What exactly is low voltage lighting?
Low Voltage Lighting is a way of illuminating your home, garden, office, etc, by means of lower voltages than mains voltage. It offers the advantages of smaller, more compact light sources (halogen bulbs and LED’s come to mind) as well as smaller electrical bills. What is not to like about that? Halogen has been around for a while as a serious and powerful light source, and many of us know both the powerful floodlights of several hundred watts and the small bulbs for use in domestic and office lighting. LED technology is not really new – it has been used for decades for indication lights in electronic equipment – but in the role of serious light sources for use in our homes and elsewhere, it is quite new – and still under development.
What can you use low voltage lighting for then? Basically everything. Anyplace where you use large, mains powered bulbs, you could replace it with smaller bulbs running off lower voltages. But why would you – if you are already using energy saving bulbs? The answer is that there are places where smaller – and sometimes less powerful – lights make sense. Also, especially with LED, the power requirements can be even less than that of energy savers. What you have to realize, is that light can be many things. How about low voltage landscape lighting? Have you ever wanted to spice up the way your property looks at night, but were reluctant to put up the power hungry bulbs of yore? Take something as simple as string lights, like the ones you put up around Christmas, Halloween, or the whole year round just for fun. Since LED started to take off as a real alternative to other technologies, LED string lights have exploded in popularity. Why not create an original low voltage garden lighting system of a more permanent kind – using LED’s as the light source? Remember, it doesn’t need to give so much light that you could read by it – it is not light to see by, but merely to be seen. Low voltage LED lighting also has the advantage of having extremely long life – 50.000 hours if designed properly – making it less important that it is easy to access and replace. Since it also uses electricity much more efficiently than other light sources, it emits less heat relative to the amount of light it produces – and, more importantly to most people – uses less electricity.
The compact nature of both halogen and LED means you have a new freedom in lighting design. Now even the smallest objects can become lamps. If you always wanted a desk lamp built into a bread stick, well, in theory you could do that with LED (but would you?). And the fact that the power consumption is less, means that you can now consider putting light in places where it would once have seemed excessive. Outdoor low voltage lighting is really taking off right now, and feasibility is definitely one of the reasons for it.
If you dream of more light or more creative lighting, but you don’t want to spend big bucks on your electrical bill, you owe it to yourself to look into low voltage lighting.
How To Buy A Low Voltage Transformer
Here is a short guide on what to look for when you are shopping for a low voltage transformer. No matter if you need a low voltage lighting transformer or a transformer for some other purpose, there are some things you need to know a bit about. You don’t need to be a trained engineer to purchase or use a transformer – a little knowledge goes a long way.
First we should get clear on what a transformer is. An electronic transformer is part of the family of what is known as passive electronic devices. Basically, it consists of two windings of copper wire around a core of ferrous material. These two windings are not in direct physical contact, but are separated by electrical insulation. They affect each others magnetic fields though, which is what makes the transformer work. The two coils (sometimes there are actually more than two) are called the primary and the secondary. The voltage that you wish to transform goes in on the primary, and out of the secondary comes a new – transformed – voltage. A transformer is sometimes referred to as a power supply, but this is not entirely correct; a power supply often contains a transformer – but also several other electronic components that perform various tasks. On the other hand, a transformer on its own can only process (and output) AC voltages, so if you see advertisements for a DC transformer, what it really is, is actually a power supply! Confusing? Yes, a little, but I will try to alleviate some of that with this article, so read on.
Low voltage transformers and their applications
The term “low voltage” happens to somewhat fuzzy – covering voltages up to 1000 volts in some cases! In our case though, we will say that anything under 50 VAC (volts of alternating current) qualifies as low voltage. A transformer for low voltage then, is one that outputs a voltage equal to, or below, 50 VAC. A lot of people looking for transformers these days need them to power a low voltage lighting system of some kind, usually with halogen bulbs or LED’s. Low voltage lighting transformers are often either 12v or 24v, with the majority possibly being 12v transformers. Other uses include practically every kind of electronic device bigger than portable consumer electronics like mp3 players, cell phones, etc – these use something called switching power supplies instead which we won’t cover here. But things like CD-players, hifi-amplifiers and such – use transformers.
How do you decide what to buy for your specific project? It depends on a number of factors, but let us say, for the sake of simplicity, that you want to make a low voltage lighting system consisting of 4 halogen bulbs. First things you do is decide on the voltage and power rating of those bulbs. If you want 12v bulbs at 35 watts each, it follows that your power requirements total are 140 watts at 12VAC. Halogen bulbs use AC voltage to run. This now means that you must find a transformer that will convert your local mains voltage (120, 220 or 240V, depending on where in the world you live) to 12 VAC. It must also be able to deliver at least 140 watts of power to the light bulbs. It is always a good idea to plan for a bit of surplus capacity when designing with electricity, as you can never be 100% sure that a power rating is correct, or that someone won’t by mistake replace your 35 watt bulbs with 50 watt ones, effectively overloading the transformer. I would probably double the capacity to 280 watts – just to be on the safe side.
I hope I have managed to raise the information level on this subject a little bit, and enable you to make a confident purchase of a low voltage transformers.
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