Early adopters, your LEDs have arrived. Find them on an endcap near the much larger CFL section at Home Depot and Menards. Selection includes bipin reflector lights for track lights, reflectors for recessed lights, flame-tip bulbs for chandeliers and exterior post lanterns and globes for vanities. Prices range up to (brace yourself) $70 per bulb.
Early adopters are used to paying a premium for new technology, but $70 for one bulb? Fortunately, many of the bulbs are in the $9 to $20 range. For Brian Treakle of Farmington, paying $20 for a bulb that might last 10 years or more isn't so much. "The cost is only $2 per year if the bulb lasts 10 years," he said.
The upfront cost, which is expected to fall like prices have on LCD TVs, is offset by lower energy costs. An LED bulb uses as little as 10 percent of the electricity to produce the same amount of light as a 60-watt incandescent bulb. A CFL uses less than 25 percent of the electricity of an incandescent, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
Until recently, consumers could purchase LEDs only as Christmas lights, solar-powered landscape lighting or flashlights, but now we have options. Stores such as Creative Lighting in St. Paul have LED applications for recessed, track and under-cabinet lighting. What you won't find is the garden-variety 60-watt bulb that makes up nearly half of all lightbulbs manufactured, said Rob Jackson, an LED specialist at Creative Lighting. That's still in development as manufacturers try to design a bulb without the drawbacks of CFLs, including flickering, mercury content, color rendition and limited dimmability.
If all of the 60-watt incandescents were replaced with LEDs, it would cut carbon emissions by 5.6 million metric tons annually and save enough power to light 17.4 million American households for a year, according to the Energy Department.
LED bulbs already on the shelves have several advantages -- they're mercury-free, cool to the touch, cold-weather-tolerant and flicker-free and turn on instantly. Color is still a work in progress. Many consumers hate the harsh bluish tint of some CFLs. LED lights can also have that commercial cool blue tint and other less desirable hues of green or pink, depending on the manufacturer. Consumers looking for warm, amber hues similar to incandescents will have to test them.
I tested an incandescent-shaped LED made by Feit from Menards for $12. Although the label says its color spectrum is warm, the light was still too bluish for me. Its wattage was not labeled, but it appeared to be similar to a 40-watt bulb. Most of Menards' bulbs are made by Feit and range from $9 to $25. Home Depot's LEDs are made by Philips and range from $20 to $70. Similar-sized lights can vary in warranty, coloration, brightness and energy effciency.
LEDs have problems that CFLs don't. Standard light bulbs cast light in all directions. LEDs are more directional, which makes them good for task and spot lighting, but not as general light in a table lamp or ceiling fixture. Home Depot sells nearly a dozen LEDs from Philips, but it will be years before consumers replace their 60-watt incandescents or CFLs with LEDs, said Jackson. It will also be years before the common LED bulb will cost $20 to $25 instead of $60 or $70. Still, consumers might be willing to pay more for a bulb if they can be assured it will last 20 years or longer.
For Treakle, the energy saving from LEDs is the primary appeal, but he also likes that they're safer because they burn with less heat and contain no mercury. "It's a perfect combination," he said, "except for the price."