LED Grow Lights
Why People Don't Trust LEDs
"LEDs are so much more efficient than other grow lights." "LEDs don't generate heat." "You can place your plants super close to LEDs without the plants getting burned." "LED lights are cheap and don't live up to the hype." "Good LED systems are super expensive and not worth the money." Have you ever heard any of these sentiments? Each statement might seem very true. Or it may not apply what-so-ever to your situation.
Sorting through countless product pages of LED grow lights has become a very complex process. It's like a minefield of overpriced or underwhelming products. What sort of LED grow system should you select? Will it output sufficient light? Is it worth the money? Indoor gardening and seed starting solutions don't have the same requirements as growing weed, I mean... "medicinal herbs". A lot of LEDs are designed and optimized for big buds. But what about a small scale urban gardener who is on a tighter budget?
The first thing to do is to make sure we have realistic expectations. Let's look at some labeling claims made by sellers that have left some consumers with a bad opinion of LED grow lights.
- How Have LED Scammers Defrauded Growers?
- How Build Quality Gave LEDs a Bad Rap
- LED Lifespan Claims vs Reality
- Understanding Fake LED Wattage Claims
- Blurple LED Misconceptions
- Why You Can't Trust Amazon Ratings
LEDs have come a long way in terms of build quality. Old school diodes were less efficient and costly to produce. They relied on poor quality drivers that would lead to premature failure. Old style DIP and SMD diodes were commonly slapped onto poorly designed circuit boards that required active heating solutions to avoid overheating.
Demand for energy efficient home lighting has thrust LED lights into the spotlight. They quickly surpassed and replaced CFLs as the preferred light bulb technology. Mass scale production has improved LED construction, increased efficiency and reduced cost. This has flooded the market with cheap, quality white diodes that can be easily integrated into a quantum style LED array. It's not fair to judge modern, quality LED grow lights based on the garbage that had been dominating the market 8 years ago!
Sellers claim that LEDs have a rated life of 50,000 hours. Running a light 16 hours per day, 365 days per year, a consumer should expect a lifespan of 8.5 years! Based on the marketing, that's a very realistic expectation. Unfortunately, many LEDs have failed to deliver on those claims.
Keep in mind, even if the actual light diodes last for 50,000 hours, that doesn't mean all components within the fixture will hold up. As mentioned already, LEDs have had a very bad track record when it comes to build quality. This directly translated into short lifespans.
My first DIP style LED light was flimsy, overpriced and shorted out after a single year of use. My first SMD UFO light burned out within 2 years. My second UFO grow light (shown below) had diode failures shortly after the two year warranty expired. Premature failure has not been exclusive to the grow light market. As an early adopter, I've also been burned by standard LED light bulbs that failed way too early!
The bottom line? Don't trust those rated lifespan hours when determining your ROI! If you're making a massive investment, only bank on these lights lasting for the duration of their warranty period. Any life you get beyond that should be considered a bonus. Fortunately, in recent years LEDs have gotten much better in this regard.
WHY WATTAGE MATTERS: Sellers need to accurately list the wattage of their lights. The wattage measures the electrical energy consumed by a device. This has nothing to do with the power rating of the diodes or the build quality. It's important because there's a direct correlation between electricity consumed and light produced. LEDs convert electrical energy into light which is emitted as photons. Higher wattage means brighter light.
EFFICIENCY: The higher the efficiency, the less energy that's wasted as heat. More efficiency means more light per watt. Not all LEDs are as efficient. But regardless, it takes a certain amount of power or wattage to make a certain amount of light.
Technically, it's known as "efficacy" but many product listings will state the energy efficiency of their lights in micromoles per joule. So you might see a light labeled as 2.5umol/J or it may say PPE: 2.5 umol/J. The higher the better. But as with everything else, sellers have been listing fake numbers without providing a lab test report to back up their claims. See the video below for more details.
WATTAGE LABELING: The FTC defines what a "watt" is and how it should be used on the product label. In regards to lights, the FTC clearly indicates that wattage denotes the "'Energy Used' in average initial wattage." When a light manufacturer states the wattage for their LED grow light, this must be the power drawn at the wall.
"REPLACEMENT" LABELING: Incandescent bulbs are highly inefficient. CFLs were introduced to convert more electricity into light. To help consumers, labels for 26W CFLs would say "replaces 100W incandescent bulb". This helped with comparison shopping. Now we have 18W LEDs which can "replace" a 100W incandescent. But any time you look at the labeling it must say "replacement" or "equivalent." You can't just label the 18W LED as "100 watt".
