticed a problem with the fixture in our stairwell, which uses the smaller based bulbs. Three LED bulbs in there burned out in a matter of months. I attributed it to being perhaps a bad batch. I replaced them, and have had another one go out already. I've had two out of seven bulbs in our kitchen go bad as well. Then most recently a bulb in the hallway started buzzing, then burned out. They've all been bulbs from Costco, which I usually think has good quality items. All the bulbs that have burnt out are on dimmable switches (but that's how most of the house is), but the bulbs are all marked as being dimmer compatible, and we rarely use the dimming functionality. The house is only 25 years old, so I wouldn't think the wiring is an issue. Could I be wrong about that?
posted by borkencode to Home & Garden (17 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Cheap fixtures (this would be my guess), or a fault in the wiring.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 2:22 PM on October 4, 2014

I've bought over 30 LED bulbs, mostly Philips and Cree, since they became somewhat affordable in 2010. All of the incandescent and CFL bulbs in my house have now been replaced, and I have a variety of LED bulb types in a variety of fixtures, several on dimmers. I haven't had any failures or deterioration of any of the LED bulbs whatsoever.

I would recommend that you either get out a voltmeter and check those fixtures (while alternating the settings of the dimmer switches) or call an electrician. Something's up.
posted by eschatfische at 2:26 PM on October 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm currently doing the same thing.

I'd check the fixtures themselves, absolutely, but also are you using any LED bulb in an enclosed-bulb fixture?

Some LED bulbs are meant for exposed-bulb fixutres, some enclosed-bulb (that have some sort of cooling system built in). Using the wrong kind of LED would shorten the life of the bulb.
posted by mamabear at 2:32 PM on October 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

I just had this conversation with a helpful guy at my local hardware store yesterday. He says you need LED dimmers (the switch in the wall), and that using LED bulbs, even ones marked "dimmable," in dimmers meant for incandescents will burn them out. Switch out your dimmers.
posted by purpleclover at 2:33 PM on October 4, 2014 [8 favorites]

Also, he said I should return bulbs that burn out; that's how the manufacturers figure out that their bulbs are having problems.
posted by purpleclover at 2:34 PM on October 4, 2014

I've been using the LED bulbs since they came out, and I've not had to replace one. YMMV, but your experience seems extreme.

I think this is worth calling an electrician out for a check. Something could be causing a short in your system, and if a short is what's causing the bulbs to burn out, it could also start a fire. So I'd make this a priority.
posted by summerstorm at 2:34 PM on October 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

purpleclover has it: the dimmers you have are designed for incandescents, and don't work well with LEDs. You may "rarely use" the dimmer functionality but if the dimmer is at, say, 96% rather than 100%, you may not notice it, but the dimmer is doing its damage. This could be happening especially if you have the kind of dimmers with on-off-switches below them and you're not making sure the slider is all the way up. If dimming is not important for location (like maybe the hall light), you could change out those switches to simple on-off ones. If you want dimming, get LED-compatible dimmers. Do a search on LED dimmers and you'll find more info.

By the way rather than just replacing incandescent bulbs as they burn out, you're better off just doing the whole house in one fell swoop, since every hour you're using an incandescent is costing you about 6 times as much as the LED replacement, and the LED (with the right dimmer) will probably outlast you. (Look at it this way: if the average 60W incandescent in your house has 400 hours left on it, at 12 cents per KWH, those 400 hours will cost you $2.88, while the cost with a 10W LED would be $.48. So if you replace now, over the course of those 400 hours, you save $2.40, which means you will have recouped about half the cost of the LED, and still have 9600 hours left on the LED.)
posted by beagle at 3:07 PM on October 4, 2014 [6 favorites]

It's the dimmers. Old-school thyristor/SCR/triac dimmers will kill the electronics in the base of the LED bulb. Even if you have the dimmer at full-on, it's still likely chopping part of the incoming power.
posted by introp at 3:08 PM on October 4, 2014 [4 favorites]

It's the dimmers.

