Tech review: The future is bright for LED bulbs — and your wallet

Apr 02, 2014

Not too long ago, I wrote a review of several 60 watt-equivalent bulbs that use light-emitting diodes. I touched on a few ideas about the future of light bulbs that prompted some conversation both online and in the office.

With the phase-out of traditional incandescent bulbs, the focus is shifting to compact fluorescents and LEDs.

CFLs have been around for a few years, and they're getting pretty cheap. But they have their drawbacks, including warm-up time, proper disposal and not being dimmable.

LEDs have technology and innovation on their side. I'm convinced that LED bulbs are going to be next big thing in consumer lighting.

I talked with Mike Watson, the vice president of product strategy for Cree, maker of the best-selling LED bulbs in America, which are available at Home Depot stores. I asked him to speak about the present and future of lighting choices for consumers.

"The first thing we thought about was how to get consumers to care about light bulbs for the first time in over 100 years and how to associate that care with a product they believe is better than the choices they had previously," Watson said.

He said Cree thought about what consumers needed first. It wasn't a fancy LED kit with Internet connectivity and color-changing bulbs - it was light bulbs that were simple and would work in the lamps everyone already had at home.

"There are about 5 billion lamps in households today that we don't want to ask consumers to change, in addition to the light source," he said.

"Our fundamental philosophy is to adapt to what exists today and provide a light source that works, as it should, in those 5 billion sockets and provide benefits consumers have never had before in massive energy cost savings, a lifetime of no maintenance, and when you get a critical mass of those consumers that understand the value, then you can start introducing new value like color-changing and eventually control and communications."

I admit I didn't think LEDs were something I wanted to invest in before I did some calculating of the cost of the bulb plus the cost of electricity over the lifetime of use.

"LEDs provide awesome light and are very cost-effective when you look at all the costs," Watson said. "We have to change (the consumer's) mindset from light bulbs being a disposable commodity to a transferable asset - something you could unscrew and take with you when you move."

Here's the cost breakdown for one 60-watt bulb:

With three hours of use per day, Cree 800-lumen LED bulbs ($10 from Home Depot) should last more than 22 years, and cost only $1.14 per year to operate.

Doing the math, one LED bulb will cost about $35 to buy and operate for 22 years.

Compare that with a 60-watt ($2.60 from Amazon) that costs $7.23 per year to keep lit. It has a lifespan of just under 11 months.

Doing the math for electricity plus the cost of replacing 24 bulbs, using an incandescent in the same lamp will cost $221 over those same 22 years.

That's a $186 savings per bulb.

How many bulbs do you have in your house?

I can count 30 bulbs in my house, and that doesn't include flood lights outside. I bet most of you have at least that many bulbs.

I realize dropping $300 or more on LED bulbs isn't high up on anyone's list of fun things to do, but the quicker you start changing out your bulbs, the faster your savings will begin.

Cree produces bulbs with an A19 socket - what you'd call a normal - and BR bulbs for recessed lighting cans.

But what about bulbs that don't have a normal A19 socket? What about three-way bulbs, chandelier bulbs and flood lights?

Watson couldn't speak on which products are in development, but he did say, "Our roadmap is obviously a broader set of products. Three-way, spots, globes and candleabras are the next logical applications."

He said their target is a 5 percent adoption rate among consumers. It's at 1 percent now.

Watson mentioned a future where Cree could produce bulbs that include technologies to change colors or are controlled by smartphones.

He also mentioned the term "daylight harvesting," which means a bulb that can measure ambient light in a room and only provide the amount of fill-in light needed, changing brightness as conditions change throughout the day.

These sensors could also measure motion and automatically turn the bulb on or off as you enter or leave a space.

These types of technologies would make the bulbs more of a home automation feature, like a Nest thermostat.

