After providing more than a century of illumination, it’s fair to say the tungsten light bulb had a good innings. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of individual bulbs, which would typically burn out after around 800–1000 hours of use. You’d probably be changing commonly used bulbs three or four times a year.

Eventually, technology improved, and by the 1990s halogen and fluorescent bulbs were affordable options that were more efficient and longer-lasting. But when LED light bulbs became economically viable in the 2010s, even those efficiency stats were blown away. 

There’s no doubt that LEDs are a big deal. By using a fraction of the power of incandescent and fluorescent bulbs, they have already vastly reduced the amount of energy the world uses for lighting. And the green credentials don’t stop there. Because they last much longer, we’re cutting down on the energy and resources of production, too.

Unfortunately, at the start, the longevity of LEDs was often exaggerated by producers, retailers and the media. You’d often see figures like 100,000 hours bandied around. That would mean a bulb that was on for eight hours a day would last for 34 years. Experience has taught us that that simply isn’t the case.

Nowadays, where suppliers do advertise the longevity of their LEDs, they tend to use a figure like 10,000 hours of life. That certainly tallies with our lived experience. To those brought up in the incandescent era, it feels like LEDs last forever, but they do actually decay over time, just like everything else.

A complex issue

One of the complicating factors, which no doubt led to these wild claims, was the difference between the electrical component called the light-emitting diode (aka LED) and the units you buy in the shops. Science has known about LEDs since the early 1900s, but it took about 80 years of development before practical uses were found for them in the 1970s.

As a component, they do indeed deliver excellent efficiency – but that’s in laboratory conditions. The important part is that they require a direct current (DC) to run, but domestic and commercial power supply is always alternating current (AC).

For regular incandescent bulbs, that didn’t matter. The white hot filament wouldn’t be affected by the alternating current. But for LEDs, each individual bulb requires its own complex circuitry, most important of which are the converter (driver) and the transformer. Their respective  jobs are to turn the AC current into DC and to step the 230V supply down to the 12V or so that the LEDs use. There’s also other circuitry involved, and when dimmability is introduced, that just adds to the complexity.

Unfortunately, many manufacturers scrimp on those components. The diodes themselves might be incredibly efficient and bright, but if the driver and other parts are cheap, the unit won’t last long. Some of the components in poorly made LEDs can slash efficiency to 50% and impact the durability along the same lines. The main damage is caused by overheating, but poor manufacture can also factor in. That’s why you might find your LED bulb lasting only 2,000 hours.

In short, buying cheap LEDs can often be a false economy. Once the components in the back of the bulb fail, the whole unit has to be replaced. Even if the light-emitting diodes still have another 20,000 hours of use in them, they just have to be thrown in the bin.

Longer-lasting LEDs

All is not lost, however. There are two ways that you can ensure a longer life for LEDs.

Buy high quality bulbs

The simplest way to ensure longevity in your existing setup is simply to buy high quality LEDs from a trusted supplier. If your bulbs are running at high efficiency and need to be replaced less frequently, paying a little more at the start of their lives makes sense. Buying bulbs wholesale can bring even greater savings.

Make the transformer and converter external

A second way to prolong your LEDs’ durability is to separate the converter and the bulbs. The driver is a standalone component that is connected to the AC mains supply, but the wiring that powers the lights is 12V AC. That means you can use simpler, lower-voltage LED bulbs which have fewer internal components, so there’s less chance of wear. If and when the converter wears out, it can be replaced or repaired, while the bulbs live to light another day.

Hours of light

Even badly made LEDs will outlast the most optimistic lifespan of incandescent bulbs, so investing in good quality LED bulbs makes financial and ecological sense. A lifetime of 10,000 hours is certainly not unusual in quality products – and that means you can easily make a bulb last three or four years in normal use.