LED sticker shock is mostly behind us. When Philips introduced 60-watt equivalent LED light bulbs in 2010, they cost about $40 each. Four years later, the price has fallen to $12 or less and consumers can choose from a light spectrum that ranges from soft white, similar to an incandescent, to bright white, similar to fluorescent.
Prices are still painful initially when compared with a buck a bulb for a 60-watt incandescent, but the energy savings and longevity of an LED can save about $125 per bulb over an incandescent, according to Consumer Reports.
That's allowing consumers to focus less on price and more on function. They can confidently select a 60-watt LED equivalent that is dimmable, flicker-free, and pleasing to the eye. But consumers will also find LED versions of three-ways, 100-watters and fluorescent tubes that weren't on the shelves last year. "This summer is a good time for consumers to discover LED. There are a lot of new options," said Mark Voykovic, light bulb merchant for Home Depot.
Cree Inc. of North Carolina, one of the first manufacturers to sell LED bulbs for less than $10, just released an LED version of a three-way bulb (a 30/60/100-watt replacement) for $22 at Home Depot. The soft-white bulb can't be used in dimmers but is expected to last 23 years, using only between 3 and 18 watts.
"Cree is a reputable, relatively inexpensive brand that gets good reviews," said Rob Jackson, an LED specialist at Creative Lighting in St. Paul. "It's hard to go wrong with them."
Last month Cree also released a Par 38 90-watt outdoor flood ($25) that's a good replacement for any hard-to-access light. "It lasts a lot longer than the halogen, and it doesn't attract bugs," said Voykovic.
Philips just released an LED Slimstyle 60-watt bulb for $10 that weighs half as much as most LED bulbs. Its flat shape makes it ideal for table and floor lamps as well as pendants and sconces, according to the manufacturer.
Cree and Philips have also released LED tubes that replace fluorescents. Philips InstantFit T8 tubes are compatible with rapid-start and programmed-start ballasts but not older magnetic ballasts. "Fluorescent tubes are very energy-efficient, but the LED versions use only half the energy," said Mike Connors, CEO of Bulbs.com.
One problem that LED technology has faced is creating bulbs with enough lumens or brightness. But newer LED versions of 100-watt bulbs have been released that sell for less than $25 and make excellent reading lights. "The color temperatures and brightness of the bulbs has really come a long way in the past two years. Very good products have gotten even better in the last 12 months," Connors said.
But consumers still need to read labels and stick to reliable known brands, said Jackson. "There are noticeable differences in brightness and coloration among manufacturers," he said. Consumers have to read labels for the warm or cold light (2700k is warm yellow; 3,500k or higher is brighter and bluer) and brightness (a higher number of lumens means more light). If a consumer wants a dimmable bulb and the label doesn't say it's dimmable, don't buy it, Jackson advises.
Quality is improving but consumers are noticing differences in brightness and coloration. Consumer Reports gave top ratings to LED bulbs from Cree, Philips, Sylvania, EcoSmart, Feit and Utilitech.