Energy-efficient lighting: navigating the choice of halogen, CFLs and LEDs

Energy efficient lightbulb In stores all over New Jersey, and probably across America, there is confusion in the lighting aisle.

Some are wondering what happened to the 100-watt bulbs, and those who know are faced with far too many choices.

For anyone who missed the news, 100-watt bulbs were phased out a little more than two years ago, and 75-watt bulbs were finished last year. In January, production and import of all 40- and 60-watt bulbs was called to an end in this nation.

What’s behind all this? Back in 2007, then-President George W. Bush signed into law the Energy Independence and Security Act, which called for the gradual phase-out of power-hungry household light bulbs in favor of more energy-efficient options. There are still lots of 40- to 60-watt bulbs for now because retailers are permitted to sell off existing inventory. Certain higher-wattage specialty and decorative incandescents also are available, exempted from regulation for now.

But even those who stock up on the remaining old-school bulbs will at some point need to face the sometimes strange-looking energy-efficient options being sold to replace them. That’s not such a bad thing, considering that the law requires new bulbs to deliver the same amount of light for at least 27.5 percent less energy, potentially lowering electric bills.

Picking an energy-efficient bulb

Want to make it easier to pick energy-efficient light bulbs? The first step is to stop thinking of lighting in terms of watts.

14573059-largeGeneral Electric’s first LED for the consumer market has clean, graceful lines and wonderful, bright light quality at 3,000K. Unfortunately, it launched in 2010 at a price of about $50. Since then, GE has developed other LED bulbs with a lower price tag and the predictable A19 shape of traditional incandescent bulbs.

Watts are still important because they tell us how much electricity a given bulb uses to produce light — but the brightness of that light is measured in lumens.

If your eyes are glazing over at the prospect of having to learn a lot of unfamiliar science just to buy light bulbs, stay with me a little longer. Every bulb — whether it’s an old-school incandescent, halogen, compact fluorescent or LED — has a Lighting Facts label. These look a lot like the Nutrition Facts labels on food products, and they give us the basics to compare lights and pick the right one. Lumens are listed right at the top under “brightness.”

Let’s look at 60-watt bulbs to establish a point of comparison. You might never have noticed that the brightness among brands can range from roughly 650 to 870 lumens, and because of various engineering marvels, the average person won’t notice a difference even with this significant variation in light output. Still, every 60-watt bulb requires the same amount of power to operate: You guessed it, 60 watts. That’s listed near the bottom of the Lighting Facts label under “energy used.” Newer bulb types offer the same lumens as incandescents, but use fewer watts to do so. So, 100-watt “replacement” bulbs also will have a range of luminosity (around 1,600 lumens) that compares to the old 100-watt bulbs, but they can now use no more than 72 watts of power to provide comparable light.

Deciding among so many lighting options becomes easier if you first consider what’s most important to you. Is it getting your bulbs for the lowest price? Or is it finding those that use the least energy? Perhaps you want to show your home at its best, pick lighting for specific tasks or just stick with something familiar.

14573077-largeCree lighting this month introduced its first 100-watt equivalent LED. Cree bulbs produce impressive room-filling, omnidirectional light despite a sizable collar of temperature-regulating “heat sinks” that also place these bulbs among the heaviest LEDs. The bulb’s glass has a silicone coating to help protect it from breakage. The Cree 40- and 60-watt replacement bulbs were recently selling for $4.97 thanks to a periodic incentive discount through New Jersey’s Clean Energy Program.

Bulb price: If you scour Wal-Mart stores, you might still find four-packs of 40- and 60-watt bulbs for a buck. But regardless of what you pay for them, standard incandescents will cost a lot more in the long run because they use so much power, most of which just generates heat. Energy-efficient options providing comparable light use as little as 9 watts of power. It’s estimated that any 9-watt bulb that’s on for three hours daily would cost a paltry $1.08 per year to operate, compared to $7.23 annually for a similar bulb using 60 watts.

