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Let There Be (Better) light

Roll with the technical advances in lighting and brighten up your shop with LEDs. You’ll see better, save money, and change lightbulbs far less often.

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Most of us don’t think about the lighting in our shops. Instead, we tend to just accept it for what it was the day we moved into the space. But almost every shop can be better lit. And with today’s LED technology, better lighting won’t put a big strain on your wallet.

Older technologies, such as incandescent and halogen lights, have nearly disappeared from the market. And fluorescent lighting is fading quickly, especially in the home and workshop sectors.

Why you should switch to LED

LED stands for light-emitting diode, an electronic light that requires less electrical current than other light technologies. With LED lights, you’ll enjoy these benefits:

•  Lower energy consumption equals greater cost savings. A 60-watt-equivalent LED bulb uses only 8–10 watts compared with an incandescent bulb.
•  Immediate full brightness when turned on.
•  Because LEDs generate little heat, you can install a brighter bulb in a fixture with a wattage limitation for incandescent bulbs.
•  Greater range of light in the color spectrum. (See the chart below.)

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•  Unaffected by excessively hot or cold environments.
•  You pay more up front for LEDs, but their longer lifespan—typically 5–20 times longer than incandescents, depending on the type and brand of LED—saves money over time.
•  Unlike fluorescent lights, LEDs contain no mercury, a known carcinogen.

What to know before you buy

•  Replacement bulbs and tubes. LEDs come in a variety of styles and shapes. Many bulbs fit screw-in fixtures, so there’s no need to buy new fixtures. And LED tubes fit into most common fluorescent-light fixtures.

Traditional fluorescent-tube fixtures use ballasts to regulate electric current running to the bulbs, and replacement LED tubes often work fine in fixtures with electronic ballasts. However, fixtures with older-style magnetic ballasts (below), will not work with LED tubes. In either case, when LED tubes won’t work—unfortunately, discovery can be trial and error—hire an electrician to replace or bypass the ballast, or simply buy a new LED fixture, below. When you bypass the ballast, you must buy LED tubes rated specifically to work without ballasts. These typically cost 20–40 percent more and can be more difficult to find.

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A magnetic ballast must be replaced or bypassed to make this fluorescent fixture work with LED tubes. (The old fluorescent bulbs display the darkened ends common to tubes about to expire.)

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Dedicated LED fixtures do not use replaceable tubes, but rather a string of diodes mounted directly to the fixture.

•  Lumens means light output. LED lights are rated not by wattage (as with older technologies), but rather by lumens, the true measure of a light’s output. A typical LED screw-in bulb with a light output equivalent to a 60-watt incandescent bulb puts out about 800 lumens. Find the lumens rating on the bulb package, shown below.

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LED bulb packaging includes lumens and color rating, as well as equivalency reference to other types of bulbs.

For a woodworking shop, a good rule of thumb is to have 75 lumens per square foot. So, multiply your shop’s square footage by 75, and divide that figure by the fixtures you have to determine the size bulbs you need. If you don’t like the final lighting after converting your shop using this formula, add fixtures or replace some bulbs with those rated higher or lower in lumens until you’re satisfied.

• Even white light has color. You might not notice it, but artificial light ranges in color from the yellowish-orange tones at the warm end of the spectrum to bluish tones at the cool end (measured in degrees Kelvin, shown above). Most living rooms, dining rooms, and bedrooms feel best with warm tones in the sub-3000° range. But this can be less beneficial in a shop setting. Light in the 6000°-plus range presents a stark light that can be unsettling and distort visual perception of wood tones (which tend to be warm). The middle of the spectrum, from 4000° to 5500°, presents “pure white” light that’s usually best for a shop setting. This helps you accurately read wood tones while still providing sufficient lighting for fine-detail work. 

More tips for better shop lighting

• Lighten the walls. Painting shop walls and the ceiling white or another light color reflects more light back to worksurfaces. By contrast, dark colors absorb light.
• Watch out for overhead doors. Ceiling light fixtures covered by an open overhead door do you little good. If the natural light coming through the open door isn’t enough, add extra light fixtures to compensate.
• LEDs aim light. Fluorescent tubes project light in all directions, so reflective-hooded fixtures help direct the light downward. LED tubes don’t require reflective hoods because they project light straight down (or outward, if wall-mounted).
• Consult a pro. If you’re not sure about how to approach shop lighting, work with a professional lighting consultant to form a plan. And if you’re not comfortable doing your wiring—or local codes prohibit it—hire an electrician to add fixtures or rewire existing ones.
• Check for incentives. Many energy companies offer incentives for switching to power-saving LEDs throughout your house. This might make the upgrade a true bargain.
• Supplement lighting in dark areas. Add small AC- or battery-powered LED fixtures beneath wall cabinets (as shown below) or any structure on the wall or ceiling that blocks light. Or use portable LED lamps—powered by the same battery packs as your cordless drill, for example, or an LED headlamp or visor-clip light—to illuminate shadowy work areas that don’t warrant permanent light fixtures.

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A small LED mounted under a cabinet illuminates storage bins below it as well as a benchtop sander. This light has an easy-on/off touch switch.

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