Field-testing LED light bulbs

January 4, 2013

Ten years ago, most households used incandescent light bulbs and hardly gave it a thought. The bulbs, regardless of brand or wattage, produced the same predictable quality and color of light; the only time most homeowners paid any attention was when one burned out and needed to be replaced.

Today, homeowners have many more lighting choices. And it behooves them to become conversant with these newer bulbs because, as part of the Energy Independence Security Act of 2007, the incandescents are gradually being phased out.

Despite their long history of reliability and low cost, the incandescents are hugely inefficient. About 90 percent of the energy they consume is given off as heat and only 10 percent as light. Production of 100-watt bulbs ended last October; production of 75-watt bulbs is slated to end in this year, and production of the most widely sold incandescents, the 40- and 60-watt bulbs, will cease in 2014.

The differences in the newer bulbs that matter to most people are the color and quality of the light the bulbs produce, the amount of energy they consume and how long they will last.

Halogen bulbs produce light that is very similar to that of incandescents and they last about the same length of time (about 11 months if used three hours a day), but halogen bulbs consume about 30 percent less energy. Compact fluorescent bulbs, commonly called CFLs, produce light in a broad range of colors that can be close to that of an incandescent bulb or literally as bright as daylight. Compared with incandescents, CFLs consume about 75 percent less energy and last about 10 times as long.

Light-emitting diode bulbs, commonly called LEDs, are the latest entry in the home-lighting arena. The choice in color of the light that LED bulbs emit is limited. In most cases, it is either close to that of incandescent bulbs (2700K) or close to that of halogen bulbs (3000K). LEDs use about the same amount of energy as CFLs, but they last forever — on average about 22 years, far longer than most people plan to live in the place where they will be installing them.

Three other pluses with LEDs: They can be used with dimmers (some CFLs can be used with dimmers but not all of them), the light reaches full brightness instantly (many CFLs take 30 seconds to several minutes to reach full brightness) and LEDs do not contain mercury (each CFL bulb contains only a minuscule amount of this hazardous mineral, but collectively many CFL bulbs in a municipal landfill is a very serious problem).

To get a sense of how the LEDs work in real time, I field-tested four types of LEDs from three manufacturers in my home (the manufacturers were GE, Sylvania and Lighting Science). I tried them at night, studying the quality of the light in different applications (reading and desk work, general room lighting, spotlighting art work). For me, the winners were the LEDs with brighter, whiter light in the halogen spectrum (3000K).

My husband, on the other hand, preferred the more subdued LEDs in the incandescent range (2700K). But in all cases, the light of these LEDs is more than acceptable and far superior to the first generation of CFLs. I think most homeowners will find the transition to LEDs fairly seamless.

The two LEDs that significantly outperformed the others in my home testing were manufactured by Sylvania for use in a recessed ceiling fixture (Par 38) or a track light (Par 20). The defining difference: Both of these bulbs have an unusually high Color Rating Index, or CRI.

The CRI number indicates how the colors of objects under a given light appear to the human eye. Color is truest with sunlight, which has a CRI of 100. Incandescent and halogen bulbs also have a CRI of 100. The CRI of most LEDs is 80, but Sylvania’s CRI for these “HD” Par-style bulbs is 95. They are ideal for those times when having the correct color of objects is important — for example, when you’re trying to put together an outfit for work or a special occasion or you want to illuminate a cherished work of art.

The Sylvania HD Par-styled bulbs come at a premium, however. Its HD LED Par 20 (used on a track light fixture) was $33 at my local Lowe’s; its regular LED Par 20 bulb was $20. Sylvania HD LED Par 38 bulb (used in a recessed ceiling fixture) was $50; its regular LED Par 38 was $40.

The only downside for LEDs that I observed in my testing was an inconsistency in the color of the light given off by identically rated bulbs from different manufacturers. The color is not the same. The difference is small and may be acceptable to most people, but I noticed it. The obvious way to avoid this is to buy the same type of LED bulbs from the same manufacturer.

Another reason to get the same LED bulb from the same manufacturer is to avoid costly mistakes due to confusing packaging. Bulbs of different brands may seem to be identical because the front says in large letters, “60-watt replacement LED.” But the fine print on the back may indicate important differences. The “Light Appearance” of one may be 2700K (the light is more yellow) and the other 3000K (the light is brighter and whiter).

If you bring the two different brands home and put them in the lamps on either side of the sofa, the difference will be obvious. Once the package is torn open and unreturnable, you won’t be out the $1 you routinely paid for the 60-watt incandescents. The price of the LED 60-watt replacements in my local Home Depot and Lowe’s ranged from $10 to $38.

Katherine Salant has an architecture degree from Harvard. A native Washingtonian, she grew up in Fairfax County and now lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. If you have questions or column ideas, she can be contacted at salanthousewatch@gmail.com or www.katherinesalant.com.

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