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A lot of LEDs on the market these days are "integrated", meaning that the LEDs themselves and the housing is all bundled together. You screw the whole thing into the ceiling, and connect the wires to your circuit.

But what do you do when the lights die? Do you have to unwire it, unscrew it from the ceiling, and replace the whole thing even though only one part is actually faulty? With traditional bulbs, you would permanently install the housing, which rarely fails, and when the lightbulb fails replacing it is easier and cheaper.

Am I missing some way to avoid replacing entire integrated LEDs, or is this just how it's supposed to be?

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    As with most things it depends on the quality of the lights. Cheap ones you might be replacing each year. The ones well made will last. With the breaker off it probably adds a few minutes to change.
    – crip659
    Sep 19, 2023 at 19:06
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    The theory is supposed to be that integrated LED fixtures, being solid state, are not disposable devices, but should last a very long time, perhaps as long as you live in the house. In practice cost cutting of course kicked in immediately, and a lot of them are crap. Sep 20, 2023 at 0:26
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    One of the things I have been considering in my future place is ease of replacement - with a lightbulb in a fixture, I can just unscrew or unclip an existing bulb, and/or upgrade it in future. We're running a mix of different CCFL replacement LEDs for example on older fixtures. If a 'integrated' LED setup is easy to swap out, like the sort that clip into a false ceiling - its no different from swapping a bulb. Sep 20, 2023 at 6:21
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    @Kromster the flip side of that is that an integrated fitting takes away the temptation to replace a bulb that simply works with a s̶m̶a̶r̶t̶ stupid, app-based thing
    – Chris H
    Sep 20, 2023 at 8:47
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    Technology Connections made a video on exactly this question: youtube.com/watch?v=fsIFxyOLJXM. If you have time, it's probably worth a watch.
    – Matthew
    Sep 20, 2023 at 20:45

9 Answers 9

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Quite simply, check the warranty. And expect to pay more for a good warranty (the fixture it applies to may also be better made.)

The economics of integrated LEDs have to do with "one service visit to replace the fixture every 10 years or so" .vs. "multiple service visits caused by bulb outages over the same timeframe." The "free labor homeowner" is not a factor in the development of the product, and the labor cost of changing bulbs (and lack of lighting while waiting for bulbs to be changed) are significant to the markets they are developed for.

The practical advantages over screw-in replacement bulbs (which you are free to buy if you don't like integrated fixtures) are the option (taken, or not) to avoid design compromises inherent in mimicking a screw-in bulb format. An integrated fixture can point all the LEDs right where the light is supposed to go, and can reject heat efficiently to the outside of the fixture. A bulb can do neither of those things.

Well, that's one set of economics. The other is "make junk, change the 'name' of the 'company' every 6 months, and you never have to deal with long-term failures, because that was 10 company name changes ago and you have their money, but they can't find 'company name' alleged to have made their product that failed now."

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    There are design compromises also with integrated LEDs. Having a screw-in bulb, while might not be as integrated with the fixture, it integrates better with the rest of the home. You can match the light temperatures, use a smart bulbs or have bulbs you know works well with an AC dimmer. Sep 20, 2023 at 9:00
  • Also check the stability of the company that's underwriting the warranty. A "ten year" warranty from a newly-formed company which doesn't look like it will survive more than two is NBG. And always ignore any form of "lifetime warranty". Sep 21, 2023 at 6:13
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    which you are free to buy if you don't like integrated fixtures — am I? Last week I was at the local DIY store and asked for ceiling lamps with replaceable bulbs. They didn't have any! The warranty they offered is just seven years. The industry are forcing people into integrated bulbs because it's more profitable if people have to replace the whole thing every 7-10 years.
    – gerrit
    Sep 21, 2023 at 6:17
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    Why would you need to buy a new ceiling fixture? If replaceable bulbs advantage is that grandmother's Edison lamp should live forever, and not need replacing, just bulbs. They can be found online or at a Habitat Re-Store or other architectural salvage if your local DIY store doesn't stock them and won't order them.
    – Ecnerwal
    Sep 21, 2023 at 11:11
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TL;DR Rethink lighting. It isn't "bulbs" any more, it is an appliance.

The key is expected lifetime.

Do you know how long a major appliance, one that costs hundreds to thousands of dollars and, if it has a gas connection (gas water heater or furnace or cooktop or oven) or real refrigerant work involved (AC except for mini-splits) or other work (e.g., built-in dishwasher, oven, etc.) requires a lot of work to install will typically last? 10 to 15 years.