Explore further: In battle against flies, don't toss old bulbs

4.1 /5 (9 votes)
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User comments : 20

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wealthychef
1 / 5 (2) Apr 02, 2014
Just one quibble: no way is anyone paying $2.60 for a single 60W incandescent. $1 is more reasonable. That kind of biased statement makes me doubt the entire rest of the theory as it seems skewed to support a theory. And who says the LED will actually last 22 years? When companies calculate return on investment, generally one thinks in a 5 year window. Over that time span, an incandescent used 4 hours per day, which is 0.24 kW/hours, at 21 cents per kW/hour == 5 cents per day. So that's $15 per year. So the LED's still win, hmm! I love new shiny things. I can say for sure that CFD's are a huge disappointment, they fail more often than incandescents in my old house.
Eikka
not rated yet Apr 02, 2014
And who says the LED will actually last 22 years?


They don't. Averaging just three hours a day is much too optimistic, and the power electronics in the bulb usually break down much sooner than the LED or CFL tube itself anyways because they contain electrolytic capacitors that are sensitive to heat and on/off cycles. Then the LED die itself exhibits significant dimming and color changes during the lifespan with up to 1/3 of the brightness lost at the end of rated life, so one may have to replace them sooner anyhow.

And the color reproduction of LED lighting is still poor compared to even CFL, which is poor compared to incandecent lighting. Discontinuous spectrum of light mutes and makes it difficult to distinguish colors from one another, like a mild from of color blindness.

As a person who loves photography and art, I'm deeply unimpressed with all the offerings and after a few years of trying to find a good high CRI energy saving bulb I simply switched to halogen lights.
Eikka
not rated yet Apr 02, 2014
I can say for sure that CFD's are a huge disappointment, they fail more often than incandescents in my old house.


That is exactly because of the power electronics, or the electronic "ballast" of the bulb which is sensitive to line voltage variations, voltage spikes, drops, inrush currents from switching and heat in enclosed light fixtures or shades.

If you want to make a CFL bulb last, you put it behind a power conditioner, hang it bare from the ceiling and drop the room temperature below 70 degrees. Otherwise it usually won't work as long as promised.
Eikka
not rated yet Apr 02, 2014
As for general lighting, like kitchen area, hall or bathroom, T8 or T5 fluorescent tubes with electronic ballasts are much more efficient than CFLs and LED bulbs, and they actually do last over a decade in normal use.
eric_in_chicago
not rated yet Apr 02, 2014
the best option for LED bulbs is NAKED!

Cut the decorative casing off and you eliminate the heat problem and increase the lifetime.

I dunno... I am a single guy and I switched to all LEDs and I leave my bathroom and kitchen lights on 24/7 just for kicks.

My bill is under $40 (the PC is on a lot :) )
ChuckG
not rated yet Apr 02, 2014
So, if the 60W incandescent lamp lasts 11 months, most of the ones in my home must be anomalies--I replaced them about 10 years ago. Some of our recessed BR30 ceiling lamps are the originals installed some 25 years ago.

So where's the LED economy there?

We had an ice storm recently, with the usual downed trees knocking out power. Our neighbor across the road had every one of his 17 LED lamps knocked out by the surge. His incandescents survived fine.

Observe that it's taking aggressive legislation to prod people to use CFL and LED replacements. If CFL or LED were really cost-competitive with a higher grade of lighting, there would be no need for legislation--people would migrate to them of their own free will.
Nik_2213
not rated yet Apr 02, 2014
We've learned the hard way that too many CFLs last longer if left on, die young if cycled to 'save electricity'.

As an 'early uptaker' who put an expensive '1stGeneration' LED 'bulb' in a safety-critical fitting on a stairwell and had it blow in weeks --No refund-- I was very reluctant to try again. But, we now have a '3rdGen' bulb in that fitting, three bright, cool-running 'candles' in a '40W Max' (for incandescents ;-) stand lamp, plus a nifty 'remote control' lamp in a wall fitting beyond comfortable reach...

Happens I dislike CFLs because their exposed 'loops' are so easy to break, while 'enclosed' varieties run much hotter. As time passes, I'll replace many of our CFLs with LEDs.

