The Next Great Light Bulb Is Here. (You Can Stop Hoarding Incandescents.)

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Aug. 3 2014 11:48 PM

The Next Great Light Bulb

CFLs? LEDs? How to replace the incandescent.

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Light bulbs: the new generation.

Photo illustration and photos by Juliana Jiménez Jaramillo

As of Jan. 1 of this year, the 60-watt incandescent light bulb—that classic of the genre; the Edisonian ideal; the signifier that illuminates in your mind’s eye when you’re asked to picture “a light bulb”—was banned forever. Perhaps you prepped by hoarding a box of bulbs in the back of your closet. Or perhaps this news took you by surprise, and you now live in fear of the moment the beloved incandescent in your bedside lamp flickers out.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

Either way, there will come a time when you’ll need to buy an alternative bulb. Don’t be scared. I’m here to help.

First of all, I must stipulate: You adore your incandescent bulbs. I get it. In 2008, Slate contributor Ron Rosenbaum penned a heartfelt ode to the “painterly glow” of incandescence. He argued that to ban incandescent bulbs was to “ban beauty.” He praised their “warm radiance” and “soft flare” and, in a bravura passage, worked in a reference to Nabokov and “the spirits of the dead inhabiting the tungsten filaments.” I love the passion! And the literary élan! (I’m sure there’s a decent Light in August pun to be made here but I can’t quite birth it.)

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No doubt, Rosenbaum’s screed spoke for millions of incandescence-loving Americans. And you folks have a point: The aesthetics of incandescence are amazing. The unfortunate downside is that incandescent bulbs are awful energy hogs. Along with their lovely light they also emit a ton of useless heat, which wastes electricity.

New bulb technologies are waaaay more efficient. Like 80 percent more. That’s a big difference. Given that (according to lighting industry experts I spoke to) there are something like 4 billion screw-in light sockets in this country—the bulk of which remain occupied by leftover incandescent bulbs—the energy savings from a nationwide switch will add up.

At the time Rosenbaum was writing, the primary challenger to the incandescent bulb was the compact fluorescent, or CFL. CFLs are the size of a standard bulb but have spindly, spiraling fluorescent tubes in place of a filament. They blink to life with a depressing flicker and often take a few moments to achieve full brightness. They cast a wan, sickly light. In sum, they are unlovable. The outrage over the incandescence phase-out made sense when CFLs were the only alternative.

Luckily, better options have arrived. Bulbs using light emitting diodes (LEDs) illuminate instantly with no flicker. The quality of their light is, to my eyes, far warmer than you got from those dank CFLs. And LEDs are even more efficient, and last longer to boot. Yes, they’re pricier, but LEDs are vastly superior to CFLs in every other way.

But which LED bulb is best? I experimented with a few brands to see if I could suss out differences. To compare apples to apples, I tested only LED bulbs that aim to replicate the classic 60-watt/800 lumen incandescent bulb.

A little spec-splaining: Watts measure energy use, lumens measure brightness. A typical incandescent needs 60 watts to produce 800 lumens, for a lumens-to-watt ratio of 13.3. By contrast, most CFLs use only 14–15 watts to get to 800 lumens—for a much better lumens-to-watt ratio that’s up in the 50s. Even better are the LED bulbs I sampled: They emit 800 lumens but require just 9 or 10 watts to do it, for a lumens-to-watt ratio that’s way up around 80. Less juice, same brightness.

Prices on LED bulbs can vary widely from state to state, since there are different rebates available for meeting Energy Star efficiency guidelines. Most LED bulbs coming to market these days attempt to nail a basic price point around $10 for a single bulb, give or take a couple of dollars. That sounds expensive (incandescent bulbs were selling for 25 cents apiece before the ban), but LEDs make up the difference through energy cost savings and longevity: 1) You lop a few dollars off your electricity bill each year. 2) Incandescents had a lifespan of 1,000 hours, while LEDs last 25,000 hours. Most LEDs are rated to live around 23 years if you use them three hours per day. When you amortize 10 bucks over 23 years, the steeper price doesn’t seem like a huge deal.

But now we come to the elephant in the lamp socket: the quality of the light.

First, a quick aside on describing light. People enthuse about the “warm” glow of the incandescent bulb, but when we talk about color temperature we get it backward. Think of a flame coming off a log: The part close to the wood where the flame is hottest tends to be blue (which we think of as a “colder” color) while the end of the flame farther away from the log isn’t as hot temperature-wise but it will be orange or red (a “warmer” color). Candlelight has a color temperature of 1,850 kelvins. Standard 60-watt incandescents are 2,700 K. Some LED bulbs come close to matching this number, while others climb as high as 5,000 K or more—casting a bluer, “colder” light.

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