I had this problem a couple of years ago. Got rid of all the dimmers. Problem solved. Except I had no dimming option anymore.
posted by philip-random at 3:19 PM on October 4, 2014

I don't have dimmers but my bulbs burn out quickly. It might be a similar problem though. My circuits are underpowered - activate the microwave and the bulbs give a slight blink which both incandescent and LED do not like. You may want to give your neighbor a knock and borrow her multimeter.

Speculation here and here.

I was once a remodeler but I'm not an electrician.
posted by vapidave at 5:03 PM on October 4, 2014

Are led bulbs the ones that burn out immediately if you touch the bulb?
posted by chaoscutie at 5:26 PM on October 4, 2014

Are led bulbs the ones that burn out immediately if you touch the bulb?

No. You may be thinking of halogen bulbs.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 5:59 PM on October 4, 2014

Old-school thyristor/SCR/triac dimmers will kill the electronics in the base of the LED bulb. Even if you have the dimmer at full-on, it's still likely chopping part of the incoming power.

I agree that the dimmers are contributing to the problem. However, it is not as simple as saying the triac choppers are killing the electronics. All dimmers, including the newer ones, dim LED lamps by phase chopping, just like the old ones. It doesn't kill the electronics. There is no other standardized way to send dimming information to the LED controller with existing wiring other than phase controlling. All new dimmer compatible LED bulbs depend on the same basic triac-style phase chopping to regulate brightness.

Some older dimmers have trouble detecting the zero voltage crossing because of the low currents in LED lamps. This may cause the dimmer to incorrectly switch on and off multiple times in one half-cycle which in turn confuses the LED electronics and may lead to short life. But this is due to false triggering, not phase chopping per se. Newer dimmers are designed to accommodate small currents and eliminate false triggering problems.

So it is true that you probably need to swap out your old dimmers and could save some money by using regular switches where you don't need the dimming function. New dimmers will cost $15 to $25 while a simple switch will be $3 to $5. However, it is not true that new dimmers will eliminate phase chopping and LED compatible bulbs handle that just fine.
posted by JackFlash at 6:41 PM on October 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

Note I said "old-school" dimmers: i.e., inexpensive leading-edge dimmers. They cause lots of current ripple in the CFL/LED power supplies and tend to ring like no one's business (they were built with resistive loads in mind). A well-designed CFL/LED bulb will handle it, but approximately 100% of bulbs are designed with lowest cost in mind. Even a crappy bulb will tend to tolerate a trailing-edge dimmer (provided the bulb is designed to be dimmed).
posted by introp at 6:52 PM on October 4, 2014

They've all been bulbs from Costco

I really, really like Costco and buy as much as I can there instead of other stores, but I think the brand of bulbs they carry (both LED and CFL) is crap, judging from complaints I’ve seen. I haven’t bought any LED bulbs yet (I live in an unusual location where halogen is actually the best environmentally for several reasons), but have been keenly interested over the years. As far as I know the best quality LED bulbs are from Philips.

Aside from the dimmer issue, LED bulbs need good heat dispersion and I’m skeptical about the long-term life of the electronics inside of them because of heat expansion/contraction. An engineer (?; not sure of his actual education) who goes by the name electronupdate on YouTube posts fascinating reviews, comparisons, and teardowns of LED bulbs. I had no idea there were that much electronics inside of the base of the bulbs.
posted by D.C. at 8:04 PM on October 4, 2014

As far as I know the best quality LED bulbs are from Philips.

I should clarify that I mean the higher-priced Philips bulbs, some of which have won awards. The newer “SlimStyle” line of bulbs is cheap but lower quality (by design) in multiple ways.
posted by D.C. at 8:42 PM on October 4, 2014

Apart from the dimmers, which is the most likely explanation, it could also be an over-voltage problem, which will burn out bulbs very quickly.
posted by dg at 9:23 PM on October 4, 2014

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