We find 11 top picks and take a look at LEDs

Last reviewed: October 2010
Project leader John Banta checking the life span of CFLs
Shining on
Project leader John Banta checks on the life span of compact fluorescent bulbs in our testing lab.
Photograph by Michael Smith

What if the lightbulb you put in your baby's nursery didn't have to be replaced until Junior is off to college? That's the promise of the latest generation of light-emitting diodes (LEDs), coming soon to a store near you. Those bulbs claim to rival the look, dimming ability, and light quality of incandescents; contain no mercury (as compact fluorescent lightbulbs do); and last up to five times longer than CFLs and 50 times longer than incandescents.

LEDs are not without their concerns. For starters, they can cost $60 or more apiece. But even at that price, an LED bulb would save you about $300 in electrical cost over its life compared with an incandescent. Early versions of LEDs had problems with color, brightness, and light dispersal, and cost up to $100. We were able to buy pre-retail samples of one of the newest, the Cree CR6, a replacement for a 65-watt recessed downlight, from the manufacturer. As that LED and others arrive in stores, we'll buy them, test them, and report back.

In the meantime, you don't have to sit in the dark. Our tests found that there's no shortage of inexpensive, money-saving, energy-efficient CFLs. Most delivered on brightness and many provided color that was closer to incandescents' than earlier versions. And all of the tested bulbs had significantly less than 5 milligrams of mercury, the cap that Energy Star sets for those bulbs. Still, CFLs should be recycled.

Here's what else we learned:

CFLs keep burning brightly

The bulbs in our labs have been cycling on and off since early 2009, or 6,000 hours. For comparison, a typical incandescent bulb lasts only around 1,000 hours. Even after all that time, brightness and warm-up times remained virtually the same as after 3,000 hours of testing. Our results were confirmed by an outside lab.

Dimming gets easier, not better

Standard dimmers don't always work well with dimmable CFLs. We tested two models designed to be used with dimmable CFLs: the Leviton Decora 6673 and Apollo Analog 80005, each $20. The Apollo claims to let you dim a dimmable CFL as low as an incandescent bulb. But neither dimmer was any better than a standard dimmer at reaching low light levels. We also confirmed those results with an outside lab.

An area where both products shined was in dimming a light fixture with multiple bulbs or dimming rooms where multiple lights are controlled by one switch. With a regular dimmer, as you dim the CFLs some will flicker or go out sooner than others, forcing you to increase the power until they all go on and then you have to start dimming again. The new dimmers make all of the bulbs dim in unison. But the Decora was a bit more convenient because when it's turned on again, it automatically returns to the level at which it was last set. The dimmers were as easy to install as regular dimmers and performed better when identical bulbs were used in multibulb fixtures.

Energy Star responds to criticism

About 90 percent of CFLs qualify for Energy Star, something even the Department of Energy's internal audit cited as a problem because consumers cannot easily distinguish between the relative efficiencies of various CFLs. The Environmental Protection Agency, which oversees CFLs, plans to develop new Energy Star specifications that will go into effect in spring 2012.