Cost of electricity in Panama… Are LEDs the answer?

Blog by Joy Huppe

Front with lighted water feature

Lighting up the Casa at Night: Our glowing sign uses strands of colored LED lights.

Recently, motivated by an interest in reducing our electricity costs, we started doing a bit of research into the world of lighting, specifically LED lighting… what it is, what are the pros/cons, and if it makes sense to be using this technology here in Boquete. While in the midst of our fact-finding, we began to realize that if we had questions about this still-relatively-new world of LED, then perhaps you might too.

LED is short for Light Emitting Diode, which is a semiconductor device that converts electricity into light. And okay, the technology is not really all that new. It was first developed in the 1960s, but has taken awhile to catch on, mostly due to early limitations of color and brightness. Fast-forward to the year 2015, and now with numerous improvements in brightness, life-span, color quality, shapes and sizes, there is an impressive array of LED options to choose from.

We’ve come a long way from the first red-only LEDs (originally featured in electronic devices such as clock-radios, answering machines, etc.) and even further from the original filament-bulbs of Edison’s day. In fact, the only thing LEDs have in common with the original light bulb, is that they are both apparatuses that produce light. Instead, one should consider LEDs as being “computerized light”, and as such, it is necessary to reframe one’s thinking when interacting with this new technology.


Remember these? We’ve come a long way from the original red-only LEDs.

First of all, forget everything you know about watts. For years we bulb-shoppers have relied upon wattage as an indication of how bright a bulb will be, though technically wattage isn’t a measurement of brightness, but rather how much energy the bulb draws. With incandescent and fluorescent bulbs there is a direct correlation between wattage and brightness. With LEDs, this no longer holds true. For example, an LED bulb with comparable brightness to a 60-watt incandescent bulb is only 8 to 12 watts. This is because it draws less energy to produce a similar brilliance.

What we need to consider then, is lumens. The lumen is the real measurement of brightness provided by a light bulb, and is the number to look for when shopping for LEDs. A helpful reference chart for this can be found below.


Handy ‘lil cheat sheet for converting Watts to Lumens

The second item to consider when shopping for LEDs is the quality of color. It has been determined that the quality and color of light can both enhance people’s ability to perform tasks and influence their emotional state. LEDs are now capable of displaying an impressive color range, from purple to red, to a spectrum of whites and yellows. When selecting lighting for the home, most people desire a warm, soft color/quality, similar to the light produced by incandescent bulbs. To meet this demand, LEDs have designated “warm white” (or “soft white”) and “bright white” bulbs that have become popular for domestic use.

If you want to get technical, light color (which is actually color temperature) is measured in kelvins. The lower the number, the warmer (more yellow) the light. The typical incandescent bulb is between 2,700 and 3,500 k, so that’s the range you need to keep in mind when looking for soft/warm quality LED light.


Use Kelvins to get “in the mood”…

Now that you understand that LEDs use less energy to produce a similar brightness and color quality as traditional bulbs, and factoring in that LEDs have a longer life-span than incandescent and fluorescent bulbs, the logical conclusion is that the overall cost of electricity should decrease. Right? Right… and sort-of right.

This is where the pros and cons come into play. For example, the cost of purchasing an LED is substantially higher than that of a traditional bulb — to the tune of upwards of $25 – $75, or more! (Though it should be noted that LED prices have been consistently dropping from year to year.) Therefore, if you are considering replacing your all current bulbs with LEDs (as we have been), this could require a substantial amount of money upfront. This then begs the question, will the initial investment pay-off over time?

It has been claimed that LEDs can reduce electricity bills by up to 96%, with a lifespan of over 15 years. Indeed this is true, and there is a lot of supporting information available on this topic. In fact, there are several online calculators to predict what your personal “energy savings” may be if choosing to make the switch. Judging by just this factor alone, it is almost a no-brainer to opt for LED usage.

Yet there are a few things to consider. One critical factor to the life-span of an LED is heat-sink design. Although LEDs produce substantially much less heat that other bulbs, they still produce heat. This heat is pulled into a heat-sink at the base of the bulb, then dissipates into the air, keeping the LED cool and prolonging its life. However, if the bulb is placed in an enclosed housing, the heat won’t have anywhere to go and life-span is greatly compromised. As much of our lighting here at Casa de Montaña is recessed, this was of particular concern for us.


Heat sink design and bulb placement are critical to an LED’s lifespan.

Another concern is the issue of “dim-ability” – or rather, how compatible LED lights are with traditional dimming switches. Most dimmers work by cutting off the amount of electricity sent to the bulb, which in turn lowers the brightness. With LEDs, as you now know, there is little correlation between energy draw and brightness, resulting in the need to either replace current dimming switches with LED-compatible dimmers, or seek out dimmer-specific LEDs (usually at an even higher price point than standard LEDs.)   Most of our lighting at the ‘Casa’ is controlled by dimmer switches (we like being able to “set the mood” via lighting) and hence, would require some major re-wiring.

The last issue, which is of particular importance for us here in Panama, is the ability of LEDs to weather fluctuations in electrical current, a.k.a. power surges. As most residents know, power surges are common and our electronics are at the mercy of these electrical spikes. (To combat this, most people use surge protectors for valuable electronics and adopt the habit of unplugging items when not in use.   Here at Casa de Montaña, we have property-wide surge protection installed that considerably lowers the risk of burning out small appliances.)

Unfortunately, there is conflicting information available on how well an LED will fare in a power-surge. Some claim that LEDs are more prone to burnout from electrical power surges because “the individual semiconductors are extremely sensitive to voltage fluctuations.”   While at the same time, it is reported that “LEDs are current sensitive and not usually impacted by a typical voltage surge.” Needless to say, such disparate information does not instill confidence. And while many LED manufacturers offer warranties, actually submitting a claim and receiving reimbursement (particularly when living in a foreign country) may not be an easy process.

All this to say, even though we are constantly refining, improving and evolving, we have decided to hold off on making the change to LED lighting. And, if/when we do, we’ll most likely dip our toes in, rather than make a major plunge. Meanwhile… we invite you to come stay with us at Casa de Montaña. Not only will we greet you with a smile, provide quality lodging, offer delicious breakfasts, and go above and beyond to provide exceptional service … “we’ll leave the light on for you.”

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