LED strip light experimentation and impressions (Part 1)

The first custom lighting project in our new home will be under-cabinet lights in the kitchen. After researching various choices for high-CRI LED strips, I decided to purchase a reel from Flexfire LED’s for experimentation. I settled on the Ultrabright High CRI Series Warm White LED Strip Light.

Let me start by saying I’ve never purchased or played with LED strips before, but these are the real deal. I’ve played with demo strips at electronics stores, and the Flexfire strip is much brighter and the color is quite natural.

This product is sold by the reel or by the foot, and comes in three color temperatures. In a home, 2700k (aka “Soft White”) is almost always the safest choice. Most LED strips seem to start at a cooler 3000k. Flexfire’s specs say their warm white ranges from 2700k – 3200k. It’s not clear why the range is given. Is it marketing or is the binning of the LED chips that wide? In any case, this particular strip appears to be at the high end of the stated range, probably at least 3000k. I’d prefer slightly warmer white, but I think these will work well in the kitchen.

For test purposes, I hooked up a 300-watt, 12-volt Magnitude constant-voltage LED driver and a Lutron Diva DVLV-600P dimmer. Both products are frequently recommended for this application, so for my proof-of-concept test I decided not to venture off the beaten path.

For initial power-up, I set the dimmer to its lowest and turned it on. I was surprised by the initial surge of nearly full brightness, followed quickly by dimming to about the lowest practical setting. The surge is slightly annoying, but not necessarily a deal breaker. The dimmer works perfectly throughout its range, although there is some barely perceptible flicker at some levels. Perhaps that’s caused by PWM? I’d like to try another dimmer. The Lutron is clicky and has an ugly neon lamp under the switch paddle to help find it in the dark.

I may end up using these at full brightness most of the time. My old Xenon under-cabinet kitchen lighting was rated at 177 lumens/foot; This strip is rated 402 lumens/foot. I reasoned that the LED strip should be incredibly bright at about 50%, and with reduced brightness it should last nearly forever. It will be interesting to see if that works out or not. After all, is it possible to have too much light in the kitchen?

At maximum brightness, the LED strip gets too warm to touch for prolonged periods. I can see now why Flexfire didn’t want me using a cover lens on this product. Any additional heat would lead to premature death.

In summary, I’m impressed with this product, but not blown away yet. I’ll post an update once I’ve been able to test it while positioned over a countertop.

Lighting our new home

I’ve been fascinated with lighting since building my first home in 2003. The ceilings in that place have more 6″ downlights than anyone would reasonably install. Continuous Xenon lighting was used under the cabinets in the kitchen and bar. I like a lot of light, and that home demands it with its high ceilings and lack of natural light in the main living spaces.

We started out with horrible incandescent 130-volt BR40 reflectors in the ceiling fixtures. The builder installed them because they’re cheap and long-lasting. When you take a 130-volt bulb and run it at 120 volts, two things happen: The color temperature turns slightly orange (yuck), and they last a really long time. Some of the bulbs we never got around to replacing were still original when we sold the home in 2015.

In the main kitchen, dining, and living areas, I began experimenting with light bulbs intended for retail display applications to improve light quality and efficiency. The bulbs cost a lot more up-front, but were better in every other way compared to the halogen bulbs I could get from a hardware store.

As LED retrofits like the Cree LR6 became available, the future seemed within reach. Cree made LED lighting desirable: They offered attractive lights with incredible longevity, efficiency, and ample, high quality light output. They weren’t for normal folks. At a cost of over $2,000 to retrofit my kitchen and den, I never bought one.

Eventually the CR6 was launched as a 6-inch retrofit lamp for normal folks. They were initially priced at a reasonable $50, and today you can typically pick one up for $20 before any utility subsidies kick in. If you still have incandescent (or worse, CFL) bulbs in your ceilings, give these a try. They’re amazing, unless you have really high ceilings and need something more luminous.

This summer, we bought a 1960’s ranch home.  It leans toward a mid-century modern design aesthetic, which I really like. The previous homeowner had filled it with CFL’s and fluorescent tube lights. The lighting was shadowy and had a sickly color. We took the opportunity to remove the existing light fixtures, patch the drywall, and consider how to light a home 2015-style. To bridge the gap, we bought some fairly basic ceiling fixtures for a few rooms and stuffed them with Cree A-lamps. The kitchen is still shadowy, but at least the nasty color cast is gone.

