I’ve been watching too many of Big Clive’s YouTube videos lately. I know this, because I impulse-bought some cheap LED lights, took them apart, and am now writing a blog post about them.

Quick bit of background for those who don’t live in North America: Michaels is a big-box store that specializes in craft supplies. They sell stuff like paint brushes, sewing supplies, scale model kits, and cheap home decor. When they have electronics, they tend to be tools of some kind, or they’re little little gadgets used by the “crafty but not techy” audience to add some light and/or motion to their projects.

I was at Michaels last week for unrelated reasons, and stumbled across their Christmas section! In February! Naturally, it was an 80% off fire sale. The remaining wares of the holiday season all fit into one of three categories:

  1. Ugly, horribly made paint-it-yourself decorations, many of which were broken. This was the majority of the remaining items.
  2. Things they clearly just bought too much of. Namely, tissue paper and candles. The only indication that these items were “holiday” themed was the picture of a snowflake on the packaging.
  3. The thing I’m about to show you.

Normally, Michaels offers very few products I’d be interested in buying. They cater to a wide variety of hobbies, but none of my hobbies. But, one thing caught my eye (besides the candles - I bought some of those). Feast your eyes on this oddity:

Clear plastic blister package holding four small LED lights, and a long white cable. The product’s name is written in 6 different languages, the English version is “Lighted Accessory”. A small logo in the top right corner indicates that the manufacturer’s name is “Lemax.” The price tag lists prices of $29.99 USD, and $39.99 CAD.

Back of the same package. The text at the top of the label says “Four LED Light String Moonlander.”

Ah yes, a “Lighted Accessory!” A well-known and extremely useful object made by well-known Lighted Accessory manufacturer “Lemax.” Obviously, it’s just some LED lights with a power cable. The little clips on the bottom of each light suggest that they might be made to plug into a scale model of some kind - perhaps those paint-it-yourself decorations strewn about on nearby shelves. To me, the most striking thing about this item is the $30 price tag. Good thing it’s a holiday sale in February!

The front of the package calls the product a “Lighted Accessory,” but according to the back of the package and the price tag, these are in fact “Moonlanders.” All one word. So, these are either clip-in lights for build-it-yourself decorations, or they’re spacecraft. At least they’ve narrowed it down for us.

Here’s the contents of the package:

Four small light pods with white plastic mounting clips sitting on a black surface. A long cord, wrapped up in twist-ties, sits to the right of the lights.

I must admit, I didn’t look very closely at this product before buying it, so I was surprised to find it did not come with a battery pack or a power supply. That white cable just allows you to daisy-chain them together.

Close-up view of the bottom of one light.

The bottom of the light is mostly flat, and has a DC barrel jack with the common 0.21” outside diameter, and 0.08” inside diameter (5.5mm x 2.1mm). The designers have done a decent job here - each light is embossed with information about the correct supply voltage, and the polarity of the barrel jack. There’s also a slide switch that feels suspiciously mushy.

Close-up side view of one of the four lights.

Looking at the lights from the side, I can make out the vague silhouette of a moon lander. I’m not sure why they decided to use a Rorschach test as a way to name their product, but it makes it very difficult to find information about these lights online (more on that later). It’s not like “lighted accessory” narrows things down much.

I measured the housing’s diameter as 1.11” (28.2mm). The diameter across the inner part of the clips is slightly narrower, at 1.04” (26.4mm). With the clips pushed together, the widest diameter across the clips is 1.15” (29.2mm). Unless you cut a non-circular hole, these lights are going to want to spin around inside the hole, which is annoying.

So far, the craziest thing about this product is the price tag. I’m probably more experienced with with weird electronics than the average Michaels customer, but I can’t imagine anyone looking at the contents of this package and thinking “yes, that’s definitely worth 30 dollars.” That said, I don’t think customers have much of a choice.

Digression: The Pink Tax

If you haven’t heard of it, “the Pink Tax” isn’t an actual tax, it’s a figure of speech that (quoting Wikipedia) “refers to the tendency for products marketed specifically toward women to be more expensive than those marketed toward men.” The term originated from the phenomenon where a lot of commodity items have a regular, cheap version, and then an inexplicably expensive version decked out in “girl colors,” like pink.

