Line Voltage vs. Low Voltage Lighting
Line voltage is the standard voltage that's found in outlets and junction boxes, which is 120 volts in Canada and the United States. Low voltage lighting typically uses 12 volts and rquires a transformer to lower the line voltage from 120 to 12 volts to avoid immediately burning out the low voltage bulb.
The transformer for low voltage lighting is either built into the fixture or located elsewhere. The wattage rating of a transformer should be the same or higher than the combined wattage of the lighting system. Transformers typically require a minimum wattage in order to operate the lighting system.
The benefits of line voltage include lower-cost fixtures, light bulbs and installation. Dimmers for line voltage lighting are also less expensive than those used with low voltage lighting. Although the initial cost is lower, operating costs are typically higher for line voltage lights unless they're installed in low-use areas, in which case the operating cost difference will be negligible.
While low voltage light fixtures, bulbs and dimmers are considerably more expensive due to the need for a transformer, the operating costs are typically lower than line voltage operation if the lighting system is frequently used.
Quality of Light
The light produced by low voltage bulbs is warmer, clearer, sharper and looks more natural than high voltage bulbs which produce light that's more diffused. While it's difficult to focus the beam of a high voltage bulb, which tends to scatter light, low voltage bulbs offer a high degree of optical control using just the lamp's reflector. That's because the filament in a low volt lamp is smaller than that in a standard lamp, and most of the lumens are focused in the beam. As a result, less light is diffused.
Energy Efficiency & Associated Costs
While a low voltage bulb, such as a 50-watt MR16, doesn't use less electricity than a standard bulb with the same wattage, the former will provide nearly 100 watts' worth of illumination for the same power consumption, and light is more effectively concentrated where it's needed, which can reduce the nimber of fixtures needed for a particular lighting scheme. Low Voltage bulbs last longer, too. A standard household bulb will last around 750 hours, while a standard MR16 lasts 6,000 hours. Low volt lamps also break less frequently than high volt lamps because they're more shock and vibration resistant.
Applications of Line & Low Voltage Lighting
Low voltage lighting can be used in the same spaces and for the same purposes as line voltage lighting, but for contemporary lighting schemes, low voltage lighting is ultimately more practical, safer and less expensive to operate. Low voltage lighting is available in a wide range of styles, including recessed can lights, track lighting, rail lighting systems, pendant lighting, display lights and suspended cable lighting.
Because more modern lighting options are available with low voltage lighting in terms of fixtures, lenses, bulbs and beams, low voltage lighting is more versatile than line voltage lighting for illuminating artwork, creating a particular ambiance and lighting work spaces.
The Bottom Line
Both line voltage and low voltage lighting systems have advantages, but choosing one over the other largely comes down to the variety of options and the initial operating costs. Line voltage lighting offers fewer options, but it's less expensive to buy and install, although typically more expensive to operate. Low voltage lighting is available in more options, and while it's more expensive to buy and install, it's typically less expensive to operate over time.
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