Do LED Strip Lights Need A Heat Sink?

Sometimes you get a great idea or a bolt of inspiration, and you want to jump right to it! Saw that crafty DIY, or a dreamy lighting project, and feel like getting started as soon as possible?

While I understand the rush of motivation, the smarter thing to do is always take a breath, research around the topic, and plan your project accordingly.

This way, you channel your time and your effort in the right direction. Speaking of channels, your LED strip needs one.

One of the easiest mistakes to make in a lighting project is to not understand thermodynamics. That is, how heat energy is converted, transferred, and dissipated, and the effect of heat on materials around the light source.

LED light strips need heat sinks, or channels, to absorb the heat away from them and dissipate it back into the surrounding air. Without this, LED strips can quickly lose optimum performance. The best heat sinks are made from aluminium alloys, and need to match the size of the LED strip.

Do LED Strip Lights Require A Heat Sink?

An LED bulb, integrated fixture, or light strip are some of the best investments you can make in your home. They save money, don’t give off excessive heat like incandescents, and are much safer to use, unlike CFLs.

But they are heat sensitive. LED lighting technology is closer to computers than it is to light bulbs. And like any computer component, LEDs too require special and care and a suitable environment.

The most important thing an LED needs is to have good heat management. Remember, while LEDs run much cooler than other lighting counterparts, they are not literally cool to touch.

LEDs do give off heat as they convert electrical energy to anywhere between 90% – 60% light energy and 10% – 40% heat energy. The output varies due to the LED bulb’s quality, the wiring, and the internal components used.

Therefore, this residual heat needs to be efficiently channeled away from the LED’s circuit, which has sensitive transistors, capacitors, diodes, and other chips.

Too much heat will result in lower light output, changes in colors, or a drastic reduction in lifespan.

If heat is not carried away from an LED, the glorious 25,000 hours of lifespan can quickly come down to 10,000 or even fewer hours. Or worse, the heat can eventually become a fire hazard in addition to prematurely ending the LED’s life.

A fan favorite when it comes to LEDs are strip lighting. And these too need to be installed with heat dissipation in mind.

The heat generated from strips depends largely on the diodes’ density per inch, on the material used in the strip, and of course, the safety standards and quality of the strip.

High power LED strips typically get about 20-30 degrees celsius hotter than the surrounding room temperature. This means that if the room is around 24 C (75 F), the temperature reached by the high power strip can be around 54 C (130 F).

For your skin, this would feel hot to touch. Therefore, it is vital to take all necessary steps to keep the strip, surrounding materials, and any kids and pets safe from the generated heat.

This is when the heat sink comes into action.

It bravely steps in and offers to carry the heat away from the sensitive strip onto itself. It is made from a suitable material that can withstand heat and also quickly dissipate it.

Therefore heatsinks themselves may feel hot to touch too, but that’s because they’re doing their job well.

How To Size A Heat Sink For Strip Lights?

If you are running the LED strip that requires more than 350 mA, then a heatsink is required. One single high-powered LED gives off about 1-watt.

Some heat sinks come with application guides for the LED strips. These are lines that allow the insertion of the strip. You don’t need a heat strip that is very much wider than the light strip.

Here are some example LED strips sizes that are available in the market, and the required heat sink sizes you need to accommodate them.

Width of LED strip in mm Appropriate width of heat sink in mm
8-10 mm standard width 13 mm
12-15 mm double row 18 mm
27 mm ultra wide 30 mm

What Material Should I Choose For Heat Sinks?

The material of the heat sink you choose makes a big difference in its function. Copper and aluminum alloys are two standard options you should aim for.

For industrial-grade, synthetic diamond heat sinks are used for laser diodes, but this will be a bit of an overkill in a home set up!

But it is aluminum that takes the cake due to several reasons. More specifically, the aluminum alloys 6060 and 6063.

Firstly, the aluminum alloy is soft and can be extruded. This means the heat sinks can be finned or shaped easily into efficient designs without a high cost.

Secondly, it is also lightweight. This makes it practical for daily household usage without being bulky.

Lastly, aluminium is the most cost effective solution for LED strip lights. Because the material is cheap and its manufacturing is easy, these heat sinks cost one-third the price of copper ones.

The aluminum helps the strip light to cool down in three ways:

Conduction occurs first: Heat transfers from solid (LED strip) to solid (aluminum heat sink).

After that, convection happens: Heat is dissipated from solid (LED strip) to flowing fluid (surrounding air).

And finally, radiation does the last part: Heat transfers between two bodies at a temperature gradient (from warmer LED to the cooler heat sink).

A good airflow does half the job for the heat sink. Therefore, even if you have a heat sink, don’t think you don’t need ventilation and air circulation around your lights.

The shape of the heat sink also varies. They can be very simply shaped, such as a flat thin aluminium strip, called a channel, which does the job well. Some of these heatsinks come with diffuser covers to give a more ambient light effect.

If you need a more angled light direction, some heat sinks come in a V-shape that can easily fit into a wall and ceiling corner.

Final Words

Now that you have a fair idea of the risks associated with an overheating LED, you can decide where to place them and what kind of heat dissipation equipment you will need.

Make sure you have good airflow and are using wide aluminum channels to help your LEDs last longer.

Have you been wanting to get started on your LED strip lighting project?

Did you know adding a heat sink will significantly improve your project’s life and functionality?

Let us know in the comments below.

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