LED bulbs in the home: So far, so good

CNET's Martin LaMonica has been playing around with superefficient LED bulbs at home and finds they're imperfect and pricey, but, he says, there's still a lot to like.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
6 min read

I more or less ditched incandescent bulbs for more-efficient compact fluorescents in my house years ago. But at this point, I'm awfully close to ditching CFLs for the latest in lighting technology: LEDs.

LED lighting has got a lot going for it. The lights can be far more efficient than other types of lights, and the bulbs are supposed to last for tens of thousands of hours--enough to last 20 or 30 years depending on usage. Unlike CFLs, there's no mercury, the light is instant, and turning lights on and off shouldn't degrade their useful life, according to manufacturers.

An LED bulb that puts out almost as much light as a 40-watt incandescent but uses less than 9 watts. Martin LaMonica/CNET

The downside of LEDs, feature-wise, has always been the light color; the blueish light LEDs have traditionally had feels cold, particularly compared with the warm glow from incandescent and halogen bulbs. The other knock (or feature, depending on your usage) on LEDs has been that they direct light. That makes them great for spotlights but not good for a desk lamp. And LEDs for everyday use are pricey and unlikely to be stocked in your neighborhood hardware store.

However, all that is changing. Prodded by a federal mandate to boost lighting efficiency, consumer lighting companies are producing LED bulbs with the familiar screw-in bottom for general lighting. At this point, the amount of light that these LED bulbs produce is still a bit low, at least for my tastes, but the light quality is good. And of course, whether these bulbs last for decades as manufacturers say is still unproven.

The now-familiar curly compact florescent bulb. This one consumes about 14 watts, so it's rated at more than a 40-watt equivalent. Martin LaMonica/CNET

Florida-based Lighting Science Group, which is providing many of the LED bulbs for Home Depot's EcoSmart line, sent me a package of its products to try out. Overall, I've been impressed and I'm looking forward to what comes next, particularly when you consider the pace of technology change.

Thomas Edison wouldn't recognize most of the products in the EcoSmart line; they are cone-shaped bulbs with fins that act as heat sinks, and they have flat tops where the light source goes. These are spotlights, great for casting a beam of light from above your kitchen counter or perhaps for an outdoor flood light.

In the past year, though, lighting manufacturers have introduced LED bulbs in a shape Edison would recognize that put out a decent amount of good-quality light. They still don't give off light from all sides as incumbent technologies do, but this latest generation of LEDs does a better job dispersing light, which means that you could use one (or a few) for overhead lighting.

A bulb Thomas Edison would love: a 40-watt incandescent. Martin LaMonica/CNET

The best part is that the prices are coming down. The 40-watt equivalent general light bulb from Lighting Science Group, which is dimmable, costs just under $20. You can buy it online now and in Home Depot stores later this month, along with the LEDs from other manufacturers, including a ceiling down light from Cree.

The race: Lumens per watt per dollar
I installed the 40-watt equivalent, branded the EcoSmart A19 by Home Depot, and a couple of others around my house a few weeks ago and they've fit in nicely. The first thing you notice is that the light is white, not yellow like my CFLs. And they sip juice: the A19 is rated at 8.6 watts but it used just 6 watts when I tested it with my power meter. An Energy Star-qualified CFL would use 9 to 13 watts for similar output.

But here's where I'm on the fence. The amount of light the A19 gives off--429 lumens--is just not enough for my small home office, for example. It seemed to work better in an old architect desk lamp, but it felt a tad dim from a single fixture on the ceiling.

That, too, is about to change, said Zachary Gibler, the CEO of Lighting Sciences Group. By the first quarter next year, the company will have a 60-watt equivalent available, which is the most popular type. It will be much brighter--giving off 800 lumens in order to meet the Energy Star label--yet consume only 9 watts. Other lighting companies are in the thick of this race, too, with Sylvania, Philips, GE, Lemnis Lighting, and others all planning 60-watt replacements.

Pricing hasn't been set yet, but Gibler projects that the 60-watt equivalent will cost about $35. The savings over time will be compelling enough for some consumers, but that's still a lot of money for a single light bulb. (That's one reason why businesses, in the near term, are a more likely customer for LEDs since they are more apt to consider the total cost of ownership.)

LED bulbs creep into the home (photos)

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"We've finally gotten to the point where we are matching the incumbent technology in terms of light output and quality--that's something that happened this year," said Gibler. "Now the drive is to replace halogens and incandescents in a way that's affordable, which will make them more compelling."

For applications that play to LEDs' strengths, such as down lights or hard-to-reach spots, putting in a long-lasting LED makes sense for a lot of people, even with the higher price tag of LEDs. But prices are projected to fall steadily as manufacturing yields improve, much as prices fell over time for chips, flat-screen TVs, and other high-tech gear.

Gibler forecasts that within two years, the price of a 60-watt equivalent LED bulb will be less than $10. Rebate programs run by utilities could bring the cost down even lower, which will drive adoption more. "The race isn't just lumens per watt. It's lumens per watt per dollar," said Gibler. "That race is really what's going to drive the industry."

Learn your lumens
But for all the promise of solid-state lighting, consumers should tread carefully to avoid inflated claims around LEDs. LED manufacturers and government agencies appear eager to avoid the same mistakes that were made when compact fluorescent lights first came out, where poor-performing products set back efficient lighting many years.

The Federal Trade Commission last Wednesday brought a suit against an LED bulb manufacturer, Lights of America, for exaggerating the light output and expected life of its LED bulbs.

The Department of Energy later this year will detail a program, with participation from big-box retailers and manufacturers, designed to help shoppers get a better handle on new lighting technologies, said James Brodrick, the director of the solid-state lighting program at the DOE.

"We'd like consumers to be aware that the lights people can purchase are going to start changing and you can get into higher-tech options now," Brodrick said. "We want to give them information that allows them to make better decisions and understand the vocabulary."

LED bulbs will have a new label, called Lighting Facts. Rather than explain LEDs in terms of wattage, it displays the amount of light in lumens as well as color temperature and efficacy expressed in lumens per watt. Consumers (and retailers) can check a spreadsheet of products to see whether one manufacturer is participating and what kind of performance to expect.

As a rule of thumb, consumers shouldn't get an LED bulb that calls itself a 60-watt equivalent if it doesn't produce at least 800 lumens, Brodrick said. Meanwhile, the Energy Star lighting program is being revised for LEDs and will include overall efficiency as well as light quality, he said.

The chips inside LED lights are tested to last 50,000 hours, but the best way for consumers to evaluate lifetime is to look at the manufacturer's warranty, Brodrick said. The DOE is now doing tests to better validate LED lifetime claims and study energy savings over the entire product lifecycle. No special disposal of LEDs, which are made out metal alloys, should be required and recycling is possible, in theory, he added.

Reviews of the EcoSmart LED bulbs--the ones around my home--on Home Depot's Web site have generally been very positive, although one person complained that the bulb broke already.

Whether people will feel comfortable paying more for a durable (LED bulbs are much heavier in the hand) and efficient product really depends on the person. As for me, I'm with some of the early users who said that they can't wait for the 60-watt equivalents--or I should say, the 800-lumen bulbs--to come out.