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Are LED Lights Dimmable?

A collage of LED lights.

LED lights are quickly replacing incandescent bulbs for every lighting use, including applications where dimming the brightness is desirable. LED lights provide better energy efficiency and longer life and they can be dimmed, but only with a little preplanning.

Here are some things to consider as you work toward the customization of your lighting schemes that dimmable fixtures can provide. 

Related: Types of Light Bulbs | Do LED Lights Use a Lot of Electricity | Types of Lighting for Your Home

Shopping for LED Lights

A man shopping for a LED lights.

Because LED lights are made to be compatible with most devices that support a light bulb — like a lamp or recessed light fixture — it may seem like you can just buy any LED light to replace a standard incandescent bulb.

But just like with an incandescent bulb, you also need to understand the kind of wattage your device is designed to support and if it offers dimming abilities. The best way to do this is by making sure you read the label of the LED lights you are considering. 

Wattage for LED lights is measured somewhat differently and is usually expressed in a number that is one-tenth of the wattage that would be used to describe an incandescent bulb. This means that a 10-watt LED light produces the same amount of light (or lumens in technical terms) as a 100-watt incandescent bulb.

It is important to remember this because if you have a lamp that does not recommend more than a 50-watt bulb, it is most likely measured under the incandescent standard. In this case, choosing an LED light of 5 watts or less would be appropriate. 

Lights Designed to Dim

Different types of dimmed LED lights.

There are two components to a dimmable light fixture — the device’s driver and the light used in it. The driver is an essential part of your lighting device that regulates the power to the light source (the bulb).

Think of the driver as a flood gate — it allows the correct amount of power through so that it only uses the proper amount of power needed to perform the task at hand. (In this case, that means powering a lamp or light.)

The driver for each lighting device helps to determine the proper wattage needed for the lighting fixture. As you might imagine, the driver for a dimmable fixture is different than the one needed for a non-dimmable fixture.

Overloading a driver is what may cause your light to overheat and can damage bulbs. This is why knowing the appropriate wattage for your driver is important.

Once you have determined the correct wattage of your LED light, you need to look for labeling that indicates the light is dimmable. LED lights are labeled with a special symbol that indicates it is dimmable, so it eliminates guesswork when you’re shopping for lights.

You will still need to stay within the wattage requirements for your fixture so that the maximum wattage is appropriate. 

Dimmable Drivers

HitLights 25W Dimmable LED Driver Transformer, Power Supply 120V AC to 12V DC, Compatible with Lutron Leviton Dimmers, for LED Strip Lights, Constant Voltage LED Projects, ETL Listed

While it’s true that LED lights can be easily substituted for incandescent or fluorescent bulbs, this is more easily done with standard on/off lighting fixtures. To use dimmable lights, you will also need a dimmable driver that is compatible with LED lights.

This is because a driver would handle the delivery of power differently to an LED light. Basically, an incandescent or fluorescent bulb operates via a heated filament. When a dimmable driver in this type of fixture delivers less voltage, the filament cools slightly and less light is produced.

However, LED lights operate on a completely different system. An LED light is a Light Emitting Diode, which means that it is capable of two states of operation — on or off — with seemingly no in-between state.

Dimmable drivers designed for LED lighting instead use pulse width modulation (PWM) to make LED lights appear dimmed. As an example, imagine that you want to dim your LED light by 80%.

The driver would produce a PWM that would pulse the light on 80% of the time (and off 20% of the time). The trick is that the driver pulses at a rate so high that the effect is not perceived by the human eye. The result is the perception of dimmer light. 

Dimmable drivers that use pulse width modulation work well in most residential applications, but would not work for videography. Although the human eye cannot perceive the pulses, a high-quality camera can pick up on this phenomenon, which would result in noticeable flickering on video recordings. 

0-10v LED Dimming Controller 0-10V Analog Dimming Signal To Constant Voltage PWM 5A x 3CH RGB

Analog dimming, which reduces the current going to the LED, is another possible way of dimming, but it can produce light variances in the color of your LED. In plain speaking terms, that means the quality and uniformity of your lighting can suffer. 

There are many positive reasons to use LED lights to replace incandescent or fluorescent bulbs in light applications. Your carefully planned, dimmable lighting doesn’t need to deter you from using LEDs in every application.

It just takes a little planning and mindful shopping to bring your customized lighting schemes to reality. With the right dimmable features, you can decide how much light is needed and set the exact right ambiance in your home or office.