I'm still not sure what to do about our kitchen's 'linear fluorescents'. As yet, there are few plug-compatible LED 'sticks' and, IIRC, they work best with 'modern' 4' and 5' fittings...
Rosser
not rated yet Apr 02, 2014
Before everyone jumps stiff legged into the LED market, it might pay to hold off a bit longer. Google " field-induced polymer electroluminescent". This is a fancy term for a new plastic that glows. Yes, this is a gross over simplification, but do the research. The research is being done by David Carroll at Wake Forest University. It is said to be very close to prime time and may be introduced to the market in 2015.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (2) Apr 03, 2014
I can say for sure that CFD's are a huge disappointment, they fail more often than incandescents in my old house.

Depends on what type you buy. When they came out I went for the expensive ones (about 15 euros a pop) and they have lasted me for 10 years with only 1 in 9 burning out. Two years, when that one bulb failed, I replaced all of those (and all incandescent bulbs left over) with LED lights of various kinds (strips, lights, high intensity LEDs, arrays) and have had no failure since.

The light given off by the new LEDs seems a lot more pleasant than that of the CFLs...but that's just my subjective take. For now I'm pretty happy with them.
freeiam
not rated yet Apr 03, 2014
From experience I know that a light bulb that is used a lot has a lifespan of at least 6 years and cost about a dollar. This means that it cost about $162 over 22 years.
But, this cannot be easily compared to the cost of a LED because most of the time a light bulb is used when heating is also needed. And because a light bulb is a very efficient heater you have to subtract the extra heating cost you have when using LEDs.
In my case heating is done with natural gas and is expensive. So I expect LEDs to be more expensive to run when heating is also considered.
Another point is that LEDs emit lots of HEV (high energy visible light) which is damaging for the eyes. So no thanks, I will keep using light bulbs and import them from the Ukraine (because its forbidden by law to sell light bulbs where I live!).
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (3) Apr 03, 2014
most of the time a light bulb is used when heating is also needed. And because a light bulb is a very efficient heater you have to subtract the extra heating cost you have when using LEDs.

While LEDs are more efficient they still produce heat. But if you really want to see light bulbs as heating elements then you must also add the additional cost for AC (as they heat your apartment beyond what you would normally need to offset via your airconditioner).
So the cost/benefit of having incandescent light bulbs should balance out.

But arguing the "light bulbs save on heating" makes no sense to me. I buy light bulbs for light. I buy heaters for heat.

Eikka
not rated yet Apr 04, 2014
I'm still not sure what to do about our kitchen's 'linear fluorescents'. As yet, there are few plug-compatible LED 'sticks' and, IIRC, they work best with 'modern' 4' and 5' fittings...


Don't. Convert them to electronic ballast if they aren't already, change the tubes and they become more efficient than any LED strip you can buy.

But arguing the "light bulbs save on heating" makes no sense to me. I buy light bulbs for light. I buy heaters for heat.


Summertime needs no light, just open the curtains. Come winter you need light and heat. The point is that you get no energy savings from switching to more efficient lights because then you'll just run your heaters more. At some point in the future it will become more environmentally friendly to heat with electricity than with oil or gas, or burning wood.

The apartment I live in doesn't even have a cooling AC. It has a heat recovering ventilation to keep the heat in!
Eikka
not rated yet Apr 04, 2014
The universal lightbulb ban is stupid for exactly that reason. You'd think that people living in the tropics would figure out to use energy efficient lighting on their own because it saves money?

But no. It has to be all or nothing, whether it makes any sense at all. You can't buy a regular cheap lightbulb in Seattle or Oslo because energy saving bulbs give some marginal benefit in Texas and Italy.



antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (2) Apr 04, 2014
Summertime needs no light, just open the curtains.

Even in summertime the Earth revolves around its axis.
When I get up to go to work or when I'm home at night it's still dark out - which means I require lights. And certainly not ones that produce additional heat. Allround systems always compromise because you're always running one type of service that you don't need in order to have the other one. Running extra services always increases wear and tear.

