Friday night topic: Light bulbs? Yep, light bulbs

— 5:00 PM on March 7, 2014

If it's possible to geek out over something and I come into contact with that thing, well, stuff happens.

Several years ago, compact fluorescent light bulbs had gotten to the place where they were an intriguing option for replacing traditional incandescent bulbs, and I kinda went overboard on them. I bought a number of different brands and types, tried them in various fixtures around the house, and bugged my wife trying to get her opinion about the quality of the light.

In the end, I learned several things.

First, my wife gets annoyed when I ask her about light quality.

Second, the two best brands of CFLs at the time were Nvision (a Home Depot house brand, now known as EcoSmart) and Energetic (generally sold to commercial markets; I discovered them by assaulting an innocent lamp in particularly well-lit hotel room). Other brands really weren't close or were inconsistent from one product to the next. GE was a particular disappointment because some bulbs were decent, others not.

Third, even the best CFLs aren't suited for every use. They fare best when covered and diffused by lampshades, not exposed in "naked" fixtures. CFLs aren't great values for closets and bathrooms where they cycle a lot and don't have time to warm up. And none of them produce the full-spectrum quality of light that incandescents do. This fact bothers some people (like me) more than others (like my wife), but I find it inescapable.

In the end, I wound up putting several of the best CFLs under lampshades. I mixed some of them with incandescents in our overhead triple-bulb fixtures, to give our bedrooms a mix of quick-starting, full-spectrum light and efficiency. And I put quite a few other CFLs into the drawer and returned to incandescents instead. I've watched the market a little since then, but I don't think CFLs have changed or improved much.

Fast forward to recent months, with the ban on some high-volume incandescents in effect, and I've become enamored with another lighting tech. LEDs have held promise for a while, but the bulbs have generally been expensive and weirdly shaped, with potential heat issues and a limited spectrum output. They've been improving, though.

I realized things had changed one day while walking through The Home Depot when I spotted a Cree 60W equivalent for only 14 bucks. I thought at first it was an incandescent, given its warm white color. The thing is small and shaped like an incandescent, so it should fit into any fixture. It uses only 9.5 Watts, making it even more efficient than a CFL. Unlike most CFLs, these LEDs are compatible with dimmer switches. And they have a lifetime rating of 25K hours, which Cree backs with a 10-year warranty. The glass bulb is even coated with impact-resistant rubber, so it won't shatter when dropped.

Immediately, I bought one and took it home. There, I discovered that these LEDs come up to full brightness instantly, with no warm-up time. I think the quality of the light surpasses any CFL. And Cree has smartly made its 60W-equivalent bulbs unabashedly brighter than any 60W incandescent, eliminating one of my main beefs with "equivalent" CFLs. There's no penalty for swapping in one of these for a traditional Edison-style bulb.

I've since been slowly replacing incandescents with LEDs—mostly from Cree, which looks to be the best brand at present—as the opportunity presents itself. I even went as far as replacing the three bulbs in our most-used fixture over the kitchen table. I'll admit, going "naked" with three LED bulbs like that isn't ideal. The light isn't as warm and full as incandescents. But I'm tired of changing a bulb in that fixture every few months, and we're now using 30W to produce a little more light than the 180W setup did before.

I think perhaps we've finally succeeded in building a better light bulb, one with an acceptable set of compromises attached to it.

What are you doing for lighting—if, you know, you care about such things? Have you tried LEDs lately? Any preference for a certain lighting tech, and if so, why?


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