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A guide to retrofit bulbs

Author: Mark Chapman
Published: October 4, 2012

Retrofitting is becoming a serious business in lighting these days, but what does it involve? You might have heard the term used before to describe modernising buildings, trains (even warships!), and it essentially means developing new technology to fit the housings and connections in existing units.

Seamless transition

In the case of lighting, retrofitting refers to the continual development of better and better LED and energy-saving bulbs, designed to mimic the classic incandescent bulb. The ideal for these bulbs is that they should be a similar shape and size as a classic GLS, candle, spotlight or golfball bulb, and produce the same amount and quality light, or better, but of course be much cheaper in operation and last for way longer. Ultimately, the aim is to seamlessly transition to the new technologies without users even being aware of the change.

Evolving technology

Retrofit bulbs are fairly new, so the technology is still evolving towards the above aims, but there are already quality products on the market in both energy-saving and LED sectors. Both types have their own challenges, but they’re ones that manufacturers are continually developing better and better solutions to.

The key challenge with standard energy-saving-bulbs is cramming sufficient length of tube plus all the control gear into a frosted casing the size and shape of a traditional GLS, candle or golfball bulb, and still produce the same amount of ‘instant’ light. This is covered in far greater detail in our article on Sticks, Spirals and GLS CFL Bulbs, but in short, the way the technology stands at present, you’re much better off using non-covered stick or spiral bulbs wherever possible, which give off far more light. You can then use the covered bulbs in situations where the bulb is visible, or for other aesthetic considerations.

Regarding LED retrofit bulbs, the challenge is slightly different, but still involves size to an extent. LED bulbs require a substantial amount of metal to surround the LED chip (the bit that produces the light), to act as a heat-sink, and reduce the level of heat building up in the chip. While heat doesn’t build up in the same way as with an incandescent bulb – LED lighting is a relatively ‘cool’ light source, so doesn’t create the same issues with fittings as those bulbs – excess heat will substantially reduce the lifespan of the bulb. This would stop the bulb from being a main light source within around 10,000 hours of use, so wouldn’t be a good thing.

Already available

There are already many different types of LED retrofit bulb on the market, including 35w and 50w spotlight bulbs, as well as candlegolfball, and of course the standard GLS fitting, amongst others. Some of these are available in both clear and frosted finishes, to offer increased versatility in replacing existing incandescent bulbs.

Spot the difference

Though it’s fair to say that LED and energy-saving retrofit bulbs are not suitable to replace existing bulbs in all applications – particularly in areas that require a much more powerful light source – the technology is developing very rapidly, and retrofit bulbs already make the perfect replacements for most general lighting duties. Try them out – users will never notice the difference (until they see the drop in their energy bills).

Looking for more inspiration, news and advice? Try our Lighting Advice section.