Experiences with MR16 LED downlights

Executive Summary:

I bought some LED downlights last year that were a disappointment. However, the latest products in this realm (especially this one, the Ecolume 4W MR16 LED lamp) are ‘the business’ – and (for my purposes) are a genuine (and energy efficient) drop-in alternative for Halogen lamps.

I’ve tested four different LED downlight products in order to reach this conclusion. Read on for the full story.

We’re all very familiar with the tendency to light rooms – often quite large ones – using lots of 50W halogen downlights.

These things were clearly intended to be spotlights, and the notion of ‘area lighting’ using these lights is (electrically and thermally) silly, at face value. They run very hot (which creates its own set of challenges), and there have to be a lot of them in the ceiling to create widespread illumination.

Our home is a particularly severe exemplar of this. The main living/kitchen/dining room (one big room) contained a forest of 30 x 50W Halogen downlights, for a massive 1500 Watts (1.5kW) of peak power draw if they’re all turned on. That is approaching the energy draw of a small electric heater – just to light up the room!

Another room upstairs (the media room) is a near copy of this room, with the same number of halogen downlights there as well.

While we have plans to renovate in the future, including a complete re-working of the lighting strategy, there was a clear incentive in the meantime to do ‘something’ about the forest of Halogen lamps.

Having put in a 10kW solar array in the house some time back, the simplest way to multiply the effectiveness of that array is to reduce the energy demand in the house – and this forest of hot halogen lamps was an obvious target.

To do so, I had been looking for ‘drop in’ replacements to Halogen lamps of this sort (12V transformer driven), so I could do a direct replacement ‘in place’ without having to re-do the house wiring in the process.

My criteria (other than being a straight ‘drop-in’ substitute) was for the lamps to be warm white rather than cool white, and for them to support being dimmable (as most of my circuits have dimmers attached).

A year or so ago, I finally started to see this sort of device appear on the market and I made my first investment in LED ‘substitute’ MR16 lights.

IMR16 CREE 3W LED (270 Lumens) found them at the trusty (and always fun) Jaycar, who had started stocking two models of this sort. I went in and bought myself a number of each model to take home and try out.

The first type I tried is a 3W unit using a Cree 3W LED. This is the same size as a halogen lamp, but with a brightness of only 270 lumens. That brightness level is (literally) a pale comparison to the halogen originals.

MR16 CREE 3 x 2W LED (310 Lumens)The second type that I bought at the time was a 6W unit (composed of 3 x 2W Cree LEDs in one unit) that develops a (little) bit more brightness (310 Lumens).

In physical terms, this is a bit of a monster. It is about twice as high as a halogen lamp (as you can see from the lamp and the box it came in).

These units were a mistake for me to go with, in multiple respects:

First, it turns out (as above) that it is only 14% brighter than the 3W unit, for twice the power consumption. The difference in power consumption mostly emerges as heat – which is a bit ironic given the whole point of the exercise was power efficiency.

I hadn’t spotted that point at the time I bought them, or I would have likely just picked up the 3W units and been done with it. Despite all the details being on the side of the box for me to read at the time, I just rationalised that 6W has to be twice as bright as 3W, given it was the same brand from the same vendor. Whoops.

Second, its physical size created challenges in mounting the unit. I found that I had to (literally) break one part of my in-roof mounting cups to make these brutes fit. This involvedbreaking off a pair of metal locking clips in the roof fitting, that lock in a standard lamp, and letting the lamp just sit against the mounting ring using gravity instead.

This means the units can’t be deployed at any angle other than straight downward (which is ok in my case, but it would have been problematic otherwise).

Third, they really aren’t very bright. Our whole family had to get used to the somewhat ‘cave like’ resulting effect – its a lot less bright than the Halogen lamps.

In practice, the pragmatic outcome has been that we just tend to turn on more banks of these lights than we might otherwise have done – and hence we are defeating some of the LED the energy saving by turning on twice as many of the things 🙂

But the real sting in the tail was something I has taken the last year to fully appreciate – those units are simply not reliable.

Remember that great promise of LED lamps lasting for tens of thousands of hours (hence years and years of active service)?

Well these ones don’t. I think its the driver circuitry failing, not the LED’s themselves, but either way they’re just duds. I’ve replaced about a third of them over the last year.

I originally bought enough to do both rooms, but they have wound up being deployed as just one room plus a box of spares – and at this point I am mostly out of spares (due to frequent failures).