Yes, there are outliers. If your furnace lasts 30 years with occasional maintenance, that's fantastic. If your water heater lasts 20 years before it rusts out, great. Personally, I try to stretch my appliances to 20 - 25 years, and sometimes it works (but the dishwashers are definitely showing their age) and sometimes it doesn't (water heater most recently). But these things, which are expensive and require a lot of work to install often don't last all that long.

Historically, lighting has been different. A chandelier or other light fixture using Edison bulbs would typically be installed once and expected to last "forever" because it is essentially a passive device. But the bulbs themselves? 1,000 hours is typical, and has been for a century. Unless a fixture has something else in it (e.g., motion sensor or dusk/dawn sensor, both of which can also be separate items rather than integrated), the more common reason to replace a fixture is "style". I don't care much for that myself, but replacing light fixtures after 10 - 20 years because you are remodeling is not at all unusual.

Fluorescent lighting changed things a bit. A typical fluorescent fixture (not talking about CFLs) has:

  • A box with wires (i.e., similar to an incandescent fixture)
  • A ballast
  • A starter

and holds special bulbs, typically 2', 4' or 8' tubes.

Fluorescent fixtures have been fairly well standardized for decades. Standard bulbs that are replaceable like Edison bulbs. Standard starters that are replaceable like Edison bulbs. Mostly standard ballasts that require taking apart the fixture to replace them. So replacing a typical fluorescent ballast is half-way between "replace a bulb" and "replace a fixture". That being said, until good-quality LED lighting came along, it made sense to replace the ballasts when they failed because the rest of the fixture was passive (like incandescents) or easily replaceable items (like incandescents). A typical fluorescent bulb might last 10,000 - 15,000 hours - 10x an incandescent bulb. A typical ballast might last 10 - 15 years, longer with low usage.

To be honest, once you are in the 10 - 15 years range, you are now up to "replacing things isn't so bad" range. Because it is just like a major appliance.

When does it pay to replace a major appliance?

  • When some new feature comes out that just gotta have (ice maker in the refrigerator? convection mode in the oven?)
  • When the new appliance is a lot more efficient (HVAC)
  • When the cost to repair is a significant portion of the new cost (almost any appliance at some point)

So back to lighting. LEDs have come a long way. What started to make them popular was ease of replacement (Edison bulbs) and lower pricing (often including utility or government subsidies). But the big savings really come from longer lifetime and lower energy use. Incandescent 1,000 hours. Fluorescent 10,000 hours. LED? 50,000 hours, 100,000 hours or more! And that's not even until "dead", that is typically L70 - 70% of the original brightness.

Once you get to these types of lifetimes, a light fixture becomes less like a traditional light fixture and much more like an appliance. It is quite likely that a good quality LED fixture installed today will last so long that you will replace it before it has reached "L70", simply because you want a different fixture - whether for cosmetic/aesthetic reasons or to provide more functional lighting for a new use of an existing room.

Looking back at the appliance example

  • When some new feature comes out that just gotta have

Hard to say what that might be. Most features (dimming, timing, remote control) are easier done from the switch than the fixture. But 10 years from now, who knows!

  • When the new appliance is a lot more efficient

Not likely with LEDs. See this Wikipedia page for some details but basically incandescent bulbs are in the 1% - 3% efficiency range, fluorescent 10% - 15%, and LEDs are already up to around 30% (not all of them are, but some of them are) and for "physics reasons" we can't actually get to 100%. I expect there will be incremental improvements for years to come (the LEDs themselves won't change so much, but the driver circuits likely will improve quite a bit), but there won't be a dramatic change as there was from incandescent -> fluorescent -> LED.

  • When the cost to repair is a significant portion of the new cost (almost any appliance at some point)

This is still the biggie. For mass production, patent and other reasons, typical LED fixtures are (a) not usually designed with easy-to-replace driver circuits (this would be the equivalent of replacing a ballast) and (b) typically have relatively proprietary components (compared to the decades of very much standardized fluorescent fixture components). But if that replacement isn't every year but rather ~ 10 years, or even longer, it just doesn't matter. You replace it with the latest and greatest available at that time.

