Experts explain how to pick LED bulbs

By: Kevin Bunch | Roseville - Eastpointe Eastsider | Published January 27, 2016


METRO DETROIT — At one time, getting a lightbulb involved little more than seeing what wattage was needed, going to the store and purchasing an incandescent a few times a year. 

Now consumers have multiple kinds of bulbs and life spans to consider, even beyond the wattage comparisons, thanks to the rise of the LED lightbulb. Greg Beltowski, co-owner of Batteries + Bulbs in Roseville, said that the advantages of LED, or light-emitting diode, bulbs are pronounced — they are more energy efficient and last much longer than their incandescent counterparts, and the price has dropped significantly for them over the past few years.

“It creates light using little silicon chips as opposed to a wire filament, and as a result, they are significantly more energy efficient,” Beltowski said. “It generally uses 10-15 percent of the amount of energy to produce the same amount of light as an equivalent incandescent. It’s definitely significant in terms of energy savings.”

The LED bulb essentially is an electronic device without any moving parts, Beltowski said, containing a circuit that activates the tiny chips and causes them to light up. As such, it does not wear out the same way as other types of bulbs. Incandescent bulbs work by running an electrical current along a wire filament, which causes it to rise in temperature and light up.

Additionally, whereas an incandescent bulb typically is rated for about 1,000-2,500 hours per bulb, a high-quality LED bulb can last as long as 25,000 hours — roughly 22 and a half years under normal usage, he said.

David Forgacs, master technician at Batteries + Bulbs, said this functionally means that a lamp that used an incandescent bulb at 60 watts of energy could effectively get the same amount of light from an LED bulb using about 6 watts of energy.

“Generally speaking, at 11 kilowatt hours, at three hours a day, an LED will take less than a dollar a year to run — about 97 cents,” Forgacs said. “Compared to an incandescent bulb doing the same thing — that would cost $8 a year to run.”

Forgacs said that newer LED bulbs provide a number of different “temperature color” options too. For people used to the soft, yellowish light of incandescent bulbs, that temperature color is now an option for LED bulbs; users also can purchase bulbs simulating bright, bluish daylight.

Beltowski said that when purchasing an LED light, it’s important to check the “lighting facts” section on the box — similar to nutritional facts on food items. There, a person can find information on how long it is expected to last and the annual cost of using it. Not all LED bulbs are created equal.

“A 25,000-hour, five-year warranty bulb generally goes for $5-8. But now there’s a bunch of retailers that have introduced low-cost LED bulbs that are in some cases as low as $2 or lower,” Beltowski said. “The problem is they aren’t necessarily exposing 100 percent that they are 5,000-hour lightbulbs.”

Outside of the price tag, the best way to determine how long the bulb will last is to check the lighting facts, he said. Additionally, LED bulbs do not burn out like incandescent bulbs, but simply dim over time, Beltowski said.

There are also now more expensive LED bulbs with additional circuitry that allows them to work with dimmer switches or three-way lamps. Beltowski said the additional circuits tell the bulb how bright to be. Those bulbs tend to range from $15 to $20.

Beltowski added that LED bulbs are different from older compact fluorescent lightbulbs, which are distinguished primarily due to their curly bulb shape. Those CFL bulbs do not last nearly as long as an LED light and contain mercury, meaning they cannot be thrown into the garbage like an LED or incandescent bulb.

With falling LED prices, Beltowski said sales of CFL bulbs have dropped significantly over the past couple of years.

The old incandescent bulbs are no longer manufactured for consumer-grade usage, but the technology is not entirely down-and-out yet. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced this month that they have developed a proof-of-concept bulb that does not lose as much energy to heat as a standard incandescent bulb; normally, about 95 percent of an incandescent bulb’s energy is lost as heat.

In the prototype, materials surrounding the wire filament of the bulb capture the excess energy and reflect it back at the filament to be reabsorbed and used to make more visible light, an MIT press release said. The prototype bulbs are slightly more efficient than some low-end LEDs, and future revisions of the technology could make a bulb twice as efficient as the high-end ones.

Researcher Ognjen Ilic stressed that the researchers are more interested in light recycling technology than in lightbulbs themselves.

“This work is not meant to compete with LEDs or CFLs,” Ilic said in an email. “The high efficiencies of incandescent lighting are very much a theoretical concept. Our interest is in understanding the physics of light recycling, not making (and certainly not thinking about commercializing) a better lightbulb.”