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Brighter Days Ahead: The Bottom Line on LED Light Bulbs

Long-lasting, energy-saving LED bulbs appear to have a bright future. But if you buy them today, we believe that you’ll end up with buyer’s remorse. The cost will drop, and the quality will improve in the next few years, experts say.

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A trip to your local home-improvement store will reveal that LED (light-emitting diode) bulbs have arrived. We’ve seen LED bulbs increasingly steal shelf space from incandescent light bulbs and CFL (compact fluorescent light) bulbs in lighting aisles. Many stores have large displays that promote the energy-saving and longevity benefits of LED bulbs.

Independent experts agree that LED bulbs are the next generation of residential lighting, because the bulbs use 80 percent less energy than do traditional bulbs, and each bulb is expected to last at least 20 years. Even though you’ll spend roughly $25 apiece for a 60-watt-equivalent LED bulb today, experts agree that you’ll recoup your money easily through electricity-bill savings within an average of 6 years when compared with the cost of incandescent bulbs.

But we believe that consumers should wait a year or two before they switch to LED bulbs. We interviewed 19 independent lighting experts and three major LED-bulb manufacturers. We also scrutinized hundreds of pages of scientific research. And it’s clear to us that manufacturers will reduce prices, improve performance and introduce features that could make today’s LED bulbs obsolete soon.

Face it: The last thing that you would want to do is shell out $625 to install LED bulbs in 25 fixtures in your home and then realize 2 years later that the warmth, color and versatility (such as compatibility with dimmer switches) of those bulbs pale in comparison with that of redesigned models.

Despite everything that’s appealing about LED lighting today, the technology nonetheless is only in “the second inning of a nine-inning game,” says Noah Horowitz, who is a senior scientist at Natural Resources Defense Council, which is an advocacy group for energy and environmental issues.

LED REVOLUTION. Even though Congress refused to authorize funding for Department of Energy to enforce a phaseout of incandescent bulbs, experts tell us that lighting manufacturers won’t scale back their plans to make more energy-efficient products. (Editor’s Note: Incandescent bulbs won’t go away during this decade. Future incandescent bulbs just will be more efficient than current incandescent bulbs are.)

What this means for consumers is that lighting manufacturers will focus nearly all of their attention on making LED bulbs that cost less and deliver better light quality. LED bulbs accounted for only 6 percent of the residential lighting market in 2010, according to a report that market-research company McKinsey completed for lighting manufacturer Osram. But LED bulbs are expected to account for 49 percent of the market by 2016 and 71 percent by 2020. The study also predicts that LED bulbs will drop in price by 30 percent by 2016 from 2010, which means that a $25 LED bulb would drop to $17.50.

LED bulbs last longer and cost more than do other bulbs, because they incorporate solid-state computer-based technology into general lighting. LED bulbs typically use a semiconductor chip to create blue light, which turns white when it passes through a yellow-looking phosphor that sometimes is applied to the glass on the bulb or to the chip itself.

LED Light Bulbs: Your Savings Might Vary

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For a consumer, the cost of a single LED bulb raises the prospect of substantial expense if he/she wants to use 50–100 LED bulbs at home. For instance, Philips’ standard 60-watt-equivalent LED bulb sells for $25 at The Home Depot. That compares with just $1.48 for a new Philips 43-watt incandescent bulb that meets federal lighting-efficiency standards and emits about the same amount of light as a traditional 60-watt incandescent bulb does. If you buy a 12-pack of Feit Electric Ecobulb 60-watt-equivalent CFL bulbs, each of which uses about the same amount of energy as the LED bulb does, you will pay $1.17 per bulb.

But the incandescent bulb burns for 1,000 hours, and the CFL bulb burns for 9,000 hours. Philips’ standard 60-watt-equivalent LED bulb is projected to last 25,000 hours. That amounts to a lifespan of 22 years, 10 months, if the LED bulb burns 3 hours per day, which is the residential average, according to Department of Energy.

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