Our family experience with efficient LED lighting

This blog was written by John D. Wilson, former Deputy Director for Regulatory Policy at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Guest Blog | November 28, 2011 | Energy Efficiency

Energy efficient lighting has never been a more plausible option for your home than it is today. Awareness of coming changes in residential light bulbs is growing. We’ve all seen that the CFL industry has continued it’s upward trend over the last couple of years, but LED markets are expanding rapidly as well; the US is even predicted to have the biggest LED market in the world by 2016.

In an effort to demonstrate that efficient lighting IS a potential solution for your household lighting needs, I wanted to share with you my family’s recent experience with the process. Earlier this month, my family and I found the light bulbs we needed to complete our goal of having (virtually) all-efficient lighting for our home. Now we’re down to only five inefficient light bulbs, all of them in kitchen appliances: our refrigerator, freezer, microwave, range hood, and oven.

Most of the fixtures in our home were quite compatible with CFL bulbs that cast an attractive light with no noticeable flickering or humming. Ceiling fans, lamps, outdoor floodlights, etc. have been no problem.

But after replacing the easy ones, we were still left with three problems:

  • We wanted dimmable lights in the dining room and living room, and the “dimmable” CFLs we tried were not very dimmable at all.
  • We didn’t like the light or the humming that developed over time with the CFL bulbs in our master bathroom fixture.
  • One of our ceiling fans required very small candelabra base bulbs.

In each spot, it was a priority to have soft white light – no “bright white” or “daylight” bulbs for these rooms. Though we’d looked into LED lights before without much success, I wanted to see if they could solve our last few lighting dilemmas. In short, my family and I are quite happy with the final products. However, my trial-and-error experience demonstrated that the LED light bulb market still has some room for improvement, and the marketing of these bulbs is really haphazard.

Just last year …

I started experimenting with LED light bulbs about a year ago. After disappointing results with a dimmable CFL bulb, I went ahead and bought a $40+ LED bulb just to “try out.” Home Depot, which has by far the best light bulb selection I’ve found in my area and a no-hassle return policy, was my main shopping destination. I don’t remember exactly which model we tried, but it was a “bright white” color bulb, and we found it just too harsh. Plus we needed six bulbs, and spending over $250 for lighting for one side of a room just wasn’t on our priority list, so we returned them.

I thought I would have a difficult time finding the right variety of LED bulb. My earlier experience in the stores showed that most of the LED bulbs for sale at that time were “accent” bulbs that did not offer much light. These are still the most prominently displayed bulbs, with some of the more attractive packaging, and are offered in grocery stores. I don’t have any such lights in my home, but other people must be buying them. Or maybe not.

There is also a lack of information in stores about lighting color. Last year, most lighting packaging lacked detailed information about the lighting color. The difference between 2700° “soft white” and 3023° “bright white” is really noticeable. Some packaging didn’t even say “bright white” – no color information at all. But today (just over a year later), most of “standard socket” (A19) bulbs I see on the shelf now give specific information about the color that the bulb puts out.

Of course, most consumers probably have no idea what  2700° means (it is the color of a standard incandescent bulb). However, I noticed that the Home Depot I shop at has added two light displays, in an attempt to clarify this terminology with visuals. One display explains the difference between “soft white,” “warm white,” “bright white,” and “daylight.” The other, pictured at right, shows off six different LED bulbs.

But not every home project store has taken this approach, and these problems remain relevant to most consumer experiences. I’ve recently viewed the lighting displays at perhaps a dozen different stores, and most of them look more like Home Depot did a year ago. The new displays I found at Home Depot aren’t ideal, either (more on that below).

How things have changed!

Over the past year, the variety of LED bulbs for sale in my area has just exploded. I’d noticed the change, but with most bulbs in the $40-60 price range, I just couldn’t justify the expense. Then, suddenly, my local utility began to offer what’s called an “upstream” incentive at my nearest Home Depot on several LED bulbs.

An “upstream” incentive is simply an instant discount that the utility helps pay for. In this case, it looks like the total discount on each bulb is about $15. I don’t know how much of that discount is being paid for by the utility; commonly, the retailer also participates in the price reduction in order to boost quantity of sales.

Based on the improved display and packaging information, I tried out about eight different bulbs over the past month and settled on three that were really attractive and priced reasonably enough. Now I know that for most people, spending over $20 for a light bulb is a little daunting. But there are plenty of people who will buy an extra sweater or a nice holiday decoration for fun and not because it is the least cost way to dress or enjoy the holidays. So a $20 light bulb might just be a holiday “try-it-out” novelty for some.

Overall, I found that Philips has by far the best selection and quality in the “soft white” or “warm white” color range. I tried out five of their bulbs, including a spotlight that was too directional and dim for our needs. As a general rule (with only one specific exception), the Philips bulbs overperformed compared to the product labeling.