I have a pair of fixtures in one room. They were originally 2-bulb incandescent fixtures that didn't produce enough light. I replaced them ~ 1997 with fluorescent 2' 2-bulb fixtures. Only slightly less ugly, but produced a lot more light. Last year I replaced them with some Costco (not Costco brand but essentially "made for Costco") integrated LED fixtures. Much brighter (I installed a dimmer to take care of the expected family complaints of "too bright"), very low profile (which looks a lot better than either of the previous fixtures) and uses less power. Will they last 10 years? I hope so. But if they last 5 years I'll be perfectly happy. Installation isn't that hard, and the integrated fixtures provide a low profile that is impossible to get otherwise - at least not without cutting a big hole in the ceiling.

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    "To be honest, once you are in the 10 - 15 years range, you are now up to "replacing things isn't so bad" range. Because it is just like a major appliance." - I think this is a fallacy with light fixtures. A typical house might contain a handful of major appliances, but dozens and dozens of light fixtures. Yeah they might last 15yrs each, but when they all will eventually start to break, having to shop around for suitable replacements and ripping the old one out wont be fun, if you have to do it 10 times within one year.
    – Martin Ba
    Sep 20, 2023 at 10:00
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    And, don't forget all the waste material that goes to the dump which all the greenies conveniently forget about when touting how much better an LED is than an incandescent. (General fan of LED bulbs, now, just not the government mandates that require them.)
    – FreeMan
    Sep 22, 2023 at 11:47
  • Oh knock it off @FreeMan. LED bulbs are cleaner across the board, including materials and waste. There's miniscule heavy/rare-earth metals, but nothing compared to the waste generated from the extra mining required to power the incandescents. Sep 22, 2023 at 15:26
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    The waste material going to the dump is not the LEDs themselves - after all, they get replaced far less frequently than incandescents. It is the crazy packing materials - which actually a are a big problem with a lot of products. Sep 22, 2023 at 15:28
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The major issue isn't even the cost or installation difficulty of replacing a single failed fixture. You also need to consider the availability of replacements.

If you have multiple fixtures of the same style/design, and one fails, will you be able to find an identical replacement 5, 10, or more years down the track? Can you accept replacing the one fixture with a different design? Will you replace all fixtures if just one fails? Will you buy spares "just in case"?

This is where bulbs win: they're a standardised design, and also usually hidden behind a decorative shroud so even if their outside appearance differs you can't really see it in normal use.

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  • That is a good point. I forgot to mention it, but it's another problem if the lighting is in sets. With the bulbs, even if they have slightly different heatsinks, it's usually not obvious compared to the variety of integrated fixtures. Also, it's easy to find bulbs that are all exactly the same lumen output and color. But integrated fixtures can vary more, so you can end up with uneven light in the room as well. Sep 20, 2023 at 4:46
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Many are actually repairable.

The one in my en suite is on its third power supply. That's mains powered, with the emitters on one board and an encapsulated power supply behind it. After the 2nd failure I found a different supplier that fitted; the first replacement was a spare from the original manufacturer. The LEDs are far less likely to fail than the power supply.

So I'd chance it again, but I'm capable of electronics repairs

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    Are you referring to removing dead individual diodes and soldering in new ones? Sep 19, 2023 at 19:34
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    @gomennathan I've done that in other cases (bike lights), but no, I'm not referring to replacing the LEDs in integrated fittins . Because I haven't seen the individual diodes die. It's always the internal power supply (even in LED bulbs - I've repurposed the LEDs from those), and that's why I referred to replacing the power supply.
    – Chris H
    Sep 19, 2023 at 19:46
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    You'll have to do something ridiculous to kill an LED, either massively over-volt/current and blow them up, or physically destroy them. I have LEDs from 20-30 years ago that still works. Maybe a little dimmer than brand new, but they're still going. It's always the circuitry that powers the LED that fails.
    – Nelson
    Sep 20, 2023 at 3:35
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    @Nelson you're right. I've managed to kill a few but only when tinkering with them on the bench (hand desoldering surface mount LEDs is risky). Some cheap products overdrive their LEDs, shortening the life and causing them to dim quite quickly - but still it's the power supply that fails when they die completely
    – Chris H
    Sep 20, 2023 at 6:03
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    @Nelson I have had several Philips made (screw in type bulbs) fail after a couple of years of use - of which most had intact power supplies but rather one of the smd LEDs in the string had failed. Oftentimes it was visible as a black burn mark on the LED. Some I have even repaired by replacing the burnt LEDs from other broken ones. Manufacturers overdrive the LEDs. Some people make them last longer by modifying the power supplies to reduce the current they are allowed.
    – user78790
    Sep 21, 2023 at 6:35
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Welcome to the hell of led replacements.
There are three "levels" to go about it.

