Traditional household lighting appliances — floor lamps, recessed lights, sconces — do a great job illuminating most areas of the home. However, there are times when a little extra light is needed, especially under cabinets or around display cases or entertainment centers. One popular solution is the LED lightstrip. Also known as tape lights or LED strips, these lightstrips use light-emitting diodes and a DC power source to generate accent lighting in places other light sources can’t easily reach.
Some basic LED rope lights are designed for decorative holiday or party lighting. Others are intended for backlighting or spotlighting. All LED lightstrip sets have limitations in terms of capacity, but several sets can be wired together in a series for larger projects.
For those who would like more information on this appealing and flexible form of home lighting, we created the following in-depth shopping guide.
Monochromatic LEDs vs. RGB LEDs
LED lightstrips have either monochromatic diodes or a combination of red, green, and blue (RGB) diodes. The power source may be a 12V DC converter (much like a computer power brick) or a series of dry cell batteries. A basic controller provides an on/off option, while additional dimmer switches or effects boxes create more customizable lighting options.
Monochromatic LED sets provide a single solid color — often white, blue, or red. RGB LEDs offer more color options, but you also need a more advanced controller to use them.
If a monochromatic “cool white” hue is desired, we recommend purchasing identical lightstrips from the same manufacturer. The reason: different LEDs may produce different color temperatures.
Ease of use
Most LED lightstrip manufacturers make the customization process easy by providing clearly marked cut lines between LED segments. These cut lines may be spaced two, four, or even six inches apart. The exposed leads can usually be attached to special connectors, which allow you to put several segments together without the need for soldering. Some mid-range and high-end kits include special L-shaped or T-shaped connectors for use in corners or other intersections.
Connecting the 12V power source and other controllers should be a simple task. The leads from the LED strip connector should fit securely into the leads from the power brick. Any effects controllers should connect easily between the power source and the lightstrip itself. Some basic soldering may be required for certain kits, but the instructions should walk you through the process.
Standard vs. high-density lightstrips
You have two categories to choose from: standard-density and high-density lightstrips. Standard-density sets contain up to 150 LEDs per full reel, which may be enough illumination for smaller household projects. These LEDs can be monochromatic or RGB. High-density LED lightstrips often contain 300 diodes on a reel. The illumination power is doubled, and many special lighting effects are enhanced. High-density LED lightstrips tend to be more expensive than standard-density sets.
LED lightstrip features
Dimmers and controllers
Basic LED lightstrip sets offer minimal effects — mostly on/off or dimming. Advanced controllers allow you to create special lighting effects such as chasing, twinkling, random lighting, or changing colors. In some cases, controllers are included in the original set. In other cases, controllers must be purchased separately.
Adhesives and attachments
Many LED lightstrip sets are dubbed “tape lights” for an important reason. The LEDs are held in place with double-sided adhesive tape, allowing you to reposition the light for maximum effect. However, adhesive tape can fail over time. Special plastic clips can be attached to the project to hold the lightstrip in place. Standard staples, small nails, or strong adhesive glue can also be used to secure most LED lightstrips.
The length of LED lighting required can vary from project to project. This is why manufacturers often produce different size reels of the same product. Some LED lightstrips may only be a few feet long, while a full-size reel can be up to 33 feet long. A good reel size for most home projects is around 16.4 feet.
LED lightstrip prices
Determining the final cost of an LED lightstrip set is not always easy because some kits require additional components, such as a 12V DC power supply connector, a dimmer switch, or a remote control. Specific projects may require multiple reels or just a few segments from a smaller strip. Here’s a guide to what to expect at different price points.
Inexpensive (under $10)
LED lightstrip sets at this entry-level price fall into the decorative string light category. It’s possible to find reels as long as 33 feet, but these are usually monochromatic and not customizable; they function more like holiday or festival lighting. Some inexpensive string light sets do offer basic lighting effects, such as chasing and twinkiing.
You may be able to find actual LED tape strips with RGB capability at this price, but the LEDs themselves will most likely be the smaller 2835 size, not the preferable 5050 size for maximum illumination.
Mid-range (between $10 and $35)
The mid-range price point is where most consumers will find satisfaction. These LED lightstrips are usually segmented for easy customization, and the kits include connectors for installation. The controllers are more advanced with dimmer switches, RGB color-mixing options, and multiple effects. This is where high-density lightstrips are commonly found, along with larger 5050 LEDs.
LED lightstrips in this price range are more likely to include stronger adhesives or other mounting systems for a more professional appearance, too.
Expensive (over $35)
High-end LED lightstrip sets tend to include all of the hardware and controllers needed for larger projects. Virtually standard at this price are 5050 RGB LEDs, along with the most advanced controllers available. Many professional musicians and club DJs invest in high-end LED lightstrips to enhance their stage setup. Some LED lightstrips can even be synced with drums or other instruments.
For home users, the main advantage of high-end LED lightstrips is ease of use. No soldering experience is required, and many systems can be controlled remotely.
Did you know?
High-density LED lightstrips contain twice as many LEDs per reel than standard lightstrips.
● Most LED lightstrips are commonly designed to be cut into two-inch, four-inch, or six-inch segments. Take careful measurements of your project’s dimensions before investing in LED tape lights.
● Not all LED lightstrips are waterproof. Be sure to read the product description or package carefully if waterproofing is essential.
● Many LED lightstrips are dimmable, but this feature may require the installation of a special dimmer switch designed for LED lighting.
● Typical LED lightstrip reels range in length from three feet to 16.4 feet. Some users may want to purchase a full-size reel and cut it to size. Others may benefit from smaller pre-cut lengths.
“While many LED lightstrips sets for home use have easy-to-use connectors, some basic soldering skills may still be required.”
Q. I want to add accent lighting to a curio display case. Is there a way to get more professional-looking corners?
A. Many people encounter this problem when working with flexible strip lights: the strip will not lie flush inside the corners. One popular solution is to use special “T” or “L” connectors. You cut the LED strip at the prescribed cut line and feed the new ends into the appropriate connector. The connector should fit precisely into the corner, and the electrical connection will be maintained.
Q. I want to install some LED lightstrips in my car to illuminate my center console and dashboard. How do I provide power?
A. There are several ways to provide a power source to a car’s interior. You could use a traditional battery power brick and hide the unit under the seat or in the glove compartment. Or, you could invest in a specialized DC power pack that plugs into the cigarette lighter. Make sure the voltage and amperage ratings are compatible. Some LED lightstrips can also be powered by a USB cable plugged into a dedicated device charger.
Q. Can LED lightstrips overheat? I want to install some accent lights in a wood cabinet, but I don’t want to create a fire hazard.
A. LED (light emitting diode) lights do not generate a significant amount of heat while in use. They can be safely embedded in a number of materials that might melt or burn with traditional bulbs. LEDs use low voltage/low amperage DC power sources. They can burn out over time, but they cannot overheat.