OVER THE LAST CENTURY, lighting technology evolved at a pretty steady pace. Now, spurred by tighter standards for energy efficiency, the technology is leaping forward, with light-emitting diodes (LEDs) leading the charge.
Emerging options like LEDs promise to help consumers adapt to changing federal standards for lightbulbs. A bit of price shock still accompanies some of these innovations, but savings show up in longer product life span and reduced energy consumption.
“If you remember when the first CFLs [compact fluorescent lights] came out, they started off bumpy, but we got over that,” says Michael Smith, manager of energy programs for Central Electric Power Cooperative.
CFLs moved beyond early problems with low light output, erratic life span and high prices and are now more affordable and efficient.
“LEDs are coming out of that bumpy phase,” Smith says, but “as far as light replacement, they’re on par with improvements in CFLs.”
Congress enacted improved energy-efficiency standards for incandescent bulbs under the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. New rules, which began to take effect this year, mandate that lightbulbs using between 40 and 100 watts must consume at least 28 percent less energy than traditional incandescents, saving Americans $6 billion to $10 billion in lighting costs annually. Lightbulbs must become 70 percent more efficient by 2020.
Time-tested 100-watt incandescent bulbs will disappear from stores this year. As the next wave of standards kicks in, 75-watt incandescents will be gone as of January 1, 2013, and 40-watt and 60-watt versions will vanish as of January 1, 2014.
How do LEDs deliver more energy-efficient light? Traditional incandescent bulbs create light using a thin wire (filament) inside a glass bulb—a delicate connection that can easily be broken, as frustrated homeowners can attest. Most convert only 10 percent of the energy they consume into light; the remaining 90 percent produces heat.
In contrast, LEDs are at the forefront of solid-state lighting. Two conductive materials are placed together on a chip (a diode). Electricity passes through the diode, releasing energy in the form of cooler light.
By 2030, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) estimates, solid-state lighting technologies could cut the electricity used for lighting by half, saving up to $30 billion a year in energy costs.
Making the move to LEDs
To motivate manufacturers to design bulbs that would ease the transition as incandescents are phased out, the DOE established the Bright Tomorrow Lighting Prize. The Philips LED lamp that won the prize last year meets all DOE standards and more. But since coming on the market in April, it has not attracted consumers with its $50 price tag. Other LEDs are already available at less than half that cost.
Shedding light on LEDs
Curious to know if LEDs are right for you? The U.S. Department of Energy offers a website complete with all the basics about solid-state lighting, plus how to compare conventional lighting with LEDs. Learn more.
For homeowners who want to try LEDs, Smith recommends starting with directional lighting—one of the strengths of LEDs. Recessed downlights in ceilings or task lights over work spaces such as countertops are ideal spots to experiment.
“They’ll use 15 to 20 percent of the energy used by an incandescent bulb, they’ll generate less heat and, quite frankly, I think it’s a better light,” he says.
Smith also recommends buying LEDs from a major manufacturer to ensure the best possible experience. Consumers who bought the cheap, early CFLs were often disappointed in the results and blamed the technology, when a poorly designed bulb may have been the real problem. Start with a high-quality LED, he advises, even if it costs a little more, and judge whether the light is worth the expense.
“You may drop $30 on a bulb, but it will last a long time,” Smith says.