Michaels is a routine Pink Tax offender, but I typically associate the Michaels Pink Tax with tools, not electronic gadgets. It’s common to see Michaels tools priced at a 100% markup compared to hardware stores. Here’s an example I grabbed while writing this post:

Price comparison between two pairs of side cutters. The item on the left, being sold by Michaels, is $9.99. The item on the right, being sold by Harbor Freight, is $3.99. The two items are the same size, and are almost identical, except for the color of the rubber grip.

Michaels and other craft stores get away with this pricing because the would-be competitors don’t cater to the same audience. Maybe, some day, Harbor Freight will start pushing their YouTube ads to craft moms instead of people like me.

I think the Pink Tax explains why these lights were $30 initially. LEDs have become such a low-cost commodity that they can be shoved willy-nilly into all kinds of cheap products. But, products like this are only recently starting to get in front of some audiences (like craft moms). If you haven’t seen reasonably-priced versions of this product, you could be left totally in the dark.

Digression, Continued: The Query Problem

Lack of competition isn’t the only problem, though. Imagine you’re a craft mom, and you want some clip-in light-up pods to illuminate the windows of your Christmas village miniatures. If you were going to look for those on Amazon, (or Wal-Mart, or elsewhere), what would you type into the search bar? Let’s try some things…

  1. Typing “clip-on LED light pod” into Amazon showed me accessories for off-road trucks.
  2. “hobby LED light kit” returns kits of standalone LEDs and battery packs, which would require soldering.
  3. “hobby clip led light kit” returns the same items, plus some incandescent night lights for whatever reason.
  4. “led accessory light” returns the car stuff again, plus some RGB LED strips.
  5. “led accessory clip light” returns mounting hardware for led strips.

The magic incantation seems to be “LED moon lander accessory.” There are only a handful of results, but they include a handful of clip-in lights like these, including one item from the very same brand. All listings are cheaper than Michaels, and all are a better value. But, “moon lander?” Seriously?

Better deals exist through mainstream e-retailers, but they lack discoverability. I can’t imagine someone coming up with the phrase “moon lander accessory light” unless they saw this exact product on a shelf in a brick-and-mortar store, and took note of the “moon lander” labeling. Perhaps this is a term that’s well-known in the crafty community, but I doubt it. Searching “moon lander” on a couple of craft forums led to zero results.

Search query construction is really difficult to master, and some products are so obscure that coming up with the right incantation is almost impossible. However, brick-and-mortar stores like Michaels aren’t worried about that. As a customer in a physical store, you don’t have to figure out how to describe an item in precise written terms, you just pick it up and buy it. Although it isn’t ironclad, this is a distinct advantage that Michaels (and other big-box stores) have over online competitors. Maybe this advantage could be nullified by AI as LLMs broaden the language processing capabilities of computers.


Back to the lights.

Photograph of the top view of one light pod with the light diffuser removed. A small circuit board is visible, with four LEDs, one capacitor, and one resistor.

The light diffuser is easy to remove by prying with a small screwdriver, and what’s revealed underneath isn’t terribly surprising. Immediately visible are a 33-ohm resistor, a capacitor, and four white LEDs. You can tell they’re white LEDs because of the yellow phosphor layer. You can also tell that these are white LEDs by plugging them in and turning them on:

Photograph of one LED light pod lit up. The light pod is resting on its side on a black table. The light diffuser scatters the light across the table’s surface. A black power cable can be seen plugged into the back of the pod.

My camera shows a yellowish hue that isn’t really there. These are plain ol’ warm white LEDs.

Come to think of it, the box doesn’t even mention what color these LEDs are. The only way you would know is by plugging them in and turning them on, and this kit didn’t even come with a power supply.

Here’s the back of the board:

Photograph of the back of the light pod circuit board. A barrel jack and slide switch are mounted to the board. The board itself is dark beige color, with black writing. The writing includes a handful of Chinese characters, as well as a logo. The logo consists of the the text “Lemax” surrounded by a rectangular outline.

This is a single-layer PCB, so there isn’t much to see besides a power switch and a barrel jack. The board says “Lemax” on it, so at least this is actually being manufactured by the company whose name is on the box. I’m pretty sure those Chinese characters translate to “light” or “light bulb.”

