If consumers are willing to spend $5 for a cup of coffee, how about $25 for a light bulb?
Ned Kantar of Minneapolis recently forked over that much to replace one reflector floodlight with an energy-efficient LED bulb. For the extra $10 to $15, he doesn’t have to get the ladder out nearly as often.
The LED bulb has a 20-year life span, and he’s happy with the instant-on and the warm color. “If they were $8 instead of $25, I’d have replaced all of them,” he said.
Kantar and other consumers will have to wait a couple of years for that, but an LED version of the 60-watt bulb just broke $13.
The price of LEDs is finally following the lead of HDTVs, said Mike Connors, CEO of Bulbs.com in Massachusetts. “They’re getting to a point where more people are willing to splurge,” he said.
Thanks to subsidies from utilities such as Xcel Energy, improved quality and lower manufacturing costs, sales are expected to rise significantly this year, Connors said.
Part of shift is by default. Since last year, incandescent bulbs are being phased out. The 75-watt and 100-watt bulbs are no longer being manufactured, and the 40- and 60-watters will be eliminated next year.
Although retailers can still sell the bulbs if they have supplies, most retailers are now stocking halogens, compact fluorescents and LEDs, with only a few incandescent choices.
Although some might say LEDs are selling for lack of a better option, Connors thinks demand for LED will double this year for a different reason — the availability of cheaper, better bulbs.
Early adopters who were initially disappointed can now find mercury-free bulbs that do what incandescents do well — reach maximum brightness immediately and have the capability to be used with dimmers, motion detectors and enclosed fixtures.
While today’s prices are a big plunge from $70 for a bulb in 2009, it still seems exorbitant for people used to paying 50 cents for an incandescent.
But a 60-watt LED bulb for $13 pays for itself in about two years. Assuming use of three hours a day, an incandescent burns about $7 in electricity per year, an LED $1 per year, said Mike Watson, vice president of marketing at Cree Inc., an LED manufacturer in North Carolina.
And most LEDs will last 10 to 20 years.
Watson sees $10 a bulb as the tipping point where many consumers will try LED as a replacement for 40- or 60-watt incandescents, which make up 80 percent of North America’s residential bulbs.
Alison Klunick of Minneapolis got interested when prices came down recently. In March Home Depot started a promotion with Cree and local utilities in which a 40-watt equivalent LED bulb is $9.97, and 60-watt bulbs are $12.97 and $13.97.
“As long as the new bulb gives off light like a traditional one, I’m fine with it,” Klunick said.
The new bulbs from Cree look and light more like an incandescent than LEDs of old. And unlike nearly every other LED bulb, they can be placed in enclosed fixtures.
After only 10 days, Home Depot’s online supplies were sold out twice, local stores have had to reorder and the retailer asked Cree to increase its production, said Mark Voykovic, Home Depot’s national light bulb merchant.
Watson attributes the initial success of the Cree bulb to positive reviews at Homedepot.com (all of the 23 reviewers recommended the product), its made in USA label and the incandescent-like shape.
But the best selling point? The low price. “We’re confident that if a consumer buys one, they’ll buy more,” he said.
There are some differences from traditional bulbs. People used to choosing by wattage alone now have to look at lumens for brightness and kelvins for color. Consumers have to read labels now, said Kim Sherman, senior product portfolio manager at Xcel Energy.
The lack of consistency in size or shape makes it difficult for consumers to easily pick out the bulb they want. Besides 400 or 800 lumens and 2,700 or 4,000 kelvins, they have to read the label for a bulb’s ability to be dimmed or used in an enclosed fixture.
Voykovic said Minnesotans generally like warm, soft light, which is measured in kelvins and listed on the label. A light with 2,700 to 3,000 kelvins is considered warm. Cool, blue-white light will have a light appearance near 5,000 kelvins.
Consumers who want to replicate the features from an incandescent or halogen with an LED bulb often need some assistance, said Connors. Dimmability is a big issue.
Most high-quality LEDs will dim without any problems, but some bulbs work best with certain brands of dimmers. “The consumer’s best bet is to keep the packaging and the receipt, test it, and return it if it doesn’t meet expectations,” Connors said.
Even an LED’s size and shape can cause problems. Many of the original recessed LED spotlights and floodlights didn’t fit existing openings. Cree changed the shape of its new A19 bulb to the classic incandescent, minus the ventilation fins that many LEDs still have.
“We wanted the new bulb to look like the incandescent that consumers are replacing,” said Watson.
Some are avoiding LEDs because of bad experiences with compact fluorescents. Manufacturers got it right this time, said Connors. LED bulbs are rugged compared to incandescents and CFLs.
They are expected to last 10 to 25 years, but Sherman recommends keeping receipts and packaging until that’s born out. Unlike incandescents or CFLs, LED bulbs do not burn out — they get dimmer. At the end of their life span, LEDs do not have to be recycled.
Connors recommends buying from reputable companies such as Cree, Philips and TCP, which all meet Energy Star qualifications. “It’s still a new enough product that the poor-quality manufacturers haven’t been shaken out yet,” he said. “Consumers need to do some homework.”