Let there be (more efficient) light!

A19 incandescent bulb
Standard A19 incandescent light bulb


It’s hard to believe how fast Thomas Edison’s most important invention is receding in the rear view mirror. Ever since the U.S. government mandated the extinction of the incandescent light bulb, a new wave of entrepreneurial companies have been vying to replace it with much more efficient and practical lighting sources.  The chief competitor for the title of “standard light bulb” is the new class of LED (light-emitting diode) bulbs. These new bulbs allow you to save money on your electric bill while also saving energy and reducing carbon emissions. In my opinion, any technology that allows us to save money while saving the planet is a no-brainer.

A bit of background. Contrary to popular belief, Thomas Edison did not invent electric lighting. He did, however, create, patent (in 1879), and commercialize the incandescent light bulb that is still in widespread use today. This type of light bulb passes electric current through a filament inside a sealed glass container. It is the burning of the filament that generates light. The incandescent light bulb, while proven effective, is not particularly efficient, as much of the energy consumed produces heat rather than light. While many improvements to the incandescent bulb have been developed since Edison, such bulbs still convert only about 10% of the energy they consume into light. For a pretty good history of electric light, see this U.S. Energy Department web site: http://energy.gov/articles/history-light-bulb

My first LED flood light - looked like a science project!
My first LED flood light – looked like a science project!

When we moved to our new Michigan home in in 2007, I began experimenting with the new LED light bulbs. My interest was more academic than financial, because the first LED flood lamps I purchased, the kind that are used in overhead recessed “can” lighting fixtures, cost $80 apiece. At that cost, I figured it would take more than 15 years for the energy savings to recoup the cost of the LED lamp. Imagine my dismay when these early LED bulbs, which were advertised to last basically forever, began failing after 2-3 years of normal use!  Very disappointing.

Fortunately, the past few years have brought striking developments in LED lighting. One can now purchase an LED lamp that replaces the standard A19 bulb for as little as $6.00. These new lamps simply screw into existing fixtures, and they consume about one-sixth as much energy as the A19 incandescent bulb. If you use one of these new LED replacement bulbs for three hours per day, you will recoup the cost of the bulb in about one year. Since these new bulbs are guaranteed to last 5-10 years, that’s a financial no-brainer. For a pretty good energy “Payback Calculator,” see: http://www.homepowersaver.net/p/payback-calculator_11.html

My current favorite "standard bulb" replacements
My current favorite “standard bulb” replacements, from Cree (r) and Philips (l).

As you might imagine, I’ve been madly at work replacing all the light bulbs in my house with the new LED lights. I started with locations where we use lighting most, such as the kitchen and family room, because those locations are where we stand to save the most. I have yet to get to some of the lesser used spaces, such as guest bedrooms and closets. Even though the newer LED lights are much better and cheaper than the ones I started with in 2007, I still find that all LED lights are not created equal. So far, the lights I have had the best experience with are the ones which incorporate technology from a company called Cree Lighting (www.cree.com/lighting). The performance of these lights has been great, I haven’t experienced reliability problems, and the cost has been very competitive.

My recent experience with LED bulbs has been very positive. My favorite replacement for the standard A19 light bulb is the one manufactured by Cree Lighting (above, right).  It consumes one-sixth the power of the standard bulb, and costs about $10 at Home Depot. One of the best features of this bulb is that it is dimmable using standard dimmer switches.  Also, the bulb’s glass housing is coated with some kind of rubberized material, so if you drop it, the glass stays inside.  The light from the soft-white version of this bulb is virtually indistinguishable from the standard incandescent bulb. The only downside of this bulb is that, due to the electronics contained in the base, it is slightly taller than the standard bulb. This means that it may not fit in certain fixtures.

My other favorite is the new A19 replacement bulb from Philips Electronics (above, left). This innovative bulb has a plastic housing, and the top of the bulb is flat rather than spherical. This bulb cost me less than $7.00 at Home Depot. It’s about the same height as the standard bulb, so it should work in nearly all existing fixtures. Since the housing is plastic, it will probably not break if dropped from a reasonable distance. That alone is a big plus.  I’m still experimenting with this bulb, but it could become my new favorite.

Complete R30 floodlight replacement assembly - light, housing, and trim ring.
Complete R30 floodlight replacement assembly – light, housing, and trim ring – a higher cost solution, but reliable and elegant.

We have a lot of “high hat” ceiling light fixtures in our house. These very popular fixtures take something called an R30 flood light. Fortunately, LED versions of these bulbs are available, too. I use two different versions of LED lights for these fixtures. My favorite is a complete assembly from a company called EcoSmart that replaces the bulb, housing, and trim ring. This bulb incorporates Cree Lighting technology. I’m expecting that, due to the projected long life of this light, I will never have to replace it. I’m currently using these LED assemblies in my family room, kitchen, and lower level, and haven’t had to give them a second thought. They are functionally indistinguishable from the R30 floodlights they replaced. Because these are complete lighting assemblies, they cost more than a standalone bulb. I got mine for just under $27.00 each at Home Depot. Due to this higher price, I only use these assemblies in places where I expect to have the lights on a lot, as in several hours a day..

In the remainder of the “high hat” fixtures throughout my house, I simply screw in the Cree Lighting R30 replacement bulb. The soft white version of this bulb cost me just under $13.00 at Home Depot. They work great, and I have had no trouble with these, either.

Cree LED flood light
Cree Lighting LED replacement for standard R30 floodlight – works great!

All in all, I’ve been enjoying this energy-saving adventure. I’ve been seeing the savings on my monthly electric bill, and that is, after all, the proof of the pudding. I realize that not everyone can afford to lay out the money to replace all the incandescent bulbs in their homes with the new LED lights, but doing so really will save money in the long run, and it will allow the power company to put less carbon into the atmosphere. One would think that it would be in the power companies’ interest to supply these higher efficiency bulbs for no up-front cost, and to simply add the cost over time to the customer’s utility bill. That’s a win-win!

Think about it this way: operating 16 standard 60-watt incandescent bulbs for an hour requires the power company to burn roughly a pound of coal (see source). If you replace those incandescent bulbs with LEDs, you will get the same amount of light for 1/6 pound of coal. Now multiply that by the millions and millions (billions?) of such lights in everyday use, and you can begin to see the possibilities for dramatic cost, energy, and carbon savings. It really is a no-brainer.

Please note: I have no financial interest in Cree Lighting, Philips Electronics, EcoSmart, or Home Depot.

One thought on “Let there be (more efficient) light!

  1. Hi – I run the marketing at LightRabbit which is a major online LED lighting store. Over the three years we have been operating we have been experimenting with how to effectively get this message across. You are exactly right that people do draw comparisons to traditional lighting but we find that our customers are more pioneering and are more likely to have switched to CFL lamps which have a different light output to power ratio to incandescent. Furthermore, I think it is important that people start to dissociate the notion of watts=light output (lumens). The reason for this is that LED lighting technology is improving at a rate of approximately 10 lumens per watt per year. This would mean that the watt/lumen comparison will outdate.

    The only way to truly and honestly market the brightness of a lamp is with Lumen output. We also have an excellent energy saving calculator which allows people to work out their savings on both the fixed cost of the lamps and inflation. Easy to use and bound to make you think about changing to LED lighting sooner rather than later. http://www.lightrabbit.co.uk/calculate-saving

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