GreenSpace: This bulb might turn you on

Cree LED bulb; 40-watt is $9.97.
Cree LED bulb; 40-watt is $9.97.

New LED has the look and light of the old favorite, and there's bright news on the price front.

Posted: April 02, 2013

There's good news in the lighting aisle.

LED bulbs, which have been a tough sell because they were too expensive, too blue, and just too weird, are beginning to look, and act, more like that old favorite, the incandescent bulb.

Perhaps even better, the price is coming down.

Last month, bulb manufacturer Cree Inc. unveiled a 40-watt equivalent LED that costs $9.97. (Incandescents cost $4 to $8 for a six-pack; equivalent compact fluorescent lights, about $5 apiece.)

Cree's 60-watt equivalent LED is still $13.97. For now.

Other manufacturers - Philips, 3M, Osram Sylvania - are all headed in the same direction, with LED bulbs that have better-quality light and are dimmable and less expensive.

The $10 threshold is thought to be an antidote to consumer hesitation, the point at which buyers are willing to give something a try.

Beyond price, manufacturers may be tiring of trying to arm-wrestle consumers into bulbs they don't want. Cree decided to give them what they do.

What Cree learned, said corporate marketing vice president Mike Watson, is that "people actually loved the shape and the light" of the old bulbs.

Partly, because it was familiar. Plus, that shape is something an entire industry of lamp shade makers and others have based their products on.

So Cree went for the same shape. And figured out how to produce the same quality of light - a warm, omnidirectional glow. It even comes out of the center of the bulb, like the old incandescents.

Like other light-emitting diodes, this LED is 85 percent more efficient than an incandescent and will last 20-odd years (the warranty goes for 10). At this price, consumers can recover the cost of their investment in a year.

"The biggest thing since a lightbulb is a lightbulb" is Cree's marketing slogan.

A de facto phaseout of the incandescent bulb is under way, although nearly half of Americans don't realize it, according to an annual Socket Survey by Osram Sylvania.

As of Jan. 1, 2012, bulbs that were 100 watts had to pass hard-to-meet efficiency standards approved during the George W. Bush administration, or bite the dust. This year, 75-watters are in the same situation. And so on.

Americans may gripe, but they also go along. About 68 percent reported in the survey that they had switched lighting not because the bulb had burned out, but for increased energy efficiency.

Still, finding a better bulb has been tough. Buyers haven't gone for the swirly CFLs. They don't like the mercury, which requires special disposal. They don't like the sickly quality of the light. "A failed experiment," Cree's Watson said.

Then LEDs came along. They cost more money and weren't as bright. The light was bluer. They had fins and other odd shapes.

Watson has colorful pejoratives for those, too: Frankenbulbs. Robot bulbs.

And lots of luck trying to find one manufactured in the United States

Cree makes the chips at its plant in Durham, N.C., and then ships them to Asia, where the innards that produce the filament-like light quality are added. Then it's back to Durham for the rest of the assembly and packaging.

All this means U.S. lighting is headed in the right direction, said Kateri Callahan, president of the Alliance to Save Energy, a national advocacy group.

"We have been saying since the passage of the lightbulb standards in 2007 that consumers would get higher-quality products at lower prices and have a lot of choice in the market. This is evidence that that's come true," Callahan said.

"What we keep finding is that manufacturers innovate," she added. "They step up. They not only meet the standards, but they also provide a superior product."

The new Cree bulb, which is available exclusively at Home Depot, got the nod from the technology experts at the Electric Power Research Institute.

"It seems to do everything they said," said energy efficiency program manager Brian Fortenbery. "These are pretty compelling."

Meanwhile, the company sent a few bulbs to the Alliance to Save Energy, and marketing vice president Kara O'Connell took one home.

Days earlier, her husband had brought home a pack of CFLs. She wanted him to exchange them for LEDs. Discussion ensued. He was "unenthusiastic."

But with the Cree bulb, "I was able to prove my point, which is always nice," she said.

The LED stayed in the socket. The CFLs went back to the store.


"GreenSpace" appears every other week, alternating with Art Carey's "Well Being" column. Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147, sbauers@phillynews.com, or @sbauers on Twitter. Visit her blog at www.philly.com/greenspace.

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