We should get dedicated systems for dedicated purposes. Those are always the most efficient. Heaters for heat. Lights for light.
Eikka
not rated yet Apr 04, 2014
When I get up to go to work or when I'm home at night it's still dark out - which means I require lights. And certainly not ones that produce additional heat.


Then buy energy saving lightbulbs, but don't force someone up in Finland to buy them by banning incandecent bulbs.

Here's the thing: if energy saving lightbulbs actually save money, people will choose to buy them. If they don't, they don't. The only real reason for the ban is industry lobbying because the incancedent bulbs were already down to near zero profit after 100 years of product development and competition. The top manufacturers wanted to re-tilt the playing field in their own favor.

We should get dedicated systems for dedicated purposes. Those are always the most efficient. Heaters for heat. Lights for light.


How much more efficient is a dedicated heater as compared to a lightbulb that does double duty? That's right. It isn't.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (1) Apr 04, 2014

How much more efficient is a dedicated heater as compared to a lightbulb that does double duty?

You mean single duty (light bulbs are ore than 90 percent heat...not very efficient).
The heat is what weras out the lightbulb. So you're buying a system that will give you a dubious secondary 'benefit' at the cost that that unwanted benefit lowers the lifetime of the thing you actually want it for.

You really call that sensible? That's like buying a car because it keeps the pavement of your driveway dry.
Eikka
not rated yet Apr 04, 2014
You really call that sensible? That's like buying a car because it keeps the pavement dry.


Horrible analogy and a huge strawman.

I buy halogen incandecent bulbs becuase they provide superior light at a superior price. The fact that I get heat as a byproduct is not a disadvantage or advantage because I need heat anyways. If anything, it means I don't need to buy a dedicated space heater because I never have to run the house heating at full power.

Is that so insensible?

Eikka
not rated yet Apr 04, 2014
My only gripe with the halogen lights is that they last twice as long as regular incandecent did, but cost 3-4x the money. So again, the ban gave the businessman an excuse to make me pay more and the government gets more sales taxes out of it. Win-win for them, lose-lose for me, and no actual change in the amount of energy I use.

RealityCheck
1 / 5 (1) Apr 05, 2014
Hi Eikka. :) Please consider following factors weighing heavily for LEDs:

(1) Longer lifetime mean less raw material disposal/churning through economy using energy at handling/transport/processing stages;

(2) Less 'peak power' generating capacity/requirement from power plants at morning/evening peaks;

(3) Production/capital/running costs of dedicated 'heating' systems not amortized as effectively if 'heat producing lighting' is also used BUT 'superfluous' in some circumstances (like you use dedicated heating system overnight BUT you don't want to run 'lighting-heating' lamps which keep you awake and disturb body's 'biorhythms'; or you want to heat TV viewing room BUT you must dim/extinguish 'light-heating' lamps);

(4) Mandatory LEDs sensible/logical cost-efficient for Economies of Scale in raw material, manufacturing, distribution, recycling stages which dramatically lowers LEDs 'unit cost' making LEDs even cheaper/economical.

Sorry, Eikka, I'm with a_p on this one. Cheers. :)
RealityCheck
1 / 5 (1) Apr 05, 2014
See folks? Poor poor Uncle Ira BOT program just gave '1' to a post which essentially agreed with his 'smarts peoples" listed-programmed 'friends', in this case antialias_physorg.

That again just proves "Uncle Ira" is a BOT program automatically gaming (with the occasional programmer intervention for 'key word' updates) this site's rating/commentary system.

@PHYSORG ADMIN: Is that programmed BOT (currently "Uncle Ira") one of YOUR internet bot programs? If so, you might want to change its MO a bit so as not to be so conspicuous. If not, then please do yourself and this site's reputation a favor and DELETE this "Uncle Ira" BOT's posts and BAN it and all future attempted 'incarnations' of same on this site. Good luck. :)