The next step seemed obvious: Under-cabinet lighting. The Xenon under-cabinet lighting in our former home was stunning, but the transformers failed frequently, and it’s expensive. LED seems like an obvious choice, but many fixtures we saw in lighting stores have poor color rendering. (Read this if you’re interested in LED color accuracy.) And what happens when a light module fails? There’s a good chance the entire under-cabinet lighting system would need to be replaced.

Last weekend we visited some friends who are in the final stages of a kitchen remodel. What I saw under their cabinets surprised me: LED strip lights. These lights are typically sold on a 5-meter spool for anywhere from $5 to $300. With a pair of scissors you can cut these strips down to just about any size you could want. They’ve earned a lousy reputation because the cheaper strips from China proliferate; They don’t have enough copper to dissipate the heat they generate and they use low-grade LED chips, so they fade quickly and offer subpar light quality. I hadn’t considered these seriously until I saw someone using them.

It’s nearly impossible to judge the quality of these products online, but It turns out there are a few companies offering apparently high-quality LED light strips.  Flexfire LEDs and Diode LED offer strips with a tremendous amount of luminosity and impressive color quality. Klus Design offers an amazing range of affordable aluminum extrusions for building custom lighting with LED strips. I’ve ordered some pieces to tinker with, and I’m really excited about the possibilities. I’m not sure I’ll have much reason to install recessed lights now.

Take a look at the Klus Design catalog [PDF]; It’s amazing.

Replacing Dropbox with BitTorrent Sync

[Edit 12/2015 – Since BitTorrent Sync hit 2.x, I’m no longer using it and I can no longer recommend it.]

Too many times, you’ve heard a cloud storage/sync product described as “like Dropbox.” There’s Box, OneDrive, Google Drive, iCloud Drive, Bitcasa, SpiderOak, Wuala, Transporter, and I’ve missed a bunch. It doesn’t matter because they’re all pretty bad, and nearly all have the same problem, which is that any data you upload can be decrypted by the provider. In the event of a bug or a breach, anyone could have access to your files.

BitTorrent Sync draws the inevitable comparison, but it’s different and better. It lets you sync folders between multiple machines, and it supports every major computing platform, but it works without a cloud component. It’s peer-to-peer, encrypted, and fast. Sync is in beta, but I replaced Dropbox with Sync over five months ago, and it’s been great. The most recent version even handles syncing OS X extended attributes with an intermediate Linux peer.

I’ve been using Sync to publish files to the web, replicate a Minecraft server, sync personal documents between my computers, access files on the go with my iPhone, automatically upload security camera footage offsite, and even back up my iPhone’s camera roll to a home computer. It works.

Sync makes ad-hoc sharing easy, with expiring and optionally read-only links. It’s one of the easiest and fastest ways to share large files.

The most intriguing feature of BitTorrent Sync is its ability to include peers that can sync without having a decryption key. I’ve taken advantage of that feature to keep a copy of my documents synchronized with my own cloud server. On that server, the file contents, names, and metadata are encrypted and I feel reasonably secure knowing that if someone hacked the server, my tax returns and security camera footage would remain private.

Sync is hard to get right, and BitTorrent Sync is impressive. On my wishlist: Hosted plans for folks who need the always-on aspect of cloud storage and can’t roll their own, and a Dropbox-compatible SDK for mobile app developers.

TestDisk Data Recovery on OS X

One of the 4TB external USB hard drives I use for local backups started randomly disconnecting a few days ago. Today it failed completely. It’s a Seagate Backup Plus model, where the bottom of the enclosure consists of a small, removable shim that contains the USB & power connections and the USB to SATA converter chip. After trying different USB ports and cables without success, I decided to hook up the drive directly using SATA. After trimming a SATA cable with a utility knife to make it fit the narrow port opening, hooking it up, and rebooting… Finder offered to initialize an unreadable disk.

Disk Utility showed a single unreadable 500GB partition and a FAT partition table. The drive previously had a GUID partition table, not FAT. I have no idea what corrupted the disk in such an interesting way, but TestDisk was able to quickly scan the drive, locate the partitions and types, and repair everything in just a few seconds. The user interface hails from the 1990’s, but the software worked wonders and it’s completely free and open-source. It also runs on Linux, Windows, and DOS.

All my backups are intact and valid. I haven’t figured out what to do with the drive, though. Anecdotal evidence from the Internet suggests USB/SATA adapters are prone to failure, but I’m guessing the cause is probably cheap, poorly-designed power supplies. I’m not sure if it’s worth opening a support case with Seagate.