And what if that bulb could last more than 20 years? That’s the promise of LED. The Cree 800-lumen LED bulb (a 60-watt replacement) is guaranteed to last at least 10 years. I bought one in soft white for $4.97, thanks to a $5 discount through New Jersey’s Clean Energy Program.

Prices on LEDs and other energy-efficient bulbs are being discounted by up to $10 per bulb at stores statewide through the Clean Energy Program’s pricing deals with various makers of Energy Star bulbs.

Still not ready for LED? A four-pack of American-made Sylvania halogen bulbs was $4.67 at Wal-Mart. Halogen bulbs look and perform like the bulbs we’re used to, and they’re often marketed as the new energy-saving incandescents. (To tell the difference between a standard 60-watt bulb and the halogen replacement, look at the Lighting Facts label where “energy used” will be 43 watts instead of 60.) Some halogen bulbs are designed to last twice as long as traditional incandescents, but that’s still less than two years, and the energy saved isn’t as impressive as with CFLs or LEDs.

The packaging of every light bulb is now required to include a Lighting Facts label that lists a bulb’s brightness, expected life, estimated annual usage cost, light colorLighting Facts label for a FTC Label Master and energy used. This label for a CFL bulb indicates the presence of mercury.

Lighting Facts labels also note when any bulb contains mercury. If that’s not a problem for you, CFL bulbs are an economical option — sometimes found at two for $1. But despite significant advances since they first hit the market, bargain CFLs often don’t last as long as promised, can still have an off-putting light color and they take time to reach full brightness. Spend a little more for brand-name bulbs, and they’ll likely have more pleasing light with other features, such as the ability to work with dimmers.?

The comfort of familiar: To ease customer’s future shock, general use bulbs are being coaxed into shapes that try to replicate as closely as possible the bulb Thomas Edison created more than 100 years ago. (Edison’s bulb replaced candles, another old familiar light source.)

Modern-day manufacturers are in a frenzied race to design the best LED lighting using the least amount of energy at the lowest price. They know that a degree of familiarity makes it easier to accept new technology, but does it really matter what your CFL or LED looks like if it’s under a lampshade? Plus, many of the new LEDs have designs that are attractive despite being unusual.

14573182-large Because they are electronic systems that need to keep cool to perform well, Some LEDs can weigh nearly a pound. The SlimStyle LED from Philips Lighting Co. has light-emitting diodes in a horseshoe shape with heat dissipation built into the streamlined design. The plastic housing makes the flat light bulb lightweight and resistant to breakage. It was selling for $9.97 at Home Depot stores.

The lollipop-shaped SlimStyle LED from Somerset-based Philips Lighting Co. is a good-looking conversation piece beneath frosted glass shades in a bathroom fixture. And GE’s first Energy Star-certified LED bulb, which hit the market at about $50, remains an example of beauty in function. An abundance of light shines through its small glass bulb surrounded by a graceful series of curved white metal projections resembling fins or flower petals. These “heat sinks” — which radiate away the warmth that shortens an LED’s life — can take many shapes. They’re now more often wrapped around a bulb’s bottom half, in some cases at the expense of light, which can’t penetrate the heat-releasing band.

Bulbs for interior design: Fans of celebrity interior designer Candice Olson know that she loves spot lighting with halogen bulbs for their ability to show true colors. She has said that such lighting can vastly improve the appearance of less expensive materials, while poor lighting will compromise even high-end furnishings.

Peter Soares would agree. “I look at my house, and pockets are filled with halogens, CFLs, LEDs,” says Soares, director of consumer products for Philips. He prefers halogen bulbs for the recessed ceiling fixtures in the kitchen of his Hillsborough home because they accentuate color and texture.

“I love halogen,” he says. “I love the way it brings out the look of granite, the look of the oak.”

The mix of kitchen lighting includes a CFL in at least one fixture, a pendant light above the sink. He also uses CFLs in his basement and in the garage door openers. He appreciates the mini spirals that don’t show from beneath glass shades in a bathroom fixture. LEDs are in the living room, in bedrooms and other areas.

“It all depends on the effect of light you want to get,” says Soares.

