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Change your light bulb, flatter your face

TODAY tech editor Paul Hochman on the LED lighting revolution that saves you money, supports your country and gives your skin a healthy pink glow.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Every time I’m on the TODAY Show, I say hi to Matt, Ann, Al and Meredith, I shake hands with my producer, and then I bow down and give thanks to the man who is by far the most important person at the show: Howie Strawbridge. Who the heck is Howie? He’s the TODAY lighting director. Why do I bow down to him? Well, for one thing, he’s very nice. But while my TODAY pals are fantastic to work with on camera and my producer keeps me out of trouble, it’s Howie who makes me look, um, “good” at 7:00 in the morning.

Howie’s secret: great lighting. Anybody who has seen television or film production up close knows that it takes longer to light a scene than to do almost anything else. And there’s a reason to take the time: Great light can make people look gorgeous. Bad light can make them disappear. In fact, when I was planning my wedding last September, it was Howie who came to the rescue, saying he had an idea for a way to light the outdoor tent at my reception with a new kind of light that would make everybody look fantastic, even late at night: LED bricks.

LED bricks are just square arrangements of LEDs, or Light Emitting Diodes. And you have probably seen LED lights in tons of places — on the tail lights of most modern cars (replacing bulbs that wear out quickly vs. the average 50,000-hour life of an LED), for example, or at stoplights, where the traditional bulb has been replaced by hundreds of little points of LED light. And if you watched the Olympics, you saw millions of LED lights shining wild, crazy colors on the outside walls of the Aquatic Center where Michael Phelps worked his magic.

But back to my wedding: Howie told me these LEDs could theoretically shine up to 16 million different colors on my guests … including a special color that is the ‘healthy glow” of this story’s title.  More on the secret color, and how you can use it, in a moment.

First, though, the results: It worked. My bride, Carrie, said, “Yes.” My new in-laws, as far as I could tell, were happy. And in spite of my groomlike nerves and my citylike pallor, I looked pretty good. So did everybody else. In fact, most of the pictures made it look like we’d all just spent a month at Canyon Ranch. And here’s the kicker — it saved money on our electric bill.

Yes, LEDs use much, much less electricity. Here are the numbers: An LED produces about 400 percent more light (the unit of measurement is called a “lumen”) than a regular light bulb. And it uses half the electricity to power it. Even better, when you dim an LED, it uses even less juice. Plus, unlike conventional light bulbs, LEDs can be focused. What does that mean? It means LEDs can throw light exactly where you want it — this may sound trivial, but if you’re thinking about saving money, it’s actually a very, very big deal.

Here’s why: If you look at a regular, round, 60-watt light bulb, you see that the light flies outward from it in all directions — up, down, left, right, at all angles. That’s nice, I guess, but if you have a light bulb in a lamp on your desk, for example, you only want light on your desk.  Not on the ceiling. Not in your eyes. So you put a lamp shade around the bulb. Great! Pretty! And, if it’s a Tiffany lamp shade, expensive! But there is a big irony: You’re now powering an entire light bulb and blocking about 50 percent of the light, on purpose!

It gets even more ridiculous when you look at recessed lights, which are often found in the ceiling of your kitchen or bedroom. A solid 40 to 50 percent of your light is now lighting … the insulation in the floor above you.

Then, add this maddening fact: Ninety percent of the energy used to power a normal light bulb is lost as heat. Yep, Edison was a genius, but only 10 percent of the electricity in the system he created (and which you paid Con Edison for) is actually turned into light. This is why you have to turn off a light bulb for a while before you can put your hand on it — all that heat is wasted energy.

All right, enough beating up on conventional lighting. Here’s the alternative, followed by the secret “beauty” color Howie told me about. First, the solution: LED lighting for the home is emerging as a viable, and cost-effective, alternative to conventional bulbs. And they can make a much, much warmer light than CFLs (compact fluorescents — those twisted light bulbs). CFLs throw light with all the warmth of a meat freezer.

LEDs take the 120 volts of alternating current (AC) that comes into your house and, using small transformers, drop the current down (often to 24 volts) of DC, or Direct Current. Those transformers lose only about 10 percent of the power in the conversion. Then, the rest of the electricity runs the LED, which lights your room, again, using only about half the electricity required for the old bulbs.

If you want to see how it works and get more information about the exploding category, check out the Web site of one of the world’s leading LED companies, OSRAM Opto, a German firm with offices and labs in Michigan and California (www.osram-os.com). They make LED devices for big lighting companies like Sylvania (which, with OSRAM, lit the Hoover Dam in LED lights) and smaller ones like Journée. And they, along with their competitors, are coming out with LED products that will soon replace the incandescent stuff you’ve known for your whole life.

And so, without further ado, here’s what Howie told me: “The phrase ‘pretty in pink’ is a good one to remember.” In other words, the later the night goes, the more you should throw a little more pink into the mix. Just turn up the color. With LEDs you can do that. And everybody will look fantastic. Even me.

Paul Hochman is the gear and technology editor for the TODAY Show and a Fast Company magazine contributor. He covered the Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Athens and Torino, Italy, for TODAY. He was also a three-year letter winner on the Dartmouth ski team and has a black belt in karate. Paul’s blog can be found at: