Finding the best LED strip lights really depends on what project you are working on and the amount available in the project budget. Quality is important and so is value, but if you don’t know what you need and how much you can spend, you may be setting yourself up for disappointment. This guide will help you understand what to look for in your strip lighting and be satisfied that you found the very best LED strip lights your project requires.
Choosing the best LED strip lights for the project
Before you even purchase strip lighting you’ll want to make sure you’re buying what you need. Ask yourself these four questions to determine what your needs are: 1) How much voltage does my project need? 2) What color of lights do I want for my project? 3) What type of environment will my strip lights be in? 4) How much light do my strip lights need to produce?
1) How much voltage does my project need?
The typical DIY enthusiast doesn’t usually ask this question when looking to take on a lighting project, but it could determine whether or not you hire a professional. The reason most don’t ask this question is because most are not aware of what voltage does. Another term for voltage is electric pressure, so think of it like you would water pressure; the more voltage you have the further electricity will go from a power source. There are advantages for both low voltage and high voltage, and when you look into purchasing strip lights you’ll want to be aware of the advantages and disadvantages of each. Typically you’ll be deciding between 12v or 120v lights. 120v is what generally comes into your home as your standard voltage, so let’s first talk about the pros and cons of 120v first.
Advantages and disadvantages of installing 120v strip lights
(Pro) No transformers- because most homes already have 120v coming into their homes. (Pro) Longer run lengths- higher voltage means that longer run lengths can be obtained before having to connect to power (Con) More dangerous- higher voltage also means it can be hazardous especially around or submersed in water. Because of this, it is often recommended that you use a licensed electrical contractor when working with 120v. (Con) Costs more- because of the additional danger with 120v you many have to hire a licensed professional and take more precautions, like burying lines which can increase expenses.
Advantages and disadvantages of installing 12v LED strip lights
(Pro) Easy application for alternative energies- although most homes use 120v, alternative energies like solar, wind, etc. typically use 12v which makes it an easier application for these and other 12v DC uses. (Pro) Safer- 12v has a significantly lower risk of electrocution and so is often easier to complete as a DIY project. (Pro) Cost saving- the reduced risk of 12v may help you to accomplish it as a DIY project, saving you money on hiring a professional. (Con) Short run lengths- the biggest drawback to 12v is its inability to have a run length longer than 20 feet. (Con) Requires an adapter- because the average home runs off of 120v, anything that is installed as 12v has to be converted from 120v to 12v.
2) What color of lights do I want for my project?
When people think of the color of LED lights, they often say that it has a blue hue to it. LEDs don’t particularly have a blue hue to them, but the cool white color temperature (which has a blue hue in it) is the most common LED color. More than likely, you’ve seen several warm or natural color LED lights and have mistaken them for incandescent or florescent lights. This misunderstanding happens because most don’t realize that every color in the visible light spectrum can be produced with LEDs.
RGB strip lights
Since your color choice is entirely open with LEDs there are some fun decisions you can make when using strip lights. RGB (red, green, blue) strip lights are a type of LEDs that when connected to a certain controller can be told to change color and/or alternate between different lighting patterns; this is really fun stuff. It’s not a necessity for most projects, but it adds a unique twist that’ll set it apart. RGB strip light usually costs more, so take this into consideration as you decide if it’s something you want to incorporate into your project.
If you’re only wanting white light, you still have a few choices to consider. Artificial white light has three different colors: warm, cool, or natural. These three colors are usually measured in a Kelvin color temperature scale like the one below. LED strip lights come in all three color temperatures. What you choose is really just a matter of preference, but here are a couple points to consider: 1) Cool whites give off a blue hue which can often be harder on the eyes, some enjoy this look saying it makes a lit space look more vibrant and awake 2) Cool white can also harm or confuse wildlife so make this a consideration when using cooler colors outdoors 3) Warm whites give off a yellow hue and have shown to have little effect on wildlife 4) Natural whites, also called pure whites, are the closest to sunlight
3) What type of environment will my strip lights be in?
The best LED strip lights will be able to perform in the conditions you’ve placed it in. If it’s going to get rained on or even completely submersed in water you’ll want to have something that’s durable enough to withstand that environment. There is a quick way to determine a strip lights resilience in certain circumstances.
Flexible strip lighting comes in several different durability measures and they are usually distinguished by something called an IP rating. An IP rating stands for Ingress protection and it helps to classify the degree of protection from external elements (water, dust, rocks, etc.). You might have seen a particular spool of strip light show an IP rating of 68 or 22 and if you didn’t know what that meant you will now. The first number digit describes its level of solid protection and the second number digit describes its level of liquid protection. Some projects will only need minimal protection from solids or liquids and therefore may also cost less. Other projects, especially those outdoors may need a higher level of protection and so you’ll want a higher IP rating. The following chart can help you find the IP rating you need your strip light to have.
4) How much light do my strip lights need to produce?
This may seem like an obvious question to ask, but how bright do you want your lighting to be? Does it need to light up a workspace? Is your strip light only going to be used for accent lighting or will it also serve another purpose? Do you want the ability to dim or brighten your lights? Answering these questions will help you make decisions on what LED strip light is best for you.
3528 vs. 5050 SMD
One measure for brightness is determined by the size of LED chip used on the strip light. The most popular chips used on strip lights are 3528 and 5050 SMD chips. 3528 stands for 3.5mm x 2.5mm and 5050 stands for 5.0mm x 5.0mm. There are other sizes of chips, but these are the most readily available on strip lights. In general 5050 SMD strip light produces more light than a 3528 SMD strip light, but because 3528 chips are smaller it is possible to fit more chips per foot. This means if you are particular about how much light your strip light will produce you’ll want to consider how many LED chips are being used and what type of chip it is. At Birddog we use bulb spacing (how far apart each LED chip is) and lumen output (how much delivered light it puts out) to help us calculate how much light will be produced in an area. For a realistic example I’ve calculated the lumens per foot on our 5050 warm white LED strip light and compared it to our 3528 warm white LED strip light. The 5050 has a bulb spacing of .44″ and produces 12-14 lumens per chip, which gives us 327-381 lumens per foot. In contrast the 3528 LED strip light has a bulb spacing of .56″ and delivers 4-5 lumens per chip, which gives us 86-107 lumens per foot. As you can see in this case our 5050 warm white LED strip light is roughly three and half times brighter than our 3528 strip light.
Now that you know how to calculate how much light your strip light will give off, you can decide if you want to set a dimmer control to deliver any amount of light at or below your maximum intensity. Dimmer controls are a great way to increase the utility of your light and achieve multiple uses for your strip. As a basic example you can dim your strip light down for ambient light and brighten it up when you need task lighting. You have now asked and answered the previous four questions and are ready to find and buy the best LED strip lights. Remember that finding the best LED strip lights is entirely dependent on your project and if you know what you want or need for that project you’ll get what you want.
Have any questions about finding the best LED strip lights?
Birddog lighting is always here to help. After reading this post you may still have some questions about a certain project you’re doing, give us a call, email, or leave me a comment. We’re always happy to help and I appreciate hearing what projects you’re working on.