LED Lights: What is the difference between Warm White and Cool White?

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If you want to replace your old, traditional incandescent or halogen lights with LED lights, or if you are planning on building a new space with LED lighting you need to choose your light colour.  If you are not yet familiar with LED technology or have seen confusing terms such as "3000K vs 4000K" then this article will make you fully informed. We’ll discuss the difference between Warm White and Cool White LEDs as well as the ideal situations when you should use them. First, let’s take a short look at what LED is all about.

LED Lights: The Benefits and What to Look For

LED is the latest lighting technology and far superior to traditional incandescent and halogen lights.  The key benefits of LED lighting over traditional lighting is it is designed to last much longer (decades usually), consumes far less power (80%+ less usually), and is far safer (low operating temperature so greatly reduced fire risk).

Premium LED downlight with large heatsink

Traditional light bulbs pass electricity through a wire filament (encased in sometimes dangerous gases) which then glows hot to provide light.  LED technology involves passes controlled electricity through a solid-state semiconductor (a Light Emitting Diode or LED chip) which emits light of a certain brightness and colour.  The heat produced by a LED is far less than incandescent lighting so the lights do not produce dangerous heat if installed properly.

LED chips, just like laptop computer chips, still need to be kept cool so their intended lifetime is preserved,  This is why LED downlights have a rear heatsink.  Premium LED downlights often have larger heatsinks to provide greater heat dissipation - these are usually only warm to touch even if the light is on all day, but they still serve an important function in lowering the operating temperature of the LED chip.

If you’re convinced that LED is the technology for your lighting needs, check out our page on choosing and installing LED lights and our large range of LED downlights.

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LED Colours

Technically, LED chips can be made to emit a specific light color and from the red, blue, yellow, and pure white light spectrum.  This is why LED technology is applied to various applications.  The terms warm white and cool white are references to the low and high end of this white light color spectrum.

Warm white - is a comfortable white color that is used in living areas and residential applications.  It is what we are used to in Australian households.  More than 95% of domestic lighting is warm white and most households opt to install 100% warm white.

Cool white - is an artificially whiter light that is normal in retail shopping centres, offices, and useful in household work areas like laundries and garages.  Cool white, and it slightly less harsh "Natural White", are much lower demand than warm white for domestic use.

The technical measurement of light color is in Kelvins, and this is discussed below.  As many LED lights are sold with a Kelvin color specification it might be useful for you to read our simple explanation of the Kelvin light color scale below.

Warm White or Cool White?

Kelvin Scale shows difference between 3000k and 4000k

The Kelvin Scale

LED color temperature is measured using the Kelvin scale represented by numbers followed by a “K”.  Manufacturers and retailers can differ in their definition of the light range titles, but typically:

    • Warm White is around 2700K to 3500K,
    • Natural White is around 4000K to 4500K,
    • Cool White is around 5000K to 6500K.

As an example, consider the color temperature of other light sources:

    • Candle flame: around 1850K
    • Traditional incandescent lights: around 2700K to 3300K
    • Moonlight: around 4100K

Warm White and Cool White are the most commonly used colour temperature in LED applications.

"I want to match the light colour of my old lights."

If you are replacing incandescent lights or halogen downlights almost all globes sold for general household purposes in Australia have been warm white.  You can always check the model number of the globe if you are unsure.

One difference in light colour you will be likely to notice is when you dim lights.  When you dim incandescent or halogen lights the filament would become increasingly orange (warmer).  With LED chips, however, the light colour will always remain the same regardless of the brightness.  So if you dim a LED light only its brightness will reduce.  This is easy to get accustomed to, and regarded as an improvement by most of our customers.

"I have seen LED lights that are colour adjustable."

Some manufacturers and retailers are promoting lights where the color of the light can be changed - often with a remote!  Renovator Store does sell such a light.   What is actually happening is the light fixture usually includes a warm white LED chip set AND a cool white LED chip set.  To change the color you are actually switching between the two or using a combination of both.

Whilst this might sound attractive as you do not have to select your light color upfront, the combination of two LED chip sets either materially increases the cost of the light, or the quality of the chip sets are reduced to keep the price competitive.  In my experience, customers that have selected such lights eventually switch them to warm white and never touch them again - therefore I believe the gimmick will eventually disappear from the market.

"Which color temperature is best for me?"

It all depends on your needs.  Work out what the function of the space is and then select your light color.  IMPORTANTLY: you should not mix light colors in a single space as the difference would be quite evident.

COMMERCIAL LIGHTING AND TASK LIGHTING - If you are fitting a factory or a hospital, Cool White is the best choice for you because its "whiter than white" color exaggerates colors and is ideal for working and task-based lighting.  It is sometimes called "icy white" and is equivalent to the light you get from the normal fluorescent tube lighting in offices and commercial buildings.

In the home, we recommend cool white (or natural white which is between cool and warm) for work and task areas such as home offices.  Although not common, some people choose natural white (about 4000K) for bathrooms and kitchens for task lighting (For bathroom lighting, read Lighting Ideas: Why You Need to Upgrade Your Bathroom Lighting).  However, if your kitchen is integrated with living spaces you should not mix light colors and would utilize a light color that suits the living spaces throughout.

LIVING AREAS - Warm White is by far the more practical and popular color temperature for home installation, especially if traditional light bulbs are to be replaced.  As you can see in the image below warm white is a very normal light for the home.  People usually tend to stick with the kind of lighting they already have and warm white LED lights to offer a similar lighting color. Warm white is regarded as almost essential for living spaces as anything above this is generally regarded as too harsh.

OUTDOOR LIGHTING - Selection of light color for outdoor lighting is a matter of preference. We recommend warm white for outdoor living, warm white is also more popular for outdoor lighting fixtures.  The exception might be specialized security lights and access lighting.

Of course, if you would like further advice please ring Renovator Store on 1800 RENOSTORE or (03) 9544 3003.

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(Related topics: The Ultimate All-In-One Home Lighting Guide and Green Electricity: A Different Kind of Energy [leads to external partner site])