Spending Smart: What Light Bulb Technology Should You Use?

lightbulb_technology(MCT)—Would a savvy consumer rather pay 40 cents for a light bulb, or $1.75 or $10?

Those are the approximate prices a smart shopper can pay for a traditional incandescent bulb, a swirl-shaped compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) or a newfangled light-emitting diode (LED) bulb.

Hint: The correct answer goes beyond the upfront cost.

Light bulbs are again an issue now that production of the last traditional incandescent bulbs has phased out; they can no longer be manufactured in the U.S. but will be on store shelves through the spring. At the beginning of the year, production of 40-watt and the most popular type, 60-watt, incandescents became against the law — at least those that aren’t far more energy efficient.

If you’re like me, your home features a variety of bulb technology. I have a couple LEDs that seem to work great everywhere, but they are very expensive. I like the idea of CFLs, but am less thrilled with their real-world performance, depending on which socket they’re in. And there’s something to be said for the old, cheap bulbs that just work and provide a familiar quality of light. And like many, I have some specialty bulbs, which aren’t affected by the phase-out.

What’s a consumer to do as they stand in an aisle of the hardware store staring at shelves full of different light bulbs?

Should we run out and buy the cheap but energy-hog incandescents before they’re all gone from store shelves? A December survey by bulb-maker Osram Sylvania found that 30 percent of consumers claim they planned to stockpile traditional bulbs, which are great on upfront cost and have light qualities we’re used to. But they are by far the most expensive to use, giving off 90 percent of their energy in heat, not light.

As Consumer Reports notes, “Incandescent bulbs are cheap until you flip the switch.” Also, they don’t last nearly as long as alternatives, making them more expensive over time — you might have to buy 10 to 25 incandescents during the life of one CFL or LED.

Or should we opt for the energy-efficient, but sometimes disappointing, performance of CFLs? CFLs have a relatively low price, energy efficiency using one-fourth the electricity of a traditional bulb, and long life—about a decade. It costs the least, when you consider those factors.

While CFL quality has improved, some people are still unhappy with the light they provide. CFLs often don’t work well in dimmers, outdoors in cold weather and in recessed ceiling lights. They also contain a small amount of mercury.

Or should we ante up for the clearly superior LED bulbs? LEDs seemingly have it all: the best energy efficiency, great light quality, instant brightness, better dimming than CFLs and ridiculously long life — about 25 years.

Their disadvantage, at least right now, is upfront price, which is many times more than alternatives. At $10 to $20 a bulb, replacing a houseful of 50 bulbs all at once would cost a whopping $500 to $1,000. The good news is that prices on LEDs have dropped dramatically from the $40 to $50 range a few years ago.

We’ll sidestep the political rhetoric about the government telling people what they can and cannot buy as a result of the bulb phase-out, technically the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 signed by President George W. Bush.

Instead, we’ll try to help answer the question, “What should I buy right now?” Here’s what to consider, assuming you’re not hoarding the old incandescent bulbs, the last of which should start disappearing from store shelves early in 2014.

—Efficiency: If you care most about saving energy, and price is no object, buy LEDs. They are more efficient than CFLs and generally superior in quality.

—Quality: If you care most about light quality and performance, and money is no object, buy LEDs or halogen incandescents — and don’t be in a hurry to change out your existing incandescents. But remember that top quality is seldom needed in every socket.

—Frequency: Splurge on LEDs for lights you use often. Besides being more energy efficient than CFLs, they’re better than CFLs at being turned on and off frequently — something that shortens the life of compact fluorescents, says Dave Bisbee, a lighting expert with the Sacramento (Calif.) Municipal Utility District. That guest room closet light that you turn on six times a year for a few seconds? Don’t worry about the energy use of that bulb.

—Sockets: Where the bulb is used matters. “You can put a really good product in the wrong place and have bad results,” Bisbee says.

Consider splurging for LEDs for outdoor lights in cold climates. Similarly, CFLs in closets and dark hallways are not ideal, because many don’t come to full brightness right away.

“What is the environment like where the bulb is going to be used, and how much time is somebody going to use it?” says Pamela Price, a retail marketing manager at Osram Sylvania.

—Accessibility: Hard-to-reach places — those that require a ladder, for example — are ideal for long-lasting bulbs, like CFLs and LEDs, because you replace them less often, cutting hassle.

—Experiment: Learn your preferences by buying a single CFL or LED to see how you like it in various sockets.

“Products and prices are changing so fast that my advice for the general consumer is to try a few LED bulbs and see what they’re like,” says Kelly Gordon, program manager at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Bisbee says the right bulb can depend on preferences.

“Lighting is so subjective. We can talk about lab tests and performance metrics, but at the end of day, a lot of it is how it looks to you,” he says. “Try before you buy. Don’t run out and buy 100 of them.”

Rose Jordan, lighting and education program manager at the Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance, says she has CFLs in her apartment but she bought one LED bulb to try. She liked it so much, she switched almost all her sockets to LEDs. “No matter how much we tell you about the efficiency, what really blew me away was the quality,” she says.

—Energy Star: Some models of CFLs and LEDs have been lousy.

“In the early days, there really was some garbage out there that left a bad taste in people’s mouths,” Bisbee says. “Energy Star is a must.”

The Department of Energy has screened bulbs and donned them with the Energy Star logo. So look for it. For specific bulb brand and model recommendations, see ratings in Consumer Reports.

—Manufacturer: Go with a known manufacturer or retailer that will stand behind the bulb. “I tell people, who you buy from is just as important as what you buy,” Bisbee says. “In my opinion, there’s no need to buy brands you don’t recognize.”

—Pricing: Prices for some of the new-technology bulbs are subsidized by local utility companies, but it’s invisible to consumers because the subsidy is baked into the retail price. That’s why the same LED bulb in one Home Depot might cost $10 and in another one cost $15.

—Cheapskate: If paying a penny more than you need to drives you mad, CFLs might be right for you, says Jeff Yeager, author of books on frugal living, including his most recent, “How to Retire the Cheapskate Way.” He says CFLs will quickly make up the price difference compared with incandescent bulbs and save more over time. Upgrading 15 of the inefficient incandescent light bulbs in your home could save you about $50 per year, the Department of Energy says.

“The difference between someone who’s frugal and a cheapskate is that a frugal person turns off the lights when they leave a room, whereas a cheapskate doesn’t turn on the lights when they enter a room,” Yeager quipped. “So, the quality of the lighting isn’t really a big deal when you use it so rarely.”

—Luddite: If you hate the newer alternatives, you can hoard the old bulbs and resign to pay more for electricity than you would otherwise. Or you can buy halogen incandescent bulbs, which act like the old bulbs and are energy-efficient enough to meet the new standards — but not nearly as efficient as CFLs and LEDs. They cost more than incandescents and last about the same as a traditional bulb, but not nearly as long as CFLs and LEDs. So, they are expensive in that way.

—Future: The next generation of LEDs are more revolutionary, like the Phillips Hue Connected Bulb, which can be controlled from your smartphone and change to whatever color you want, among other tricks. But now, three bulbs and the gadgetry to make it work will set you back about $200.

“For most people, it’s going to be a combination of different technologies, with people making decisions at the time they actually have to replace it,” Price says.

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