Saturday, January 23, 2016

Track Lighting

Track Lighting Ideas

Beams - Painting in Process
As with many other homes in the neighborhood, when we moved into our current house (and actually also in the previous home in the neighborhood) there were areas that used Track Lighting to illuminate walls and dark corners. Our house was painted light green and had dark green beams when acquired, so in 2005 we decided to paint and go to a different color scheme - the walls became a yellowish cream which was a bit lighter than the hospital green, and the beams became a dark brown (which is the current beam color).

Pre-purchase Photo near fireplace
Since we were painting, it made sense to pull down the old track lighting, especially the white which looked a bit awkward - the existing tracks washed walls in our living and dining room with 13 foot ceiling and were mounted on the bottom of the beams - those would need to go and be replaced with new tracks that would be mounted on the sides of the beams (so they would essentially be hidden from the sight-line when viewing the room from the carport entrance). There was one track in the master bedroom mounted on a beam in white; and another along one wall where the fireplace resides with large black heads that illuminated the brick wall and a very dark walnut paneled corner with shelves (see the photo to the right for what was there). It didn't look as bad as the other areas since these were black, but I wanted to have the same types of lighting throughout the house for easier maintenance - call me anal.

Hampton Bay Original Box
We ended up replacing all of the tracks and heads with black-finish lights purchased at Home Depot and made by Hampton Bay - those were the most reasonably priced options available at the time (around 2005-ish). Basically, you could purchase a 36" HALO style track (two conductor plus ground) with three Low-Voltage Halogen heads for about $50.  I swapped everything out, added extra track length to some areas and also added two additional fixtures so we could use the same MR16 Halogen bulb everywhere. In the 13 years we've lived in our home I've only had to replace 2 bulbs and most recently one of the heads died, so the system worked very well - it also worked with a regular dimmer switch.  That was our current setup up until December 2015.

When I first looked at LEDs in 2012 the bulbs I purchased didn't produce enough light to illuminate our closet - they were pretty bad.Most recently the technology for LED replacement bulbs has finally caught up with the amount of light (lumens), distance of travel, color or quality of the light, etc that makes them comparable to the halogen (or even incandescent) bulb. Sure, they aren't exactly the same (it would take some bulb to do the output of a 50W Halogen) but these new bulbs are very close - plus, if you're like us, you normally have your lights dimmed at least slightly so the net result for 95% of the time is the same. I want to use this post to discuss what we did and what we used.

I recently pulled down three pendant lights as they no longer worked in the remodeled study (they used to illuminate a planter that acted as a retaining wall for the stairs to the basement - the planter is gone and soon to be replaced with a Northcrest-appropriate post-and-rail system. We wanted  wash the wall of the stairwell as we have a large canvas that would work perfectly there. So for this project I was looking at two different things:
  1. Adding two new tracks that would provide some lighting to the wall (there's a beam separating the current line of pendants) - we selected tracks because it would provide the most angle and placement of the heads, plus the track would cover the existing ceiling holes - the wiring was already in place.
  2. Replacing the existing track lighting bulbs with LEDs if possible as it was time to transition to the new technology, and potentially save some money. For me, it's much easier to use the same bulbs everywhere so I only have to keep up with sourcing and keeping one style. 

Lighting Choices

When I started to look at what was available in an LED, I had the following considerations:
  1. Ideally I would be able to use the existing heads and swap out the bulbs with LEDs. My initial exploration into that possibility didn't fare too well - the BORGs (Big Obnoxious Retail Giants - like Home Depot or Lowes) didn't have any low voltage options other than the existing MR16 halogen bulbs. So I starting thinking about swapping out the heads, worried that it could become difficult to find the old-school low voltage bulbs based on not being able to find them in the big stores.
  2. With the idea in mind to swap the heads, I really wanted to continue using the existing track light setup - meaning I either needed fixtures that could fit into the HALO style track or I would have to replace the track if I went with a different type of fixture.
  3. Once I got into the idea of replacing both the tracks and the lights I started down the path of what was available at Home Depot that would "work" - the choices they have are two different Hampton Bay tracks - each set came with three heads and the LED bulbs. The first was $99 and was a 30W equivalent while the second was $110 and was a 50W equivalent, but the bulbs and fixtures were huge - more like those spots you use in recessed cans. They were also JUNO style tracks which weren't compatible with my current tracks AND they used a regular screw-in style bulb (just in two different sizes). I actually purchased 2 sets of each style thinking that one of them would work - they sat on the floor while I pondered them.
FYI there are two other track types/styles - one looks just like the HALO but only has two conductors - it's usually called JUNO style; and the second is a flatter track with two conductors that originated with Lightolier - nowadays, if you go to Home Depot the track and kits offered are the JUNO style. The kits at Home Depot look very similar to the old Hampton Bay track that I used before, only the heads aren't low voltage - in my case, the base doesn't contain a transformer from 120v to 12v. Instead the base looks like an iPhone charger. Also the bulbs used are 120v and when you look at them, even if you get a fixture that uses MR16, these bulbs are called MR15GU10 - instead of pins that push into holes, there are two knobbed pins that lock with a twist into the fixture. Due to the voltage and the style, they two bulbs aren't interchangeable - too bad as they can be purchased the most cheaply (they carry the GU10s at IKEA, for instance so they are readily available).