14573200-large Layers of light are the secret to a dramatic interior. Aim halogen bulbs at a brick or stone wall to accentuate color and texture. Halogen lights also render colors true and can improve the appearance of fabrics and other materials. Experiment with various color temperatures to find bulb types with the most pleasing color. Try LEDs in pendant lamps to showcase a meal at its best. GE’s Reveal line of dimmable halogen bulbs, CFLs and LEDs is designed to enhance a home’s colors, showcasing furnishings and fixtures at their best.

Bulb color: When it comes to attractive home lighting, there are two primary considerations — the color from the light source itself, and the way the light affects the coloring of materials and people. For color direction, look again at that Lighting Facts label. Since lighting manufacturers believe that most of us want what’s familiar, most replacement lighting will be close to the “soft-white” color range of Edison’s bulb. That is measured in a color temperature of 2,700 to 2,900 kelvin. Some bulb makers offer “bright-white,” which has a color temperature of 3,000K to 3,500K; the higher numbers indicate light moving toward the cool blue range in color.

Bulb function: While a bluish hue might be a little depressing for the bedroom, designers suggest going into the 5,000K to 6,500K range for white kitchens or sleek modern interiors. Bulbs of that color are described as “daylight.” It’s also a good choice for task lighting because it accentuates lines and makes details look sharper. Try it in a reading light, too. At Home Depot, EcoSmart and Cree offer daylight bulbs. Utilitech LEDs at Lowe’s include “warm white” (3,000K), “bright white” (3,500K) and “natural daylight” (5,000K). Many more lighting and color options are available from various online retailers.

But color temperature doesn’t tell the whole story, manufacturers say. The colors in the spectrum of light that comes from various bulbs also can be manipulated to enhance the look of fabrics, furnishings and people. That is the goal of GE’s Reveal line.

“This bulb removes the yellowish haze from typical light sources and alters the way we perceive brightness, revealing finishes and furnishings in a way that traditional lighting cannot,” says GE spokesman John Strainic. The Reveal line, which includes halogen, compact fluorescent and LED bulbs, makes reds appear redder and whites appear whiter, he says. And the adjusted color spectrum results in light that appears as bright despite a lower lumen output. These higher-priced bulbs also are good options for walk-in closets and other dressing areas.

14572953-largeOsram Sylvania’s Ultra LED might look like something from a spacey sci-fi flick, but it has exceptionally pleasing light quality, shining brighter than many LEDs listing comparable lumen output. It can be used outdoors and in bathrooms.

Bulb dimmers: Because they are similar to traditional incandescents, halogen bulbs work consistently well with dimmers, but flickering, humming and other troubles have been reported with CFLs and LEDs. The problem, says Lutron Electronics Vice President Pekka Hakkarainen, is that most dimmers were created for incandescent bulbs. The lower wattage requirements of energy-efficient bulbs has created compatibility issues, he says. Lutron also designs dimmers for LEDs, and the company tests compatibility of its systems with bulbs from numerous manufacturers.

“In that process, we learned a number of lessons,” he said. “We then worked with the lighting industry to standardize the bulbs and dimmers, so following that standard would assure basic compatibility.” But the standard is new. In cases where the dimmer maker is unknown, trying different lighting brands is an option, he says. “It is possible to find bulbs that work with those dimmers reasonably well.”

Bulb longevity: The promise that a costly light bulb will last more than 22 years doesn’t mean much if the maker doesn’t back up the claims. LEDs and some of the higher priced CFLs have replacement warranties for three to 10 years, and in one case a lifetime. With pricey blubs, it’s also a good idea to look for materials that are less likely to break. Cree bulbs have a protective silicone coating over the glass, for instance.

Protecting your LED investment: It should also be noted that many LEDs are not suited for damp areas or fully enclosed fixtures. Enclosure interferes with their ability to cool, potentially shortening their life. Since it’s not always easy to tell from the packaging if a bulb is rated for an enclosed fixture, check the maker’s website or call. offers several LEDs rated for enclosed fixtures.


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