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LEDs star at LightFair but will consumers buy them?

Consumer Reports News: May 20, 2011 01:49 PM

Light emitting diode technology flooded the LightFair trade show in Philadelphia this week, but consumers may have a difficult time figuring out what the new LED products mean for their household budgets and which ones they should buy. The high-cost of LEDs may be a barrier to their speedy adoption so manufacturers are touting their long-term energy savings instead.

LEDs and compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs) are in the news as lightbulb manufacturers gear up to fill the gap that will be left in the marketplace when the phase out of incandescent light bulbs begins next year, starting with 100-watt bulbs. As mandated by the Energy Independence Act, the phase-out of lower wattage incandescents will follow.

Because LEDs are more efficient than CFLs, don’t take time to warm up and contain no mercury, they may have the edge once they become less expensive. To overcome the sticker shock, companies are encouraging consumers to think about what they’ll save over time rather than the upfront cost. The Environmental Protection Agency says the best LED lights use at least 75 percent less energy and last at least 25,000 hours, or 15 times longer than an incandescent.

However, not all LED products are built the same as we saw at LightFair. One company displayed its 100-watt equivalent Edison-style bulb (also known as an A-lamp), typically used in table and floor lamps, for $20 to $30. That drew a lot of buzz because LEDs that emit that amount of light usually cost more. The light looked blue or “cool” and didn’t come close to mimicking the color quality of an incandescent. Philips, GE, Sylvania, Acuity and others had 60-watt replacement A-lamps that were comparable to a “warm white” incandescent.

Most of the 60-watt replacement lights from these manufacturers hovered around $40, but some stores offer instant rebates. The Philips light is already in retail stores and GE, Acuity and Sylvania are coming out with 60-watt equivalents later this year. Some companies also had 75-watt and 100-watt equivalent prototypes that they said could enter the market as soon as next year.

Consumers looking to buy LEDs may be in the dark during the transition. As yet, there are no real standards required to enforce the veracity and consistency of manufacturer claims. Some LED products carry a seal from Underwriters Laboratories that ensure their safety but UL representatives at LightFair said they are also concerned about longevity and efficiency claims.

The Federal Trade Commission has a “lighting facts” label for medium screw base lamps, which includes the A-lamp, as well as parabolic reflector lights. The label will be mandatory as of January 1 and offer information on lumen output (brightness), estimated energy cost, energy used, lifetime and color temperature (warm or cool). However, these claims are not independently verified.

The Department of Energy has a voluntary lighting facts label used on some LED products that gives similar information and verifies the claims. There is also the EPA’s Energy Star label, which is starting to appear on some LED lights. To qualify for Energy Star, an LED product must have at least a three-year warranty, last a minimum of 25,000 hours (17 years if used four hours a day), consume at least 75 percent less energy than incandescent lighting and maintain performance over time. Looking at these labels is a good place to begin to become an educated consumer of LEDs.

—Sari Krieger


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