EVERETT, Mass. – Joey Nicotera's fascination with multicolored light bulbs bordered on obsession when he was a teenager. He framed posters in lights and decorated his own Christmas tree. When he couldn't find a color bulb he wanted, he got paint cans from the basement and made some himself, bathing his second-story bedroom in an eerie glow.
"I'd be driving home from work at night, and I could see his room from five blocks away, with all the weird colors and flashing lights," recalls his father, Joe Nicotera Sr.
Joey is now 32 and out of the family home. But a rainbow of ever-changing colors still emanates from his current living space, an 840-square-foot loft condominium in a renovated candy bar factory in Everett, just north of Boston.
Instead of painting light bulbs, Nicotera spent $5,000 to equip his bachelor pad with 54 fixtures containing light-emitting diodes, or LEDs — devices similar to computer semiconductors that convert electricity into light and stream it out of glass domes the size of matchstick heads.
They may be pricey now, but LEDs are being touted as eventual replacements for standard, incandescent bulbs and even compact fluorescents because of their growing efficiency and predictions of increasingly lower costs.
And as LEDs expand their reach into the aesthetic-minded market for home lighting, they boast something traditional lighting sources can't: LEDs can be programmed to emit light in virtually any color without the use of filters, enabling homeowners to design their own living room light shows, or tailor the color of the light to their mood.
"If colored light is needed, now there is a technology that can cater to that," said Nadarajah Narendran, director of lighting research at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.
Nicotera counts himself among an apparent handful of lighting enthusiasts around the country who have outfitted their homes with large numbers of LEDs. Now, his pad is a popular party spot and a great place to bring dates.
"I wanted a Vegas cocktail lounge look, with a Jetsons flavor to it," said Nicotera, an information technology manager in Boston. "I always figured that George and Jane would have walls that changed color," he said of the old TV cartoon characters.
Narendran says niche applications are already emerging as homeowners install LEDs to light display cabinets and add color to high-end home theaters. But it's hard to say how many homeowners will follow Nicotera's example by installing color LEDs and programming light shows.
"It's a matter of personal preference, like fashions," Narendran said.
Nicotera installed all his LED fixtures himself. Each contains 45 to 75 of the tiny spotlight-producing LEDs, commonly used in on-off indicators for electronics and appliances. He doesn't have any incandescent bulbs and relies on 50 halogen fixtures for overhead light.
He says his 54 LED fixtures together use less electricity than a single 100-watt incandescent and account for just $2 a month on his utility bill.
But it's the light show capabilities that capture Nicotera's interest. He taps controls on a wall switch panel to choose among eight programs or uses lighting control software on his laptop to expand programming options even further. Each program varies the color and brightness of the LED arrays in hanging lamps and the LED strips in backlit wall shelving and kitchen cabinets.
The wall switch and laptop are linked to a flash memory device and a pair of VCR-sized transformers that control the lights from a hallway closet. Shelves and cabinets abruptly shift from one hue to the next or shimmer gradually through the spectrum, bathing the condo's neutral gray walls in light.
Nicotera runs a red-white-and-blue program each Fourth of July, and he can change colors on shelf panels to simulate Tetris, the falling-blocks video puzzle game. When Italy won soccer's World Cup last year, Nicotera displayed Italy's national colors in his first-floor condo, which is visible to nearby traffic.
"It was all red, white and green," Nicotera said. "People who would drive by would honk their horns."
Because of their color advantage, LEDs are being used to light display shelves at jewelry stores and supply ambiance in restaurants. Hotels are installing LEDs to provide splashes of exterior color. And Toronto's CN Tower is being lit this month with more than 1,300 color-changing LEDs running up the 1,815-foot structure.
As for LEDs that cast white light, Narendran expects it will be five to 10 years before such products begin seriously challenging other light sources in homes.
So far, cost is the biggest obstacle, but that should change over the next few decades.
Three years ago, the first 10 fixtures Nicotera mounted in the bathroom ceiling cost $125 apiece. Since then, the cost has come down to less than $75 each. He says he hasn't had to replace or fix any of his LEDs, which are touted to run continuously for 11 years.
Last Tuesday, Netherlands-based Royal Philips Electronics NV expanded its LED presence by offering $688 million to acquire Color Kinetics Inc., a decade-old Boston company that designed the CN Tower's new lighting and holds patents on systems to control LED color and brightness.
Fritz Morgan, Color Kinetics' chief technology officer, said the semiconductor technology underlying LEDs is becoming more affordable and efficient at a rate on par with advances in computing speed. Today's LEDs are about as efficient as the latest compact fluorescents, Morgan said, and they are improving faster than fluorescents.
"There's been a dramatic increase in just two or three years, where LEDs went from being as efficient as incandescents, to then being as good as halogens, to now being at the level of compact fluorescents," Morgan said.
Nicotera — whose home is equipped with Color Kinetics LED products bought through distributors — is so impressed with the technology that he's put his condo up for sale and plans to build a new home from scratch, equipped exclusively with LEDs.
His condo is being offered at $359,000 — he may throw in the unit's LED lights and controls for a little extra, subject to negotiation.
Although the LEDs may turn off some prospective buyers, Nicotera's mother is proof that there can be rewards to investing in a new technology. She was initially skeptical when her son started planning his condo's design.
"When he started talking about having a wall of lights, I couldn't really imagine what he was talking about," Linda Nicotera said. "I thought it was going to look like a disco, or something on the tacky side.
"But there was a 'wow' factor when I finally saw it. It ended a lot better than I thought."