personal finance

What to look for in long-life light bulbs

Compact fluorescent bulbs save energy, but  many consumers dislike the quality of the light.
Scott Olson/Getty Images/File 2013
Compact fluorescent bulbs save energy, but many consumers dislike the quality of the light.

If you typically purchase light bulbs marked ‘‘long-life’’ on the package, you may have wondered whether the claim about how many hours the bulbs will last is true, and what’s backing it up.

Manufacturers often do their own in-house testing or pay a testing firm to verify that bulbs live up to the packaging and marketing claims. The Department of Energy also randomly purchases bulbs and tests them.

But after receiving thousands of consumer complaints about Los Angeles-based Lights of America’s LED bulbs, the Federal Trade Commission charged the company with violating federal law by overstating the bulbs’ light output and life expectancy and falsely comparing how bright they are, compared to other bulbs.


A federal court agreed and in January ordered Lights of America Inc. to ante up $21 million for refunds to consumers, who had purchased more than 3 million of the bulbs. LEDs, or light-emitting diode bulbs, are an expensive alternative to other types of bulbs, such as halogen incandescents and compact fluorescent bulbs.

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An FTC spokesman said it’s expected a refund program will begin next year.

LEDs present many advantages over incandescent light sources, including lower energy consumption, longer life, smaller size, and faster switching, the FTC says.

At the other end of the spectrum is Durham, N.C.-based Cree Inc., whose LED bulbs debuted a year ago and are gaining consumer acceptance. Cree’s LED bulb looks similar to the familiar incandescent bulb that had been a household fixture for decades. Sold exclusively at Home Depot, Cree LED bulbs are now the chain’s top-selling bulbs. They have a 10-year warranty.

Mike Watson, Cree’s vice president of product strategy, said the company saw an opportunity to make an LED bulb that consumers would accept.


“We wanted to make a bulb that looks like a light bulb and gives the light you expect,’’ Watson said.

In 2012, the Department of Energy began requiring everyday light bulbs to meet new energy standards. Those that don’t are being phased out. Once stocks of common incandescent bulbs are sold out, they’ll be gone forever, leaving consumers with halogen, CFL, and LED lights to choose from.

Before launching into consumer bulbs, Cree learned that the compact fluorescent bulb, or CFL — it’s often referred to as the ‘‘squiggly’’ or ‘‘twisty’’ bulb. because of its shape — was not filling the need for an alternative to incandescents. It saves energy but has other drawbacks.

“It uses mercury to generate light. It actually produces ugly, dull-looking light, which is what has turned off consumers,’’ Watson said of the CFL.

The industry was making LED bulbs in unfamiliar shapes that Watson said were ‘‘Franken bulbs or robot-looking bulbs.’’ They were also expensive.


“Cree was a company that was not intentionally trying to get into the consumer market, but when we saw the rest of the industry was not doing the right thing, we decided to do it ourselves,’’ Watson said.

With an estimated 5 billion light bulbs in use in the United States and 4 billion of them incandescent, the potential for growth is huge.

The Cree LED bulbs designed to replace 40-, 60- and 75-watt incandescent bulbs have a life expectancy of 25,000 hours, Watson said. They don’t burn out at that point but reach 70 percent of their initial output.

“Seventy percent is when the first small percentage of human eyes can tell the difference between two levels of brightness,’’ Watson said.

The 40-watt equivalent bulb is $9.97, the 60-watt equivalent is $12.97, and the 75-watt is $19.97. The bulbs use 84 percent less energy than incandescents and last 25 times longer.

The lighting-facts label gives consumers information they need when purchasing bulbs, such as brightness.

“We have all grown up to believe watts equals the amount of light. It is actually the amount of energy consumed. Consumers have to be reeducated,’’ Watson said.

Light bulb labels do not include information about color quality.

‘‘LED and incandescents emit light in the same way,’’ Watson said. ‘‘The light emitted includes every color in the spectrum. That is what makes the composite white. We think when you look at our bulbs you will see the color is great.’’

Some buying tips from Cree Inc.

 Brightness: It’s measured in lumens — the higher the number, the brighter the light emitted from the bulb will be.

Historically, incandescent bulbs have never had brightness as a spec. People have assumed that a 60-watt is brighter than a 40-watt, but it’s important to note that wattage is a measure of energy consumption alone.

 Estimated yearly energy cost: It’s the cost of lighting your bulb, based on average usage of three hours per day at a rate of 11 cents per kilowatt-hour.

 Life: The product’s lifespan in years, based on average usage of three hours a day.

 Light appearance: This indicates the hue of the color emitted within the light spectrum, ranging from 2,700 to 6,500 Kelvin.

‘‘Warm’’ colors have lower color temperatures (2,700 to 3,500K).

So how do you pick which is right for you?

Warm/soft white LEDs create an inviting, comfortable atmosphere, highlighting golden and red tones to add a peaceful aura to a space.

Cool/daylight LEDs create a bright, clean, and lively mood and bring vibrant streams of light active areas of a home.

 Energy used: The wattage the bulb actually consumes. The lower the wattage, the less energy used and the more money saved.

How to complain

The Federal Trade Commission’s mandate is to prevent fraudulent, deceptive, and unfair practices. To file a complaint, visit the FTC’s online Complaint Assistant or call 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357).