Earlier I mentioned a mushy power switch, and we’ve found our culprit: the arm on that switch is comically long:

Photograph of a the light pod’s circuit board resting on its side. The lever/arm part of the switch sticks out very far from the board itself.


The circuit is predictable:

Electrical schematic drawing showing the layout of the LED light pod’s electrical circuit.

Four LEDs in parallel, a current-limiting resistor, a capacitor, and a switch. There isn’t anything notable here, except for that capacitor: Given the 4.5V supply voltage, I’d assume that these are probably meant to be powered from three household alkaline batteries or a small AC power adapter. In the case of batteries, the supply voltage should be very stable and these capacitors would be totally unnecessary. AC “wall wart” adapters can be noisy in the MHz range, but that’s far beyond any frequency where there would be visible flickering.

The capacitor isn’t hurting anything, but it’s a strange thing to include when so much else about this product is made so cheaply. The worst omission is a Zener diode. The 0.21x0.08 barrel jack is extremely common, so there’s a good chance that someone will try to power these LED pods with the wrong supply voltage. Putting a 5ish-Volt Zener in this circuit would provide rudimentary overvoltage and reverse-polarity protection. They wouldn’t even have to change the board! Just put the Zener where the capacitor goes.

Playing With Electricity

Here are supply current measurements for each LED pod at 4.5V:

  • Two pods measured 43.8 mA.
  • One pod measured 43.4 mA.
  • One pod measured 43.3 mA.

That averages out to about 43.6mA per pod. There’s very little variance between the pods, which is a good sign for the quality of the LEDs.

  • 43.6mA × 4 pods = 174mA for the whole kit, which gives some breathing room below the 192mA rating listed on the box. That’s good.
  • 43.6mA × 33 ohms = 1.44V drop across the resistor.
  • 1.44V × 43.6mA = 62mW across the resistor, which is comfortably within the typical 0.1W rating of SMD resistors like these.
  • 4.5V - 1.44V = 3.06V across the LEDs, which seems sane.
  • 43.6mA ÷ 4 LEDs = 10.9mA per LED, which also seems sane.
  • 43.6mA × 3.06V = 133mW across the LEDs.
  • 133mW / (62mW + 133mW) = 68% of power is being used by the LEDs. Not great, but not terrible either.

White LEDs come in an enormous array of electrical characteristics, so it’s impossible to look at the voltage and current measurements and confidently say “yes, that’s within spec.” However, nothing about these measurements is an obvious red flag. Sinking 32% of power across a resistor isn’t great for a product that is likely to be used with batteries, but it would be hard to make a more efficient circuit without using more expensive LEDs, or a more expensive circuit to power them.

Manufacturing Slip-Ups

There are a couple lapses in quality to remind you that these were built to a (low) price point. On all four boards, only one of the two mounting tabs for the switch is actually soldered to the board. This doesn’t seem to be intentional, because one of the four boards has a little blob of solder on that pad. Normally that wouldn’t be a big deal, but there is a worrying amount of stress put on these switches due to their long lever. That switch is probably going to be the most common cause of failure, besides people using the wrong supply voltage.

Even weirder is the physical damage to the LEDs. On all four boards, LED 2 has a bite taken out of one side:

Four close-up photographs of each circuit board, showing only the LED labeled as “LED2.” A red box drawn around part of each LED highlights an area where a chunk of the LED has been broken off. Two of the LEDs are damaged more severely than the other two, but all four show damage in the same place.

Some are worse than others, but two of them are bad enough that a sliver of phosphor is missing. A couple of other LEDs have small nicks in them, but LED 2 has been damaged in a very similar way on all four boards. Weird.

Future Plans

I found this product surrounded by landfill fodder. It has a stupid name. It lacks basic circuit protection. It includes multiple strange lapses in engineering, including the clip dimensions and superfluous capacitor. It’s cheaply made. It reeks of sexist price gouging.

Despite all of this, I kind of like these little lights! I think they’re a good idea, even if the execution isn’t anything to call home about. My biggest complaint is the price, but that’s the fault of Michaels, not the company that made the lights. I wish this sort of thing was more readily available at a better price. I might end up using these to add some nice ambient lighting to a bookcase. We’ll see.