LED or Not?
Selecting bulbs for three big Christmas light displaysBy Robin Minnick
Anyone who puts up decorative lights knows how expensive it can get. For many of us that means turning to LED lights that can use 80 to 90 percent less electricity. But the question is, how good are they? Some North Carolina enterprises are finding out.
Biltmore Estate near Asheville uses LEDs in permanent displays and incandescents for temporary ones. "The wiring on LED strands is thicker and less workable than the incandescent," says floral displays manager Cathy Barnhardt. She is not satisfied with the visibility of LEDs, which appear dim at some angles. Because incandescents are less expensive to buy, Biltmore Estate still uses them on its 55-foot tree. The estate did convert lights on its huge Banquet Hall tree to LEDs. Incandescents dry out the tree faster, they reported, making it a fire hazard. And the lower-wattage LEDs are less likely to blow fuses in historic house settings.
Three smaller North Carolina venues — Meadow Lights near Benson (Johnston County), High Country Lights in Ennice (Alleghany County), and Lu Mil Vineyard in Elizabethtown (Bladen County) — are converting gradually to LED.
Meadow Lights uses individual bulbs, swapping out an entire display at a time. "You can't mix 'em," says Ray Jones, because the quality of light in an LED is different from an incandescent. "It's kind of expensive at the outset, and we don't really know yet if we'll make up the difference."
High Country Lights' William Bottomley has so far replaced 20,000 of his 70,000 lights with commercial LEDs. He's delighted with the versatility the numerous styles provide, from the large C9 to the nightlight-sized C7 to the 5MM resembling a pencil eraser. "Only your imagination is holding back on this one," he said. "They can be used almost in any and every way possible." He's not worried about breakage either. "Most LEDs a person can walk on, and some can even have a tractor-trailer driven on them."
In an agricultural setting like Lu Mil Vineyard, every activity requires efficiency, particularly for a side of the business that runs only one month. Owner Ron Taylor says LEDs' low wattage doesn't need the additional infrastructure it would take to run a comparable number of incandescent: "With LED we can have a lot more lights." This year they will add about 25,000 LED lights to their existing 400,000-light arrangement. Taylor thinks LEDs are better quality. "Incandescents get so hot, the paint fades and changes the color." Newly built giant ornaments will have near-permanent lighting. The LEDs' lifetime of 10-11 years makes that practical.