What you need to know…
It’s a lot, so if you just want the short version, scroll to the end.
Every year I get asked about switching to LEDs. The first thing to consider is the product itself. Most clients pick some up at Target or Costco and ask me to install them. Unfortunately, these are the worst LED sets to buy (I call them Consumer Grade). There are some sets that do last awhile, but most styles and brands will have at least one failing strand in the first 3 years. Sometimes it’s as high as 40% failing in the 2nd year.
The Professional Grade LEDs are the best, as the name suggests. I will discuss them later on in this post.
Consumer Grade Problems
The problem for these strands are the circuitry and our wet climate in the Pacific Northwest. Each light in the set is a single Light Emitting Diode and wired in “series”. The Consumer Grade variety is almost always identified as having intertwining stranded wire. Every strand I’ve seen has LEDs with steel leads. These are not protected from the elements. So if water gets trapped at the connection point, the steel will corrode and potentially cause the whole strand (or part) to go dead. It is extremely difficult to find the problem LED and nearly impossible if it’s already installed on your house. And the amount of time wasted trying to fix them is not worth the cost of the strand itself. And 50% of the time, I can’t even find the failure. I have often absorbed this extra cost in the past. But in the future, I will be charging to fix them, or to hang a new line (assuming the client has a spare line available.) And our availability to come back for problems is very limited during the busy install season.
Some strands are designed with better circuits that will keep the whole strand from dying. But if the problem LED is not replaced promptly, the life of the strand is in jeopardy. And there are so many types of sets, that it is impossible to keep spare parts with me for every kind of line. If I find spare bulbs with your LED set, I try to replace them during install.
If the sockets on theses strands get cracked or the diffuser globe falls off and gets lost, then I can’t fix that problem. (see Professional Grade below for the opposite scenario). Also, the wires are fragile and can easily pull out the socket, rendering the set useless if I can’t fix it on the spot.
If they are stapled under the gutter board, these strands tend to last a while. Sometimes the labor time goes up slightly for this type of installation, but not always. It just depends on your house. But moisture can still break them. That said, I do have a couple clients where this has strategy has lasted for 5+ years. But mostly I’ve had nothing but problems with these types of LED Christmas Lights.
A big limitation is customization. If you only need 5 more feet to finish off your roofline, you either end the installation short or have a ton of extra length that needs to be hidden (and there’s often no good way to hide the excess). Or if you need to jump from a lower gutter up the roof to an upper roofline, you will have “lit” bulbs running up the roof. Some clients don’t mind. Others are disappointed that the display is not as “clean” looking as they had hoped. These Consumer Grade Light Sets can’t be cut like Professional Grade and old traditional sets can. And they are often 16-50 feet long, so customizing to your roof is highly unlikely unless it all lines up perfectly, which rarely happens…
The final problem is mounting Consumer Grade LEDs. As mentioned earlier, stapling is one option. But they don’t always hang straight, especially if on stranded wire like most sets are. The other option is clips. But the next problem is the variety of sockets on these types of strands, and sourcing the right clips to do the job. Also, they are usually a single LED at each socket which makes them pretty dim individually. This is why manufacturers space them every 4-8 inches. But this means more labor installing clips and placing them on the house. And every year at re-installation, the clips end up snagging each other and the other lines. And since they often don’t grip the lights very tightly, many get dislodged. Also, many fall off during removal of the lights. So we are constantly having to reinstall clips where they have fallen off the sockets. This adds to labor cost.
All the problems mentioned above also apply to most LED icicle lights. The giant plastic casing icicles (recently being sold at Costco) are too new for me to comment on at this time. But I suspect they will have similar problems as the wiring is pretty much the same type of circuit being discussed thus far.
I hope you can see why professional installers despise these kinds of lights. You’ll notice I had nothing good to say about these lights. Oh wait… There is one positive thing. They cost less per linear foot. But when we show up and can’t finish your display the 2nd or 3rd year because of failure, you’ll likely wish you had spent more up front to get the good stuff.
