LED light bulbs have a bright future

You may have started to see some odd-looking — and expensive — light bulbs show up at your local home improvement store.

This year, Home Depot started selling a Philips AmbientLED bulb that is designed to replace the standard 60-watt light bulb used in lamps and other fixtures. If you had seen it, you might have quickly passed it by after seeing its price: a whopping $40 each.

But it’s worth another look, if only because many people are betting that the bulb represents the future of home lighting.

According to the U.S. Energy Department, there are some 971 million 60-watt light bulbs in use in the United States, mostly in homes. To encourage energy efficiency, the government is in the process of raising energy standards for light bulbs, which will mean that incandescent bulbs will be banned in coming years.


Currently, the main alternative to incandescent bulbs are compact fluorescent lights. But while CFLs have grown in popularity in recent years, many consumers have resisted them. CFLs are far more energy efficient than their incandescent equivalents and last much longer, but have significant drawbacks.

One big negative for CFL bulbs is that they contain mercury, meaning that they’re unsafe to be thrown out in the regular trash and require thoughtful cleanup when they break. Many are slow to reach full brightness, even those that are billed as “instant on.” And although their price has come down markedly in the last 10 years, CFLs still cost significantly more than incandescent bulbs.

What’s more, while CFLs outlast incandescents, they’ve tended to have life spans shorter than advertised. Most CFLs can’t be dimmed. And many consumers despise the blue-green light that many CFLs emit.

For those reasons, many lighting experts in government and the lighting and technology industries are betting that LED bulbs will be the eventual replacement for incandescents. They don’t contain mercury, are truly instant-on, and the new 60-watt-equivalent bulbs typically can be dimmed.

Meanwhile, LED bulbs are expected to have life spans that are several times that of even CFLs. And they have been designed to emulate the light of incandescent bulbs.

At about 12 to 13 watts, they use slightly less energy than CFLs, and less than one-quarter of the energy of a 60-watt bulb. And unlike CFLs or incandescents, they’re based on the same rapidly improving semiconductor technology found in the chips inside your PC and smartphone.

Thanks to that, LED bulbs should get more efficient in coming years. The Energy Department has set a target to have a 60-watt-equivalent bulb use just 10 watts — and some folks in the industry say they can get the energy use down even lower in coming years.

LED bulbs have been around for many years, but the initial 60-watt-equivalent bulbs mostly were made by off-brands and start-up companies and sold only by enthusiast websites. While you could find some LED bulbs in major stores over the last year or so, they tended to be for use in recessed lighting or for replacing lower-output incandescents.


Now they’re being produced by major lighting companies, including Philips and Sylvania, and are being backed by major retailers, including Home Depot and Lowe’s.

Lowe’s started selling Sylvania’s 60-watt-equivalent bulb online late last year and recently began offering it in its stores. In addition to the Philips bulb, Home Depot has begun selling a 60-watt-equivalent LED bulb from Lighting Science Group Corp. in some of its stores under its house brand, EcoSmart.

In recent months, I’ve been testing both the Philips and the EcoSmart bulbs. The best thing I can say about them is that as strange as they may look — the Philips bulb has yellow glass segmented by three metal grooves and the EcoSmart bulb has what looks to be a squashed glass head — the light they give off is unremarkable. It’s bright and warm, but, to my eye at least, basically indistinguishable from what would be produced by an incandescent light.

The bulbs give off more light — measured in lumens — than a standard 60-watt bulb. And the coatings used on their glass are designed to filter the light they emit so that it appears more “natural.”


You probably will want to hold off on buying such bulbs for now, because their cost outweighs their advantages. Even factoring in the LEDs’ longer expected life spans — which have yet to be confirmed — CFLs are a better deal for now.

But keep an eye on the LED bulbs. They’re a bright idea in lighting and possibly the bulbs of the future.

Wolverton writes for the San Jose Mercury News/McClatchy.