Flipping the Switch on LED Bulbs
  View More Photos
Credit: Photograph by Levi Brown

Flipping the Switch on LED Bulbs

Here's something to think about the next time the light above your kitchen table flickers and dies: The next bulb you buy might just outlast the fixture it's screwed into. In fact, with a lifespan manufacturers expect to average 23 years, it will probably outlive your next car. The bulb is an LED (light-emitting diode), not just a highly evolved version of the incandescent light, but a new class of appliance entirely. It's a device with a low running cost, and after years languishing on shelves, it's finally a cheap, good, common-sense addition to your home.

Until very recently, the light that LED bulbs gave off was incredibly ugly. Compared to the warm glow of incandescents, the raw output of most LEDs was jarring, with a sterile, blueish tint. They distorted the look of wood floors and home furnishings and sucked the life from skin tones. But recent LED bulbs are leaps and bounds better than models from even a year ago.

How did this happen? The easy answer: Since LEDs are circuit-­based, they're subject to the same year-over-year performance growth as the memory in smartphones and computers. While each generation of iPhone gets gigabytes more storage than its predecessor, the semiconductors at the heart of LED bulbs allow them to shine brighter. According to the Department of Energy, household LEDs now emit about 30 percent more lumens per watt than they did three years earlier. Since they're more efficient, the problems traditionally associated with LEDs – namely, overheating and burnout – have lessened. "You don't need to drive them as high, in terms of wattage, so you don't need as much heat dissipation to keep them cool," says Michael Islas, an electrical engineer at Lighting Science, a leading LED bulb manufacturer. Along with developing cheaper, more efficient diodes, companies have created bulb coatings that block less light while still filtering the blue-white output into warmer tones. It's a significant-enough shift in light quality that designers are switching from incandescent to LED. "That warm color rendering is ­finally there, the imitation of that old-school tungsten feel that we like in our homes," says Iain Ruxton, a designer at Speirs + Major, a U.K.-based lighting-design firm.

In the past, LED bulbs were prohibitively expensive. As federal energy-­efficiency regulations have shut down traditional incandescent production over the past several years, consumers were faced with paying $50 or more for a decent LED, or a 10th of that for a compact florescent lightbulb (CFL), those squiggly cousins of the ceiling strips found in hospitals and office buildings around the world. The American public began to favor CFLs, which are now found in some 61 percent of U.S. households. But CFLs deliver their own brand of disappointing color temperatures, color-rendering, and general performance, with some models taking minutes to ramp up to full intensity – and all of them ­require scrambling for wet paper towels when they break, since they dust your floor with toxic mercury. (For the record, LED bulbs also contain less dangerous chemicals, but they're much harder to break.)

Last March, North Carolina–based Cree, Inc. made waves by announcing that it had cracked the $10 barrier for A19-­replacement LEDs – bulbs that fit into standard lamps and most other interior fixtures. There's a catch, though: Those bulbs are 40-watt equivalents, the kind you might use for accent lighting. They aren't quite novelty products, but compared to the 60-watt, still the most common class of bulb used in the United States, they're certainly of less utility.

So, the LED revolution actually starts at $13. That's how much Cree's 60-watt Warm White LED costs; Philips' 60-watt Soft White LED is just two dollars more. It's possible to pay more – a staggering $48 for General Electric's ­60-watt – but after testing bulbs from all four companies, we found that there's no clear benefit in splurging. To our untrained eyes, the color temperature and overall light output were virtually identical across a wide range of brands and prices.

LEDs should continue to drop in price over the next three years, but for most of us, there's no reason to wait. If $13 sounds painful for the Cree bulb, when the same-wattage CFL currently runs about $5, and a standard incandescent is 43 cents, keep crunching the numbers. The Cree bulb has an average electricity cost of $1.14 per year, compared to $1.81 annually for a CFL, or $7.23 for a standard incandescent. And that doesn't include the cost of new bulbs – like other LEDs, Cree's product should last an estimated 22.8 years. During that same period, you'd have to buy three CFLs or 23 incandescents to get the same output.

Lightbulb, in other words, is now synonymous with LED. Your only worry at this point should be that you might forget how to change one.