Shopping for lightbulbs these days can be a daunting task. For better or for worse, things are going to get a lot simpler in the not-too-distant future.
Right now, when you visit the lighting aisle, you have to figure out not only the size, shape and light output of the bulb you want but also what technology it uses – LED, CFL or halogen. But thanks to a combination of new regulations and older laws that are finally scheduled to take effect in a few short years, you’ll only have one technology choice for most bulbs.
“The net effect is everything is going to be an LED,” said Noah Horowitz, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group.
The move to LED bulbs will save consumers money and reduce carbon emissions. But the transition could be bumpy, and consumers may run into some unexpected headaches and extra costs along the way.
“Gradually we’ll sort all this stuff out,” said Jim Dakin, an independent lighting consultant based in Cleveland. But, he added, “it ain’t going to be smooth.”
The transition in the lighting market was prompted by a 2007 federal law signed by President George Bush that set efficiency standards for lightbulbs. As you may remember, the first parts of that law were put in place several years ago, and the new standards basically barred sales of most traditional incandescent bulbs.
Those standards were loose enough that halogen bulbs, which use the same basic technology as traditional incandescents, passed muster. Those bulbs quickly took the place of incandescents for many consumers and dominated the market. Part of the reason for that was that the initial LED bulbs were extraordinarily expensive, offered about the same efficiency as CFLs and tended to produce poor quality or off-colored light.
The LED bulb makers have addressed all of those initial problems – and just in time, too. New, even higher standards that are set to take effect in 2018 here in California and in 2020 nationally will likely bar sales of most halogen bulbs. And all-new efficiency standards the U.S. Department of Energy proposed last month for CFL and LED bulbs would set the bar so high it’s unlikely that many CFLs will be able to meet it, Horowitz said.
The coming standards apply largely to so-called A bulbs, the traditionally pear-shaped lightbulbs that you screw into a lamp or an overhead light fixture. But additional new regulations that the California Energy Commission finalized earlier this year will have similar effects on downlights, the kinds of bulbs that go into recessed or track lighting. Those rules, which will start to take effect in 2018 and will apply to bulbs such as the MR16 and others that have diameters smaller than 2 1/4 inches, will set such a high bar that you’ll likely only see LED bulbs in those styles on the market after that.
There are good reasons to applaud the move to phase out halogen and even CFL bulbs. Over the long term LED bulbs will save you money because they can last 10 to 25 times longer than halogens and up to 2 1/2 times longer than CFLs, meaning you’ll have to replace them far less often. And the typical LED bulb uses a fifth as much energy as a halogen and less than 60 percent of a CFL bulb. That not only means lower energy bills but also translates into fewer greenhouse gases and less pressure to build new power plants. And that’s not to mention that LEDs, unlike CFLs, don’t have mercury in them.
But the transition could prove rocky. Right now halogens and incandescents account for more than half and CFLs make up nearly a quarter of the U.S. market for A-style bulbs, according to the National Electrical Manufacturers Association. While LEDs’ share of the market has grown rapidly, it may be a lot to expect from both consumers and manufacturers for it to go from around 17 percent now to nearly 100 percent in less than four years.
Even if those targets are met, there could be some potential frustrations ahead for consumers amid the transition. The price of LED bulbs has gone down, but it’s still higher than CFL or halogen bulbs. If you’re used to just picking up a pack of regular 60-watt equivalent bulbs, the sheer number of choices you face in the LED aisle among bulb design, light color, dimmability and the like can be intimidating.
And dimming could be a particular problem for many consumers. While many LED bulbs are dimmable, some aren’t, and you generally have to pay extra for the ones that are. Many of the dimmable bulbs aren’t compatible with the dimmers that are in consumers’ homes. So, homeowners face the prospect of having to carefully scrutinize the bulbs they’re buying, testing them with their dimming switches and possibly even calling in an electrician to swap out their dimmers for newer ones that are compatible with LED bulbs.
“There’s trouble down the road,” Dakin said.
Some analysts think these issues are overblown. Only about 15 percent of light sockets in American homes are connected to dimmers, Horowitz said. And many folks don’t use their dimmers regularly. Nondimmable LED bulbs will work in the vast majority of light fixtures.
Regardless, you won’t have much choice but to deal with it. The lightbulbs that we’ve known and loved are going away. The new LED bulbs offer many benefits, but you should be prepared for some problems.