LED MR16 Low Voltage Bulb Replacement

After looking things over in the area where the two tracks would go, I started to think about alternatives. I really, really didn't like the idea of having a different type of bulb to keep up with just in this one area. The last time I tried halogen replacements for the MR16 they were horrible - hardly any light at all, so I was a bit skeptical at direct replacement. However what I found was that in the intervening years the technology had vastly improved. I decided to try what was available on Amazon - my selection was the Torchstar 7W MR 16 LED Dimmable bulb. I bought a set of 6 rated at 450 lumens which was close to what I was shooting for so I ordered a set as a test (when I researched the best price points buying in groups of 5 or 6 provided the best price). This was the set I ordered:

I swapped these out with the highest fixtures I have (13 foot ceiling) and we liked the amount of light output - of course the old style dimmers caused them to flicker, but upgrading to the C*L style dimmer by Lutron (TGCL-153PR-WH) solved that problem. The lights with the new dimmer were terrific - no flicker, dim from about 10% to 100%, direct replacement to what I had in the walls and they were automatically rated for 3-way. I immediately ordered three more sets of bulbs to swap out all the existing heads and give me 6 bulbs for two new fixtures. Notice that my project just got bigger with the addition of the dimmers but these would need to be swapped anyway with the transition to LED.

Now to source a similar low-voltage kit for the new area - this was problematic until I found a vendor on eBay (handle suzyq9871) - who had a 36 inch track kit with three heads for $40 with free shipping. They looked right but I wanted to make sure so I asked a few questions (are these HALO style, are the heads low voltage, and do they use MR16 with the two narrow pins -technically GU5.3 and NOT GU10?). The replies were immediate and yes, yes, yes so I ordered two sets (figuring that the two sets cost less than a single new kit at Home Depot). Upon arrival I tried one with an LED bulb in an existing track and it worked fine but unfortunately flickered, even with the upgraded dinner switch (note that it worked perfectly with a halogen). The head looks slightly different - the base is shorter in length and taller from the track, with a shorter bracket (I think the brand being knocked-off is WAC which may be another option, but much more expensive), but otherwise the heads look the same. The fix was to swap out the heads with those in the closet (which don't have a dimmer). Problem fixed by putting the older Hampton Bay heads with the LEDs in the newly added track while the cheaper heads go in the closet.

Project Costs

I've now finished updating all the bulbs, installed the new track and fixtures and installed new dimmers. Here's a breakdown of costs:

  1. 24 Bulbs (4 sets of 6 at $42.81/set) plus tax = $189.91
  2. 2 Light Kits from eBay = $80
  3. 6 Dimmer Switches - 147.48
  4. Total: $417.39
Sounds like a lot? But remember I was already adding two light fixtures (About $150 for the fixtures, bulbs and one dimmer plus tax) and with all the lighting going to LED, my existing dimmers would have been unusable and would need to be replaced anyway at some point (about $125 plus tax of the total). So it's really about replacing three sets of bulbs at $128.43 for 18 bulbs.

The Math

The cost savings of running these bulbs - 7w LEDs over a 50w Halogen, is calculated at 86%. The average cost to run each of these bulbs, 3 hours at a time every day for a year is $0.84 and yes you read that correctly, 84 cents. Multiplied by 24 comes out to about $20 a year if I leave all the track lights on for 3 hours per day. Also, LEDs are rated to last about 10 times longer (50W Halogen 2500 hours, 7w LED, 25,000 hours).

From a practical perspective, three tracks are on most of the time (minimum 3 hours a day with the rest rarely used) and each has 3 bulbs so 9 bulbs total, multiplied equals $7.56 per year. 7w LEDs use about 14% the energy of a 50w halogen for the same period and interval, so about $5.88 per bulb per year, multiplied by the 9 bulbs is about $53 per year to run the halogens in the same 3 tracks.

If you do the math, the entire project, based on the savings of only those three tracks and 9 lights, is paid for in 9 years. Note though that I'm getting two additional tracks, 6 fixtures, the dimmer replacement and all the bulbs paid for during that interval. Not bad, right?

Factor in bulb replacement - since the LED last so much longer you get 23.4 years out of them rather than 2.5 years for the halogens (356 days x 3 hours/day divided into the average life in hours) and it really becomes significant.

Note that I may have screwed up all this math but you get the idea - LEDs pay for themselves, have improved performance and they are look finally close enough to traditional lighting to be worth buying and using. Also, these bulbs end up costing about the same as a replacement halogen so the replacement cost is a wash (meaning when a halogen burns out you'd need to buy a replacement anyway and the price per bulb is under a dollar).

One final note - I believe as the industry transitions to LED you'll have a tough time finding bulbs that aren't and when you do find them, they'll become a lot more expensive (supply and demand thing). You may want to plan for this sooner rather than later. You could also replace your most-frequently used lights first so you get an immediate savings gain then transition the rest over time if you're on a tight budget.

-- John

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