For some reason though, Amazon grow light sellers never got the memo. It's fine to say that a 250W LED grow light "can replace a 400W HID". But disclosing the ACTUAL wattage should still be mandatory for any light. Labeling the 250W grow light as a "400W LED" in the listing title is deceptive and should be considered fraud.
RATED POWER CONFIGURATION: Poor heat dissipation and high wattages lead to shortened LED lifespan. A common solution is to select diodes that are rated at a higher capacity. Then they're driven at a reduced current. For example, a 3W diode might only receive 1.8W of power. Thus, the LED isn't pushed to the limit, allowing it to last longer.
Labeling an LED light according to the maximum power rating of its diodes causes confusion though. A seller might call their light "180W" because it's built from 60 x LED diodes, rated at 3w each (60 x 3W = 180W). In reality, the light only runs at 60% capacity, consuming 109W. In this case, it's only a 109W light -NOT a 180W light! Overstating the wattage inflates a consumer's expectation and leads to disappointment. Such fraudulent labeling has given LEDs a bad reputation.
Video: How to Compare Entry Level LED Grow Lights
CUSTOM SPECTRUM HYPE: When LED grow lights first started to take off, there were lots of misleading claims surrounding color spectrum. It was common to see "blurple" grow lights, composed primarily of red and blue LED diodes. When it comes to electrical efficiency, blue and red diodes happen to work the best at converting electricity into photons. And it just so happens that plants can be grown successfully under those limited wavelengths of light. But LED sellers distorted horticulture science to hyperinflate the effectiveness of their lights.
PLANTS DON'T USE GREEN LIGHT??? Crafty marketers tried to create the narrative that plants don't use green light. They would fixate on misrepresented graphs intent on making white light appear wasteful. When it comes to growing plants, they claimed that their finely tuned blurple spectrums were vastly superior to conventional white light. According to them, all of that green and yellow light from HPS light was wasted. Apparently even white sunlight is full of wasted energy that plants can't use.
A HUGE SETBACK FOR LEDs... Although most people are waking up to the reality of things, the damage was already done. These shady grow light sellers convinced people that super low watt LEDs could easily perform on par with high wattage HIDs. Even today, you may still find LED sellers who falsely claim that a 100W LED can replace a 1000W HPS. This is completely false. But many people fell for it. The fake science made sense. Blurple LEDs only produce light that plants use. HPS systems waste massive amounts of energy on green light. It was all a lie of course, which you can read more about here.
Unwitting consumers tossed aside their high wattage HID systems. They proceeded to buy grossly underpowered LED grow lights. Then as their plants started to grow they saw underwhelming results. Thus even today, there are still HPS fan boys who will insist that LEDs can't produce the yield that HPS lights can. They'll say the light doesn't penetrate well enough. It's not an LED issue. It's user error. Plain and simple. White light penetrates canopies better than blurple light. Try selecting a high wattage broad spectrum LED that is matched for photon output. That's what will allow you to match the productivity of an HPS, while using less electricity!
Watch out for shady Amazon or Ebay light sellers who over-inflate wattages. Don't get dupe by a fake model number or product title that says something like 1000W. Dig through the listing until you can find the ACTUAL wattage. I've purchased a Kill A Watt light meter to verify each and every LED light that is sent to me.
Many of the low end LED lights on the market have improved compared to 8 years ago. They are inexpensive and seem good for seedlings. But there are still cheap systems that end up being a waste of money as they cannot come close to the performance of a basic T5 fluorescent grow-light system. Sellers are more sophisticated than ever, showing fake PPFD light maps, fake spectral graphs, inflated efficacy ratings and counterfeit components. The video embedded on this page shows some brands that are better established and might be slightly more trustworthy than others.
Does an LED grow light seem too good to be true? You might think it's bogus, but then you look for the reviews. You see product photos along with photos showing great growth. And lots of 5 star reviews. Seems legit! But wait... Oh there it is. "I received this product at a discount in exchange for my honest and unbiased review." Yep, this seller has handed out some freebies to bribe people into writing positive feedback. These are people who just want free junk. They don't perform objective tests.
Social media influencers are bought and sold all of the time. I've seen first hand how this system works. After doing my first grow light video on YouTube, I started getting an endless stream of sellers who wanted me to review their product. Similar to the Amazon schemes, please watch out for these guys. Look for reviewers who are taking objective readings using a commercial grade quantum light sensor. Ideally, any reputable seller should be sharing reports from 3rd party testing labs. This makes for an unbiased way of assessing the power draw, efficiency and photon output of their lights.
Once you know the actual wattage draw of a light, you can accurately calculate the electrical costs of running it. Check out the next page for tips on savings money with a more efficient light upgrade. I've even included a price calculator!