The Right Way to Spend Up to $60 on a Light Bulb

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Are $60 LED lightbulbs a bright idea for your home?

"I think LED lights are worth it in the end -- but at the price the bulbs cost, consumers are going to have to be a little bit discerning about which places in a home that they put them in," says Celia Lehrman of Consumer Reports, which analyzed the high-tech bulbs for its October edition and gave them a thumbs up.

LED bulbs -- which employ a 21st century version of the light-emitting diodes first used on the red numeric displays of 1970s-era calculators and digital clocks -- cost $25 to $60 apiece. But they can last 20 years or more and produce light using a fraction of the energy a traditional incandescent lightbulb consumes.

For instance, a 12.5-watt LED bulb will typically produce as much light as a traditional 60-watt incandescent bulb does and will last around 25 times as long before burning out.

"We've had some LEDs burning in our test labs for nearly 17,000 hours nonstop, and when we pulled them out a few months ago and tested them, they were as bright as when we first put them in," Lehrman says.

Consumer Reports also found LEDs use slightly less electricity than high-efficiency compact fluorescent lights consume -- and last years longer.

LEDs also lack the small amounts of toxic mercury CFLs contain, and -- unlike most fluorescent lights -- can work well with dimmer switches or outdoors in cold weather. LED bulbs also come on instantly, whereas CFLs need anywhere from 30 seconds to two minutes to warm up and reach full brightness.

But LEDs aren't without their critics.

The bulbs have become a lightning rod for opponents of a 2007 federal law that will phase out most incandescent bulbs by 2014 and force consumers to switch in many cases to LEDs, CFLs or halogen lights.

"What's the matter with leaving the choice to the consumer?" asks Ron Arnold of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, which opposes the law. "It's fine if somebody wants to come out with something new in the marketplace, but let's not mandate that something has to go away because you showed up."

And LEDs certainly don't come cheap.

Although entry-level prices have dropped to around $25 a bulb from about $40 a year ago, a comparable CFL costs only around $2 -- and a similar incandescent bulb will set you back just 25 cents.

But Consumer Reports estimates buyers will save around $130 in electricity and replacement costs over a LED's roughly 23-year lifespan if they use one in place of a traditional incandescent bulb.

"We hear people say all of the time: 'Why should I buy an LED bulb? It's so expensive,'" Lehrman says. "Our answer is: that an incandescent bulb is really only cheap if you never turn it on."

That said, Consumer Reports doesn't recommend replacing CFLs with LEDs, as you'll pay a lot more per bulb and get only minimal additional savings.

Lehrman also suggests using LEDs only in hard-to-reach places, since a bulb will last there for years, or in light fixtures you use around three hours or more per day in your home.

"Obviously, the places to put these high-efficiency bulbs are places where you have the lights on for the longest time, because you'll recoup LEDs' higher prices more quickly," she says.

Here are some other tips from Lehrman on how to get the most spark out of LED lights:

Look for rebates
Utilities, lighting manufacturers and government agencies sometimes offer rebates on LEDs to take some of the sting out of the bulbs' high prices.

Lehrman recommends checking the websites of bulb makers and local utilities as well as looking at the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency.

Save your receipts for warranty purposes
Any LED that carries a U.S. government EnergyStar rating for efficiency must include at least a three-year warranty, and some manufacturers warrant their bulbs for as much as a decade.

Lehrman recommends you keep your receipt and the box your LED came in so you have it available in case the bulb suffers a premature death.

An even better idea: Take photos of the receipt and the box's UPC code with a smartphone, then store them on your phone or download them to your computer for easy retrieval.

Pick the right bulb
Selecting a tradition incandescent bulb is pretty easy -- you just decide whether you want a 60-watt bulb, 75-watt bulb or something brighter or dimmer.

LEDs are a lot more complicated and require looking at three ratings: "lumens," "color temperature" and the "color rendering index."

Lumens measure a bulb's brightness. Lehrman says you'll want an 800-lumens LED to replace a 60-watt incandescent bulb or an 1,100-lumens one if you're looking for the equivalent of a 75-watt traditional light.

Color temperature refers to an LED's brightness and warmth and is expressed in "Kelvins" (the lower the rating, the greater a bulb's warmth). Lehrman suggests buying around a 2,700-Kelvin LED if you're looking for something that puts out light similar to what you get from a traditional 60-watt incandescent bulb.

The CRI measures the accuracy of the colors you'll see when you use an LED for illumination. The best score is 100 -- the rating traditional incandescents carry. Most LEDs score in the mid-80s, while the top-of-the-line Philips L Prize bulb -- winner of a $10 million U.S. government prize for the best LED to replace a 60-watt traditional bulb -- garnered a 93.

If you plan to use a bulb outdoors with a dimmer switch or in a fully enclosed space like a ceiling fixture, check the box to make sure an LED you're considering can handle such applications.

Consider Consumer Reports' top picks
"Not all LED bulbs are great, so it's really important to stick to bulbs that are EnergyStar qualified or that have gone through third-party testing like ours," Lehrman says.

Consumer Reports recently checked out 50 LEDs, CFLs and other high-efficiency bulbs for price, quality of output and other factors. Among lights designed to replace traditional 60-watt bulbs, the $26 EcoSmart A19 60W Bright White 400674 Dimmable LED took first place, scoring 99 out of a possible 100.

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