Professional Grade LEDs
These lights are the only LEDs I can recommend. And I don’t mean the sets you buy at Target that say “Professional” or “Commercial”. I mean buying socket line separate from the bulbs themselves. The bulbs usually cost between $1.00 and $1.50 each. They are often referred to as Retrofit Bulbs. They are individually sealed and the circuitry that drives the LED is included in each bulb and separate from the rest of the bulbs. They each take the full voltage from the main wire. This is call a parallel circuit in electrical terms. And this is why, if a failure happens, it only affects the one bulb.
The socket line is usually around 20-40 cents a foot, and can be bought in pre-cut lengths with plugs installed. Some local places also will have large reels where you can buy custom lengths. So if you need 350 feet to decorate your house, you can buy exactly that amount. It can be cut and spliced as needed to fit your home. If you decide to add to the display, I can easily add a female plug anywhere on the line to add additional lines. I usually have the socket line in stock. Buying from me will usually cost the same, or less, compared to buying from a retailer, because of my bulk discount.
You just have to choose the size (C7 or C9) and buy that kind of wire and bulbs (you choose the colors, too). C7 and C9 LED Retrofit bulbs are pretty similar in brightness. One of my fellow installers says the C7 look better on gutters and the C9 look better on peaks. It is only a small difference and I’m not sure I notice it. But something to consider if your house is mostly peaks, or mostly gutters. The C9 usually costs more than C7 for the bulbs, and the socket line costs more too. But it is not a major difference. And it is only up front cost.
These LEDs are much brighter than the Consumer Grade. So they can sit on the standard 1 foot spacing socket line. If a socket goes bad from corrosion, or breaks off the line, the sockets can be replaced with parts I keep in my truck. With the good quality line I provide, there is less risk of this happening. But most lines should outlast the average homeowners’ expected occupancy.
There is one other type of failure… a bad bulb. The good news is if one goes bad, the rest truly stay lit. Really! Because they are wired in parallel… But the bulbs can fail. It’s only about 1 out of 100 bulbs at the worst, though. And that’s just in one brand I was keeping track of in 2017. And it’s usually noticed in the first year. Sometimes they are not sealed perfectly, and water gets in. Other times I can’t tell why they failed. But the failure doesn’t disrupt the entire display. It just affects individual bulbs, and they last WAY longer than the old incandescent bulbs year after year.
Some other benefits are that they don’t break. They last a long time without you needing to remember to buy spare bulbs (or us running out of your type). They are energy efficient (roughly 1/8 the energy usage or better).
There are two potential downsides besides the cost: personal preference and availability.
I used to dislike the look of LEDs. But as they are becoming more and more prevalent, I’ve grown to accept them. Just like when Compact Fluorescent and LED bulbs were being installed in houses to replace incandescent bulbs, it took me a while to get used to them. Now I don’t even notice. The same is happening with LED Christmas Lights. My wife, on the other hand, still can’t accept them for Christmas lights. So I still have traditional C7 lights at my own house (I’ll keep working on her…) But the old traditional kind still share some of the benefits of Professional Grade because they are on socket wire which is easy to fix and customize.
Vs. Traditional (old-school) C7 or C9
LED bulbs on standard socket line is 3-4 times the price of old traditional incandescent style bulbs you buy at the store in pre-lit 25 foot packages (cost of materials only). But those are disappearing rapidly anyway. The quality of the wire/sockets has also declined over the last 10 years. The traditional lines are still more durable than the Consumer Grade LEDs. But they do have power limitations, such as length of a run, or blowing circuit breakers if not on a dedicated circuit on large displays. LEDs always win in the power efficiency category and never have similar limits.
I can supply the Retrofit bulbs for the same (or lower) price that you can buy them locally. But if I am out of stock because it’s later in the season, I might have to to purchase them at a higher price, which I would obviously pass on to you.
Short Version for people who didn’t read the whole article:
Do not buy LEDs for your roofline off the shelf anywhere. They may last in dry climates, but the majority do not last in the Pacific Northwest. You should spend the extra money and buy the ones that last. There are only a couple spots in our area where you can get the good stuff. If you are doing it yourself, go ahead and look at McLendon Hardware (most locations) or Ace Hardware in Lake Stevens. If you’re hiring Rain or Shine, I can provide all the materials at the same price or cheaper, because I get a bulk discount.
Thanks for taking the time to investigate this. I spend countless hours dealing with this issue. And I hope this article helps you out (and me!)