In case you didn’t get the memo, incandescent bulbs and their energy-inefficient ways are headed the way of the Betamax. If the Betamax reference happens to be before your time, just pretend I said CD. In the inevitable march of technology, LED’s are rapidly replacing energy-guzzling incandescents. Some of this change is the natural adoption of new technology, while some of it has also been spurred by the federal ban on incandescent bulbs. The US is relatively late in a long line of countries that began phasing out incandescent bulbs, starting with Brazil and Venezuela in 2005. CFL, or compact fluorescent lights, are on their last legs too, with their mercury content, bad light quality, on-off cycle issues and temperature sensitivity. CFL just can’t compete with LED in the long run. So, is now the time to switch over all your bulbs to LED? We recently tested out a bunch of bulbs from several brands and found despite their advantages, there are some real downsides to LED’s in the current market. If you’re considering LED bulbs, you’ll definitely want to hear what we have to say on the topic, as well as read our thoughts on a few popular LED bulbs from Cree, Switch and Philips.
First off, let’s start with general issues that can impact exactly how excited you might be about replacing your incandescent or CFL bulbs with their new LED counterparts. We’ll then wrap things up with reviews of a few of the more popular bulbs on the market right now, all of which we purchased directly with the exception of two Switch sample bulbs.
Bulb Style – Pro or Con
If you live in an ultra-modern abode, you’ll be ecstatic to hear that most LED bulbs look like props from the Jetsons. Shiny chrome cooling fins, stylized vents and designs with multiple points of light on a single bulb abound. While there are a few bulbs now that look almost like a normal incandescent bulb (more on that below), most have a decidedly modern aesthetic. If you live in an old house like we do, a shiny, modern, chromed-out bulb may not be exactly what you’re looking for. We’re definitely looking forward to more “normal” looking LED bulbs entering the marketplace.
Color Temperature – Pro or Con
Shopping for LED bulbs is far more complicated than shopping for incandescents, mainly because of the color temperature options. Color temperature in measured in degrees Kelvin. The spectrum runs “warm” to “cool”, with the warmest bulbs coming in around 2700 K and the coolest at around 5000 K. I personally like the “warm” lighting as I feel it most accurately mimics incandescent. The cooler temp bulbs tend to look a bit too clinical for my taste. Many retailers have a sample lighting area that can help give you a sense of the difference, although the best bet is to try out a couple at home to see what you like best in your own environment. Some people like cooler lights in the kitchen and bath and warmer lights elsewhere. We opted for 2700 k warm lights throughout.
LED Dimming Sucks – Con
The first LED bulbs on the market were not compatible with dimmers, and while many new versions are compatible, make sure you read the label if you plan to use your bulbs with dimmers. Even if you buy a “dimmable” LED bulb, you may find yourself disappointed on multiple levels. First off, online reviews are filled with consumers who bought dimmable LED bulbs, only to find they weren’t compatible with their specific dimmer switch. Some consumers even replaced their dimmers only to find the new dimmers didn’t work great either. Suddenly, replacing that incandescent can seem like a lot more hassle than it’s worth. Even if you have a bulb that likes your dimmer, we found LED dimming to leave a LOT to be desired.
With incandescent bulbs, the color temperature actually decreases the more you dim the bulb. So, what starts off as a bright white incandescent, eventually becomes a blissful, orange-hued, aura, taking you back to some of the most serene tropical sunsets you might have experienced. Unfortunately, when dimming LED’s, you’ll be treated to flickering bulbs, and/or a slightly less bright version of white lighting. Dimmed incandescent bulbs vs. dimmed LED bulbs is like candlelight vs flashlight. If any LED bulb makers are reading this, please develop bulbs that actually warm their color temp as they are dimmed!
Buzzing – Con
LED bulbs contain more electronic components than their Edison-era counterparts. One of the downsides to that componentry is that many bulbs are not silent. The buzzing produced from LED bulbs ranges from imperceptible to downright annoying. The buzzing can also be impacted by whether or not they are on a dimmer switch, and if so, whether or not the bulb is actually dimmed.
Bulb Sizing – Con
While traditional bulbs tended to be pretty uniform in size, that’s no longer the case with LED’s. It’s like the wild west in the marketplace, and if an LED manufacturer decides to make their bulb a little wider, longer, fatter, etc., they just do it. We ran into a couple situations (and have heard of many others), where the new LED bulb simply doesn’t fit properly in the fixture, despite using the same general bulb style it’s replacing. This becomes a much more significant issue if you’re replacing bulbs in can lights, track lights, or other more tightly enclosed fixtures. Testing bulb size for your specific fixtures is key here.
Lifespan – Pro
This is one area LED really shines. All the LED light bulbs we tested were rated with a 22.8 year lifespan based on 3 hours per day / 7 days per week usage. Of course, the warranties weren’t for 22.8 years. Instead warranties ranged from 5-10 years on the particular bulbs we tested, with the Switch Infinia being the exception with a residential use Lifetime warranty. There have definitely been reports of LED circuitry failing before the actual LED actually does. With the high number of sketchy quality LED bulbs on the market, including a few that might electrocute you, lifespans (the bulb and yours apparently) can vary. Assuming you’re buying a reputable brand LED, chances are good the bulb will last you a very long time. The Cree bulb we tested failed after about 1.5 years. . . far short of its promised lifespan (more on that below).
