Jun 102014
 

Electrical Plans and Tools Low Voltage Lighting: Advantages, Disadvantages, and Straight Up Myths

Low voltage lighting got its start in American residential settings in the 1950s. Originally developed to facilitate landscape lighting, low voltage lighting soon made its way indoors and is now very common for lighting applications like track lighting, recessed lighting, under cabinet lighting, strip lighting, and more. So, what’s the deal with low voltage lighting? What does low voltage lighting do that regular line voltage can’t? And why do people disagree on matters as seemingly straightforward as to whether or not low voltage light bulbs last longer?

So, there’s this video on YouTube in which two electricians and an electrical and lighting supplier guy hold a mini-symposium on the merits of low voltage and line voltage recessed lighting fixtures, or can lights. Or pot lights. Or recessed cans. You get the deal.

Here’s the video:

These experienced electricians hit on four of the most important factors when choosing between line voltage and low voltage.

1. Light Quality

The electrician on the right suggests that with low voltage lighting, “you may get a brighter white light.” This is a highly controversial statement, with proponents on either side. In our experience, this isn’t the case. In fact, there is no discernible difference in the quality of light between low voltage and line voltage lights. However, some electricians with experience out in the field make the claim that low voltage lighting produces a “crisper beam,” to use Vaughn’s words, and because so many people make this remark, we thought you should know about it, even if we don’t agree.

2. Energy

Does low voltage lighting save energy? It seems there’s some disagreement on that issue, as well. Most people, including the guys on “Vaughn TV” (the video above), agree that low voltage lighting does not necessarily mean energy savings. In fact, there is no guarantee that low voltage lighting will save you any energy at all.  They do, however, suggest using a dimmer to save energy, and this is a point that can’t be overstated. Dimmers give you control over your lighting levels, and this has both aesthetic and financial benefits, whether you are using line or low voltage light fixtures.

However, dimming works a lot better and is cheaper with line voltage lighting. Low voltage lighting requires more expensive dimmers, and, once you add this to the cost of transformers, you really start to notice a difference in your cost.

3. Lamp Life

Do low voltage light bulbs have longer lives than light bulbs used in line voltage light fixtures? This is an interesting point, and it’s good to discuss, but, if you look at the numbers for independent lighting studies, you will see no difference in the rated life of low voltage and line voltage lights. This being said, there are still electricians out there who swear that low voltage lighting ensures longer lamp life. We do not agree as a general rule. Although there will obviously be lots of times that low voltage light bulbs do outlast line voltage, it can go the other way, too, just as often.

It’s also important to consider that low voltage lighting requires transformers, which burn out eventually. Line voltage does not share this issue.

4. Versatility and Variation

It’s a common conception that low voltage lighting gives you more options than line voltage lighting. In the video above, the electricians agree that with low voltage lights, you can use a wider variety of light bulbs and therefore get a wider variety of beam size. They also say that you can also use more kinds of lenses with low voltage light fixtures, giving you more control over the kind of light being cast. This may or may not be true. Even if it did happen to be true in 2012, that doesn’t mean it is still the case.

What can be said, though, is that low voltage lighting allows for using smaller light fixtures, and this creates more options for fitting light fixtures in smaller spaces. This is true despite the fact that low voltages light fixtures requires transformers. Often a transformer is remote and not attached to the fixture. The reason you can use smaller light fixtures with low voltage lighting is that the lower voltage allows for the use of a smaller filament, which means you can use smaller light bulbs, which means you can use a small light fixture, which means you can add light to a tighter space in the house.

Conclusion

It’s clear that there are a lot of differing opinions when it comes to the advantages and disadvantages of low voltage lighting. Some people say low voltage lights save energy, have longer lamp lives, and can use a much wider variety of light bulbs to give more customized lighting. None of this is totally true, however. The main advantage of low voltage lighting is that its low voltage allows the filament of the light bulb to be smaller, and this allows users to put lighting applications in smaller places. As for light quality, energy savings, and lamp life, using low voltage lighting might not be doing you all the favors you think it is. But there’s disagreement on that, too.

What am I overlooking? What are some other important differences between line voltage and low voltage lighting?

by

Tom SowdersAfter majoring in creative writing at NC State, I worked in the home remodeling industry. Then, I attended graduate school for a really long time and gained experience as a writer and writing instructor. Now I write for Pegasus! I live in Raleigh with my wife and baby boy, and you can find me around the Triangle anywhere there's good music and/or NC-style BBQ.

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  • http://www.PegasusLighting.com Tom Farin

    Since the filament of a low voltage MR16 lamp is smaller in size than the filament of line voltage reflector lamp, the filament acts more like a “point source” and therefore, the light can be more easily controlled while it’s being reflected by the metalized reflector of the lamp and therefore, the beam spread of a low voltage lamp is more well defined than the beam spread of line voltage
    lamp. This may give rise to some electricians saying that low voltage downlights provide a “crisper beam”.

    Also, many line voltage recessed downlights have been using incandescent reflector lamps and most low voltage recessed downlights use halogen lamps and therefore, this may give rise to some electricians saying that the low voltage downlights provide a “brighter, whiter light”.

    In other words, some of the observations made by electricians or home owners may be more the result of the light source used in the downlight rather than the downlight itself.

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