Level 1 - screw in bulbs.

  • They are simple drop-in replacement for regular bulbs. They are supposed to last very long time, but often the power supply inside dies and you have to replace whole thing. But replacing is easy. You may experience problems with the bulbs "flashing" even when they are off - this can be fixed by adding a special ballast to the lines.

Level 2 - integrated fixtures.

  • They are supposed and probably will last long time, but when the light dies, you can't just replace a bulb - you have to replace whole thing. So if you have 10 identical ones in your house, either buy couple spares, replace all 10 when one goes bad, or bare living with mismatched fixtures.

Level 3 - dedicated installation

  • This means converting to 12V and installing a dozen of spotlights in the ceiling, or those fancy wires with bulbs, or strips - possibilities are endless. You will have to hide the transformer somewhere. The benefit is, these are way easier to replace, because spot bulbs are standard, led strips are standard and so on. Transformers are also standard.

There is also "Level 0", where you stay with incandescent bulbs, because you don't like led ;-)

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    Staying with incandescent bulbs is no longer an option. They are 100% illegal now, unless you stockpiled them while you still could. Sep 21, 2023 at 2:48
  • Staying with incandescent bulbs has the added advantage that you get direct electric heating, so you can dispense of whatever other source of heating you have </s>
    – gerrit
    Sep 21, 2023 at 6:26
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    @MarkRansom there are various options, none ideal, often 12V. Sometimes in my line of work we need an actual black body source so I have to keep up with what's out there
    – Chris H
    Sep 21, 2023 at 9:48
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    @MarkRansom So the solution is to buy out everything from stores that have some left and look for abroad smuggling. What a times we live in, smuggling a lightbulbs.
    – Thomas
    Sep 21, 2023 at 13:27
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    Depends on the country /shrug
    – Thomas
    Sep 22, 2023 at 7:49
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Answering based on the question and subsequent comments from OP.

Screw in bulbs are much lower risk, if you regard a light purchase from purely economic terms and with no aesthetic or other considerations. You can get a crate of around 100 9W E26 LED bulbs at around $1 each. In a typical one-family house the crate will outlast you. There is no risk. For $100 you light your entire house forever. It's not possible to do that buying new integrated LED fixtures. Some of them will eventually fail, and you'll have to replace them. It's not risk, it's for sure. 0% vs 100% risk.

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There's a lot of variation within the category of integrated LED fixtures.

I have some integrated-LED fixtures at home which I installed 7 years ago and are still going strong. Inexpensive ($11), bright, low-maintenance and saving energy. All wins. There are about 20 small LEDs inside of each fixture, so I imagine that >25% of them would have to die for me to consider changing the fixture. It's been worth it to me.

However, when you go into more complex type of fixtures, e.g. track lights with multiple heads, etc., you run the risk of only part of the lighting fixture going bad, e.g. one of the track light heads, etc. Manufacturers consider these as disposable, and there are usually no parts available. So a few dead LEDs are easily noticeable (fewer per head, plus in comparison to adjacent), and the only way to fix is to replace the whole thing. That's $200. No thanks.

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    > There are about 20 small LEDs inside of each fixture, so I imagine that >25% of them would have to die for me to consider changing the fixture. IME it's quite rare for an individual LED to die. More often the built in DC power supply goes, and therefore the whole light goes out.
    – Bob
    Sep 20, 2023 at 4:08
  • or one goes taking out the trace... they are cheap though. Sep 20, 2023 at 5:19
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Yes.

Providing light is only one function. Appearance is also another, and fairly important, as is light quantity and character. If the fixture entire fails and must be replaced you have to find a replacement that looks like any others you might have, lights similarly, and if not an exact replacement (unlikely to be possible even a few years after installation) may require paint and trim repairs. Having to re-paint a room because the ceiling light failed is definitely what I would call a risk!

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Yes, due possibility to upgrade.

Especially some early LED lights were really dim. I still have a couple of such desktop lights in my cellar. They work, but the amount of light they emit is really not enough. I cannot upgrade them to any better, because the LEDs are fixed. Spectrum may improve. Maybe you will want later a light element that changes color depending on the time of the day or something the like. Many things may change.

This is not a big loss for a cheap plastic lamp that you can replace in completeness, but some expensive design with brass and crystals would better come with standard and changeable light elements.

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