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Light bulbs are no longer simple. Buying a light bulb now involves the consumer in a complicated set of comparisons and an unfamiliar vocabulary.

Federal legislation passed in 2007 (the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007) has been affecting the light bulb industry and consumer light-bulb-buying habits.  The new federal energy efficiency standards require that, starting in 2012, 100-watt incandescent bulbs must use
25 percent less energy than the relatively inefficient incandescent bulbs that have been in use for over 125 years. In recent years other federal efficiency standards have resulted in cars that get more miles per gallon and refrigerators that are 90 percent more efficient than earlier models. The legislation has been controversial, because it includes the banning of the less efficient incandescent bulbs, starting with the 100-watt incandescents.

In late December, 2011, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to delay enforcement until Oct. 1, 2012, as part of a budget deal to keep the federal government running. 

Despite the delay in enforcing the ban, the light bulb industry is well along in developing and producing new, more efficient bulbs. A dizzying array of new bulbs in various sizes and shapes and higher efficiencies lines store shelves and shows up on websites that sell bulbs. (A visit to local Evanston stores revealed that the old incandescents that are being phased out are still very much on the shelves and are still popular with light bulb hoarders.)

Shopping for LED Bulbs

Most consumers are familiar with compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs). They are less familiar with LEDs, which are more efficient than either the new incandescents or the CFLs.  LED “light-emitting diode” technology has been called the future of electric lighting and is having a profound impact on how we light our buildings. But because LEDs are newer (and more expensive), consumers are still sticking with incandescents and CFLs. 

While LEDs are currently far and away the most energy-efficient bulbs, most consumers base their light bulb purchases on other things as well, such as initial cost, brightness, “warmth,” shape, dimming ability and disposal issues. Here is how LEDs shape up in each of these categories.

Initial cost:  One deterrent to purchasing LED bulbs is the initial cost. But for a typical residential recessed-can bulb that costs about $32 (when the incandescent version costs about $19), the “payback period” is less than a year.  The payback period takes into account the initial cost of the bulb, the energy cost per year and the expected life of the bulb.

Brightness:  One of the biggest challenges to consumers is to start thinking in terms of lumens instead of watts.  Lumens are the units of measurement of light output, or brightness. The bulb that produces the most lumens per watt of energy is the most efficient bulb. It is analogous to the most fuel-efficient car being the one that travels the farthest on a gallon of gas.

Warmth:  Some LEDs are slightly less “warm” than the newest, warmest CFLs. To know the “warmth” of a bulb it is necessary to understand its “Kelvin” (K) rating.  Bulbs with K ratings below 3,200 K are considered warm, with more reddish and yellowish tones. Above 3,200 K, bulbs have more bluish tones and are therefore “cooler.”   Typical incandescent bulbs have a Kelvin rating of 2,700.  The “warmth” factor probably accounts for continuing loyalty to incandescents despite their much higher long-term cost.

Dimmability:  Some, but not all, residential LED bulbs are dimmable using a standard residential dimmer.  Check the packages.

Shapes:  LEDs are increasingly manufactured in shapes and sizes that can replace most incandescent bulbs. 

Disposal:  The LED bulbs do not contain mercury.  According to the website HomeLightingAdvice.com, they can be recycled.

Manufacturers now provide most of the above information on their packages. Also, bulbs should be “Energy Star qualified.” (Energystar.gov is the website of the U.S. government-sponsored program that provides energy efficiency guidelines for thousands of products.)

The light bulb departments in most stores now carry at least some LEDs. A common bulb now available is the standard 40-watt-equivalent screw-in bulb (for instance, the $9.97 Ecosmart bulb at Home Depot), that can replace a standard incandescent bulb. It is fine for table lamps, overhead reading lights or a light over a breakfast table.

As their costs come down, LEDs are likely to grow in usage and popularity. Increasing use of these bulbs means that less carbon dioxide will be emitted by coal-burning power plants that provide much of our electricity.

With their constantly improving attributes, long service lives, superior energy efficiency and declining costs, LEDs will soon take up more shelf space in our stores.

Ellen Galland

Ellen Galland has had an architectural practice in Evanston since 1983. For more than 20 years, she has written articles for the RoundTable, including the column “Ask An Architect" and "The Green Column"...