Energy Efficiency – Pro
Probably the most compelling Pro for LEDs is their extreme efficiency. The bulbs we tested used roughly 1/6th the amount of energy vs incandescent equivalents. This equates to hundreds of dollars in energy savings per bulb over the life of the bulb. For some of the less expensive LED bulbs, that means your investment in LED bulbs can pay for itself in energy savings within a year or two. When you consider the implications for widespread adoption of LED, it’s no wonder governments around the world have been phasing out old school incandescents, despite disgruntled protesters of “light bulb socialism” here and abroad.
UV – Pro
Another less commonly reported pro for LED lighting is that it doesn’t emit UV light. This prevents your LED lighting from fading fabrics or furnishings. In most homes, the sun is far more likely to take care of fading your fabrics, but for some this pro for LEDs can be a bonus.
Bulb Price – Con
If you have never shopped for LED bulbs before, get ready for some serious sticker shock. At the time of this article (March, 2014), expect to pay around $12 for a LED 60watt equivalent, on up to $30+ each for specialty bulbs like floods, GU10, etc. Higher wattage equivalents come in at an even higher cost. According to Energy Star, the average US household has more than 40 sockets for light bulbs. In our home, I counted 54, thanks largely to multi-bulb track style lighting in the kitchen and office. Replacing a household full of bulbs, particularly if you have speciality bulbs, can very easily become a $1000+ operation. If you did a full replacement with incandescents, it’s unlikely you would exceed $100 on the same project. As we discussed above, you’ll save money over the long haul, even when you factor in the high cost of LED bulbs. That still doesn’t change the fact that you’ll have to find the money to invest in the bulbs in the first place.
LED Light Bulb Reviews
Switch Infinia 60 and 75 watt Replacement LED Bulbs
Retail Pricing –
$12 for the Infinia 60 watt, $59 for the 75 watt replacement (ouch!)
What We Liked –
Both bulbs were very stylish. The Infinia is great where you don’t want to call attention to the bulb style, it’s sleek and unobtrusive. Non-toxic, liquid cooling system (see Editor’s update below) means you can install these in any orientation, in any fixture, including enclosed fixtures. Nice, bright, warm and evenly distributed light. Lifetime residential use warranty!
What We Didn’t Like –
Poor, flickering dimmer performance with our particular dimmers. Both bulbs are heavyweights, which can be a problem on some moveable fixtures. Insane pricing on the 75 watt replacement.
(Editor’s Update: November, 2017. One of of our Switch bulbs started leaking the liquid silicone that fills the bulb for cooling. After a little Googling, it appears Switch is no longer in business. I was also able to find numerous troubling complaints of leaking bulbs. Although they are still in stock at some retailers, we cannot recommend Switch bulbs.
Philips 60 watt Replacement, GU10, and Par 38 Flood LED Bulbs
Retail pricing – $13, $30 and $30 respectively
What We Liked –
Nice, warm and even light from all three bulbs. Surprisingly good light dispersion from the GU10 which can often have a very narrow beam with other LEDs.
What We Didn’t Like –
Satanic clamshell packaging on the 60 watt replacement was like breaking into Fort Knox. And its bulb shape results in a less even light band than other rounder bulbs. The Philips 60 watt replacement also had the most noticeable buzzing of the group, on both dimmer and conventional switches. The GU10 and Flood high-tech design aesthetic make them ugly additions to most traditional fixtures.
Cree 60 watt Replacement
Retail Pricing – $13
What We Liked –
Uniform, bright light much light the Switch Infinia. Good price point.
What We Didn’t Like –
Mild buzzing, particularly when dimmed. The rubber coating on the bulb might protect the bulb from shattering, but it seems like a dust magnet long-term. We passed on a couple of Cree flood lights due to visible quality control issues on the bulbs at the store. Update: The Cree bulb we tested failed this month after only about 1.5 years of service. Our concerns about the rubberized bulb finish were also confirmed, the bulb held onto dust readily. Given the quality issues we saw at the store, rubberized dust-magnet coating, and early failure of the bulb, the particular Cree bulb we tested isn’t one we would recommend.
The biggest recommendation we can give if you’re planning to replace your incandescent bulbs with LED bulbs is to invest in several different test bulbs and see which ones (if any) work best for you. Color temperature, dimmer compatibility, buzzing, sizing, and bulb style can all impact your satisfaction with particular bulbs, and with LED light bulbs in general. As far as LED bulbs have come, I think they have a long way to go in price and performance before they measure up to the incandescents we’ve been using for decades. If you’re a fan of dimmed incandescent mood lighting, expect to be very disappointed in current LED dimming capabilities. For energy savings though, LED can’t be beat!