Maybe its just a bad batch, but clearly these have performed far worse in this regard than incandescents.  And since I paid around $40 each for them at the time – well, ouch.

However, as you’d probably expect for someone like me – I’m unashamedly an early adopter – I’m used to suffering some downsides in taking up first generation equipment 🙂

In the last few weeks, I decided that I should see whether Jaycar had subsequently broadened their range.

Happily – they have!

I have recently come back from another trip to the shop (this time, the online Jaycar shop) with boxes full of two newer models to try.

MR16 24x2835-SMD (450 Lumens)The first of the new breed is an Ecolume MR16 24×2835-SMD 4W unit, composed (interestingly) of 24 small surface-mounted LED’s in a cluster across the front face of the unit.

WIth a 450 lumen light output at 4W, this unit is both substantially brighter than the Cree MR16 products, and clearly far more efficient as well (more light for less watts).

I threw some of these into one bank of my roof-light farm at home and turned them on – and the difference was dramatic. The cave-like illumination that I’d made the whole family get used for the the last year or so was gone. Clear, decently bright light flooded into the area I’d replaced.

With a 60 degree beam angle rather than the 38 degrees of the Cree units, the new lamps also eliminated the tendency toward having very sharp shadow edges. They also removed the Cree units’ tendency toward blocking the light from the lamps with your body if you are positioned above your work surface. These are things we had got used to with the Cree units, but it was great to remove those compromises.

MR16 COB 6W LED (530 Lumens)The second of the new breed is another Ecolume product, the MR16 6W COB LED.

This unit draws 6W (same as the monster-truck Cree 3 x 2W unit), but in a ‘normal’ sized unit. It is clearly far brighter, delivering an impressive 530 lumens.

However this is only 18% brighter than the Ecolume 4W unit, despite drawing 50% more power per unit to do it.

Throwing these up into another ceiling bank and turning them on, they were (as expected) even better again. That additional brightness is certainly in evidence compared to the 4W Ecolume unit, though the differential was relatively small; both Ecolume units are dramatically better than the Cree products.

Remaining solidly in early-adopter mode, I’ve ordered a box of the new 6W and another box of the 4W Ecolume units. One lot are filling out our kitchen/dining/lounge, and the other lot are going upstairs, into the media room.

Over the coming year, the intention is to run them as a decent A/B comparison between the two products.

An important part of this process is going to be the comparison in terms of reliability/lifetime (and degradation in brightness with age). I do hope they are all working after a year – that’d be a pleasant improvement on my current experiences.

It is quite instructive to compare the two Ecolume products in terms of their performance in a few different ways.

The new Ecolume 4W units are currently priced at $11.70 each (quantity 6+) from Jaycar, and the Ecolume 6W unit is $23.70 each (quantity 6+). The 6W unit, while 18% brighter, costs almost twice as much per unit!

Taking both cost and brightness into account, we can determine the effective “cost per lumen” for each of these models:

The 4W unit costs 2.6 cents/lumen, compared to a far higher 4.5 cents/lumen for the 6W unit.

So that 4W unit wins in both relative and absolute terms on purchase cost.

Now lets turn to the outcome in terms of running cost, by looking at the energy needed to run them relative to their brightness.

Here is how that comparison turns out:

  • Cree 3W LED @ 270 Lumens = 90 Lumens/Watt
  • Cree 6W (3×2) LED @ 310 Lumens = 52 Lumens/Watt
  • Ecolume 4W (24×2485) LED @ 450 Lumens = 113 Lumens/Watt
  • Ecolume 6W @ 530 Lumens = 88 Lumens/Watt

That old Cree 6W unit is a four time loser. Worst brightness per watt. Physically twice as large as a standard halogen. Not very bright. And (worst of all) they fail frequently.

The standout at the other end of the scale is clearly the 4W Ecolume, in all respects, and at half the cost of the 6W unit, and only $11.70 in absolute terms while being only a little less bright, this product is reaching the point where its no longer a grudge purchase to consider using LEDs as halogen substitutes.

Over the coming year, I’ll find out whether the reliability is there for these new units (which matters above all else).

These experiences make it clear that MR16 LED’s have finally come of age. The Ecolume devices both deliver a practical outcome that no longer compromises the available light in the room, and that does the job … brilliantly.

UPDATE (June 2014): The Ecolume LED’s are still going strong at this time. Zero failures (compared to the regular failure rate noted above for the Cree LED’s). I remain very happy with them in our home.

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