My experience with CFLs is that a “60 watt equivalent” bulb is usually a bit dimmer than what one would expect. In the case of the Philips LED bulbs I tried out, they were all brighter and all (but one) better performing than their incandescent equivalent. I’m not the only one who’s noticed. Philips’ unusual yellow bulbs got a lot of attention in August when it won the US Department of Energy’s $10 million “L Prize.”

philips_5w 5 watt, “25 watt equivalent,” 3000° “bright white” LED bulb – This was the only Philips that I didn’t like, but I thought I would mention it because it was about half the price of the most expensive bulb and would work very well in a lot of applications. Like the others, it seemed much brighter than claimed. But the light color was too harsh and it did not seem to dim very effectively.
philips_8w 8 watt, “40 watt equivalent,” 2700° “warm white” LED bulb – This was my favorite bulb. It is nearly as bright as the higher-wattage Philips bulbs listed below, and looks very conventional. I don’t know why they call this bulb “warm” vs. the “soft” color for the two below, they all seem about the same to me. It performs very well on a dimmer. I bought 2 for our master bathroom, where it provides a very pleasant light and isn’t odd looking in an exposed fixture. I would have bought it for the living room as well, but it was replaced on the Home Depot stock shelves by the 9 watt bulb without explanation.
philips_9w 9 watt, “40 watt equivalent,” 2700° “soft white” LED bulb – I think this is the bulb that won the L Prize. (UPDATE: See comments.) Oddly, this product appeared on the Home Depot stock shelf, replacing the 8 watt bulb above, but Home Depot didn’t swap the bulbs out in the nice display. So the 8 watt bulb is shining for all to see, but none to buy. This bulb, however, is not even on the Home Depot website (as of 11/21), so I photographed it on the stock shelf. It dims very well. Compared to the 12 watt, 800 lumen bulb, it seems to me that it is only a little bit dimmer. For the money, this is the second-best bulb.
philips_9w_8w_12w 12 watt, “60 watt equivalent,” 2700° “soft white” LED bulb– This is the brightest conventional soft white bulb I’m able to find on the market. It performs exactly the same as its 9 watt brother, but it is a little bit brighter and about $3 more expensive. We like having the extra brightness available in our dining room, so we bought three of these for that room. Otherwise, I prefer the lower wattage bulbs mainly because they cost less and perform just as well. I’ve illustrated it here in comparison to the two bulbs above. The higher-wattage bulb is the one on the right, you can see that the base is just barely larger than its 9 watt sibling. Wonder how this works? “Beley” bought one and tore it apart to see how it works. Fascinating.

Installing the LEDs…

Installing an LED should be as simple as screwing it in, right? Well, yes: where we aren’t using a dimmer switch.

But in the two other locations, we wanted a bulb that could dim. When I learned that LED bulbs work much better on a new dimmer switch, I used the C•L dimmer from Lutron. There’s a dial that I needed to adjust in order to set the dimmer range for the bulb. Although my older dimmer switch worked with the LED bulbs, the bulbs get much dimmer with the new one.

The other part of the installation was that I replaced the trim kit on my living room can lights. Previously, we had a basic can and rim trim style that worked well with flood lights. But installing the 9 watt Philips in those didn’t work really well. So we upgraded to a very simple trim kit illustrated here, which was a hassle, but the $5 or so we spent on these improved the look of the lighting.

Some final thoughts

Though I cannot say how other home repair stores are handling it, Home Depot is offering a wide selection of these LED bulbs and making an honest effort to market them well. Still, as I mentioned earlier, their LED lighting display isn’t ideal; the company’s displays continue to be confused. One of the light bulbs that they have in their display is no longer stocked, and while the discounted price is correctly labeled on the stock shelf, it has not been updated on the display after several weeks. I pointed out the inconsistencies to a lighting product staffer and nothing was done to correct it. Still, in today’s market with the politicization of light bulbs, I’ll give Home Depot credit for showing product leadership and even drop my grudge for the intermediate base bulb fiasco they inflicted on me a few years ago.

What about that ceiling fan light bulb problem I mentioned in the beginning? Well, oddly enough, I found some Sylvania “smaller than ever” and “instant-on” bulbs at my local grocery store. I have used a wide variety of CFLs since the 1980s, and this bulb is amazingly small, bright, and just all-around very nice.

CFLs remain the bulb of choice for a very good reason: they are inexpensive. The two-pack at left cost me $4.50. This is more than an incandescent but a better value over the life of the bulb, as well as cutting down on number of times I have to take apart the ceiling fan fixture to replace bulbs. And while politicized media tend to hype consumer discontent, in reality utilities are finding consumers are very interested in adopting more efficient lighting.

As my family found out, CFLs can’t answer every lighting problem just yet. However, LEDs are now a very viable alternative, and we’re pleased to finally have an efficiently-lit home. Have you looked into efficient lighting for your household recently?

Guest Blog
My Profile