5 Simple Rules for Choosing the Right Money-Saving LED Bulbs

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What You Need to Know About LED Lighting

By Marilyn Lewis

There's nothing but good news these days about LED (light-emitting diode) bulbs. The prices have come down (they still cost more to buy than incandescent bulbs, but they'll save you wads of money in the long run.) You can choose warmer colors of light instead of the harsh, too-white light from older LEDs. And you'll find more bulbs that work with your home's dimmer switches.

The benefits of LED lights are clear. MIT Technology Review sums them up:

For the consumer, the main benefits of LED fixtures are clear: they're energy efficient, can last for more than 20 years and, in many cases, give off good light. The prices have gone down steadily as well as the LED components have dropped in price and lighting companies introduce better designs.

Consumers have suffered from confusion when selecting bulbs, however. It's not surprising. LEDs come in different shapes and colors of light, and it's hard to know at a glance how they compare in brightness to our favorite incandescent bulbs.

To simplify the experience of buying and using LED bulbs, here's what you need to know, boiled down into five rules:

1. Install LEDs where you'll use them most. LED bulbs are still expensive and so, unless you have the budget to replace all the bulbs in your home at once, you'll have to replace bulbs as they burn out. In the long run, your investment will pay you back in energy savings.

But, as Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson has learned, it matters where you use your LED bulbs if you hope your investment will repay you soon. Put an LED in your closet, for example, or another place where the bulb is seldom used, and it may be years and years before the bulb's cost is repaid in energy savings. It's best to use your LEDs where the payoff will be fastest, in the light fixtures that get most use in the high-traffic parts of your home.

2. Shop for lumens, not watts. Watts are a measure of how much energy the bulb draws, not its brightness. Nevertheless, we are accustomed to shopping for incandescent light bulbs by their watts, and we know how much light to expect from a 60-, 100- or 150-watt bulb.

LED bulbs also are rated by watts. But that's no help because there's no easy way to compare LED watts with incandescent watts. "[T]here isn't a uniform way to covert incandescent watts to LED watts," says CNET.

Now, instead of watts, use lumens as the yardstick for brightness. Packaging on LED bulbs rates brightness in lumens (and in watts). To replace a 150-watt incandescent bulb, look for an LED rated at 2600 lumens (25 to 28 LED watts), CNET says. Here's CNET's handy comparison chart:

IncandescentLEDLumens
25 watts3-4 watts250
404-5450
606-8800
759-131,100
10016-201,600
12021-232,000
15025-282,600

3. Get the light color you want. If you were turned off by the harsh white quality of light from older LEDs you'll be glad to know there are more options now. LED bulbs offer a range of colors, from a warmer yellow-white, akin to the color of incandescent bulbs, to a whiter white or blueish white.

Check a bulb's package for its light color, shown by its temperature on the Kelvin Scale (learn more from Khan Academy). Lower Kelvin numbers mean warmer-colored light. The higher the Kelvin number, the bluer the light. EarthEnergy, a retailer, offers this guide to shopping for LED bulbs:
  • Yellow light: 2700-3000 K
  • White: 3500-4100 K
  • Blue: 5000-6500 K
4. Match the bulb shape to your fixture. LED bulbs come in a number of unfamiliar shapes. You'll find spiral bulbs, different types of globes, spotlights, floodlights and some shaped like candle flames. One useful shape is the MR16, a smallish, cone-shaped bulb.

Which bulb will work in your can lights? Which is best for the ceiling-fan light? For a table lamp? This brief, illustrated Energy Star guide and EarthEnergy's bulb guide show which shapes work best in various types of fixtures.

5. Choose the right bulb for dimmers. Another problem with LEDs used to be finding bulbs that were compatible with the dimmer switches in your home. Some buzz, flicker or just fail to respond to a dimmer switch.

Those still can be problems, but CNET tested 6 bulbs and has a recommendation. The Philips 60-watt LED performed best. It's easily found in stores, but don't confuse it with the less-expensive Philips SlimStyle LED, which buzzed badly in a dimmer (although it may be good for other uses). The Philips bulb isn't the only solution. Read bulbs' packaging to find the ones recommended for use with dimmer switches.

Or take another route: Replace your dimmer switches. Popular Mechanics says:

The solution is to buy a dimmer switch rated for both CFL and LED bulbs. Two reputable manufacturers of CFL/LED dimmers are Leviton and Lutron; both provide lists of bulbs they've verified will work with their dimmers.

Count the Savings

Still wondering if LED bulbs are worth the trouble? A look at the cost savings may persuade you. Here's a chart at Energy.gov comparing the cost of operating a 60-watt incandescent bulb and an equivalent 12-watt LED.

The LED:
  • Costs $1 a year to run vs. $4.80 for the incandescent bulb.
  • Cuts your spending on electricity by 75 percent to 80 percent.
  • Burns for about 25,000 hours vs. 1,000 hours for the incandescent bulb.
An online search shows the cost of a 12-watt LEDs is roughly $10 to $30 each vs. about $1 for a plain 60-watt incandescent bulb. Start planning now for what you'll do with all the money you'll save from converting to LEDs.

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