In race to build a better light bulb, LEDs set to eclipse fluorescents

  • Article by: DIANE CARDWELL , New York Times
  • Updated: January 21, 2013 - 7:57 PM

They're expensive now, but the price is expected to come down over the next several years.

The lighting industry has finally come up with an energy-efficient replacement for the standard incandescent bulb that people actually seem to like: the LED bulb.

Although priced at around 20 times more than the old-fashioned incandescents, bulbs based on LEDs, or light-emitting diodes, last much longer and use far less electricity, a savings that homeowners are beginning to recognize. Prices for the bulbs are falling steadily as retailers like Home Depot and Lowe's sell them aggressively and manufacturers improve the technology.

And because the light in LED bulbs comes from chips, companies have been able to develop software applications that let users control the bulbs, even change the color of the light, with tablets and smartphones. Apple sells a three-pack of such bulbs, made by Philips, with the hardware to operate them for about $200.

"You're seeing all of your growth in the LED category," said Brad Paulsen, a Home Depot merchant. "We absolutely expect LED technology in four or five years to be the most popular lighting technology that's out there."

Among A-type bulbs, the most common, LEDs will outsell incandescents in North America in 2014, according to projections by IMS Research, an electronics research firm that is now part of IHS Inc. And LEDs will become the most popular A-type technology by 2016, with North American shipments reaching almost 370 million, a more than tenfold increase from the roughly 33 million shipped last year, the firm estimates.

Incandescent bulbs, while cheap, are very inefficient, wasting most of their energy as heat as they pump electricity into filaments to make them glow. The government has been pushing consumers to other technologies for several years. The first big alternative to emerge, compact fluorescent bulbs, has left many consumers dissatisfied.

"The LED you buy, even though you pay even $25 or $30, it'll last like nine or 10 years," said Tariq Syed, a machinist at an electrical utility who was eyeing LEDs at the Home Depot in Vauxhall, N.J., on Thursday. "And environmentally, it's safe, too."

For the manufacturers, LEDs pose a new challenge. They offer higher profit margins, but because they can last for decades, people will be buying fewer bulbs -- of any sort.

"The company that can dominate will make a lot of money," said Philip Smallwood, senior lighting market analyst at IMS Research. "So it's a big push to get into it early."

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