Light Switch: Why You’ll Start Using LED Bulbs This Year

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LED bulbs are already the go-to technology for illuminating cell phones, tablets and TVs. They haven’t become the standard in the lamps and lights in American households, however, largely because they’re so expensive. But as prices drop sharply, the upgrade to LED makes more and more sense.

If traditional incandescent bulbs are the tail-finned gas guzzlers of the lighting universe, compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) are like plug-in electric cars: Better for the environment, but not appealing to many because of the way they look and perform, as well as higher upfront costs.

The third bulb breed, LED, combines the warmth of incandescent light with the never-have-to-change-it lifespan and energy efficiency of CFLs. The down side is that LED bulbs have always been really expensive. “The public has been less keen on them, as price points for 40-watt bulbs begin around $20 a pop,” the Christian Science Monitor pointed out last month. At that price, LEDs just weren’t going to shine in middle-class American homes, no matter how great their other qualities were.

This is the year that could change. Manufacturer Cree came out with a $10 LED bulb last month that replaces a 40-watt incandescent bulb, and one equivalent to a 60-watt bulb that costs $14. Philips says it will have a $10 LED bulb on the market by year-end, and it started selling a $15 one last month. (In Europe, German manufacturer Osram just started selling a 40-watt equivalent LED bulb for about $13).

(MORE: Maybe All the Skepticism and Paranoia Over New Light Bulbs Is Justified)

These LEDs look and act like incandescent bulbs, and experts say the price point is low enough that people will be persuaded to give them a shot.

“I just think that LEDs are becoming more affordable for consumers. If they buy this bulb for $9.97, they will cover that cost in the first year, and they have the bulb for the next 20 years, [and] that will bring them cost savings in the amount of energy that they use,” Marianne DiMascio of the Appliance Standards Awareness Project (ASAP) told Scientific American last month.

Unlike CFLs, LED bulbs deliver a warm glow as soon as you flip the switch — no annoying warm-up time or harsh color that makes everything look washed-out. In its review of the 9.5-watt Cree bulb intended to replace a 60-watt incandescent bulb, Consumer Reports says it “instantly gave off a warm, bright light.” The $15 Philips bulb, it says, “instantly cast a white light similar to a halogen bulb, and the light was even brighter than promised.”

The magazine calculates it would take a little less than two years for the Cree bulb to pay for itself, and after that, you’d save $149 in energy and replacement bulb costs over the bulb’s lifetime. Cree says its new LEDs will last almost 23 years if they’re used three hours a day, and offers a 10-year warranty.

Those lifetime-value calculations have been a major plank in the pro-LED platform, but the upfront cost has been a huge stumbling block. The average house has more than 40 light bulbs, according to the Energy Star program. With $25 bulbs — roughly the average global price for a 60-watt equivalent LED bulb last month — that adds up to a $1,000 investment to outfit your home with LEDs. (And are you really going to remember to unscrew all those bulbs and take them with you if you move?)

There’s also the perception that new lighting technologies promise more than they deliver. When CFLs came on the market, people who paid a premium found that the performance didn’t always live up to the hype. Two years ago, California utility PG&E conducted tests and found that bulbs died about three-and-a-half years earlier than claimed, especially if they were used in recessed fixtures or in rooms where they were switched on and off frequently.

(MORE: Why Energy-Efficient Home Improvements Haven’t Brought Your Energy Bill Down)

Still, both CFLs and LEDs are likely to be adopted more widely in the future, thanks to the Energy Independence and Security Act. Passed in 2007, it requires lightbulbs to become more energy-efficient; manufacturing and importing energy-hogging bulbs is being slowly phased out. It started with 100-watt bulbs last year and continues with 75-watt bulbs this year. By the beginning of 2014, 60-watt and 40-watt bulbs will have to comply.

Although the incandescent bulb as a class isn’t being banned outright, the law drew charges of nanny-stateism, and 13% of respondents to a survey conducted before the law took effect said they would start stockpiling 100-watt bulbs.

“While today’s prices are a big plunge from $70 for a bulb in 2009, it still seems exorbitant for people used to paying 50 cents for an incandescent,” the Minneapolis Star-Tribune pointed out in an article earlier this month. Advocates believe that cheaper “entry-level” LED bulbs will convince people who are on the fence to give them a try.