Changing the Way We Shop for Light

While the government has recently given a nine-month reprieve on the 100W incandescent bulb ban, it's an opportune time to look at how the way we shop for and buy lighting fixtures is changing.

Given the nature of my business, I have a natural gravitation to the lighting aisle every time I'm at one of the big box retailers. It's always interesting to see the latest and greatest products make their way to the shelves.

The transformation of the light bulb aisle over the past year or so has been amazing. When LED products first arrived on shelves, it was very confusing for the average consumer to compare, with the exception of price. Fast-forward to today, and it is fairly easy to compare competing 60W incandescent, CFL, and LED options. Each label contains details such as light output (measured in lumens), energy used (measured in watts), and lifetime (measured in hours).

Ever since Edison invented the light bulb, most of us have viewed light in terms of watts. Every time a bulb burns out, we unscrew the bulb, look for the wattage, and hope we have the right replacement around without a trip to the local store. The LED lighting revolution is facilitating a new way to learn about and, ultimately, buy lighting products. Wattage refers to the amount of power used by the bulb and not the amount of light given off. Light output is measured in lumens.

On one recent visit to a big box retailer, I noticed there was a very prominent signage that helps educate shoppers. The display read, “Lumens — A new way to shop for light” and “Choose brightness you want” and was very helpful in providing comparison details.

One benefit in the improvement in consistent labeling is that it provides the necessary information to take the next step, which is to do the math and calculate total cost of ownership using each of the three technologies. Let's state the obvious — it's hard to make a $20 LED bulb decision when there are $1-$2 incandescent and CFL alternatives, and that's where many of us stop. However, considering that CFL and LED options utilize 80 percent less energy than incandescent and the significant differences in life span (incandescent/1,000hrs, CFL/10,000hrs, LED/25,000hrs), the prudent decision becomes more complex when we're willing to follow through with the analysis.

What you'll find is that, after approximately 4,000 hours (or four replacements of your 60W incandescent bulb), the LED solution achieves total cost of ownership advantage over incandescent. While CFL still maintains a total cost of ownership advantage over LED, there are other distinct differences between these two technologies that factor into the equation. Besides being the least aesthetically attractive option, CFLs also contain toxic chemicals (mercury) that are harmful to the environment. LEDs do not contain harmful chemicals, are less sensitive to temperature and more durable, have better dimming capability, and have instant on/off performance.

So with LED bulb manufacturers reducing costs and many utilities offering rebate programs, the gap between CFL and LED cost of ownership will continue to close. The million-dollar question is, given the additional intrinsic benefits of LEDs, how much does the gap has to close before the purchasing crossover happens in earnest? Have some fun and play with the data in your own environment, especially in locations where lights tend to be on for longer periods of time — at the very least, it could make for an interesting science fair project with the kids.

13 comments on “Changing the Way We Shop for Light

  1. prabhakar_deosthali
    January 31, 2012

    A $20 LED bulb lasting 25000 hours and a $1 normal filament bulb with 1000 hour life almost compare in total cost of ownership. The pull towards LED bulb usage could be created by govt. subsidies on upfront purchase of LED bulbs – the costs could be recovered by slight increase in power tariff, thus reducing the payback period.

  2. Daniel
    February 1, 2012

    Prabhakar, you are right in terms of initial cost. That covers only the cost of the bulb, but not the working cost and energy utilization. When compare the energy consumption and working cost of LED with filament bulb for 25000 hours, your energy & cost savings for LED and CFL bulbs are high.

  3. prabhakar_deosthali
    February 1, 2012



    I assume we are comparing  LED, CFL and filament bulbs of the same wattage and hence the enrgy consumtion is assumed to be same.

    If a low wattage LED or CFL gives more lumens compared to filament bulbs then of course there will be savings on the energy bill.But these pay backs are long term

    The initial cost of LED bulb is any way a deterrent for the consumers

  4. Barbara Jorgensen
    February 1, 2012

    Gary–thanks for a practical guide for the consumer. I'll admit I was a bit confused when I first started shopping for LEDs. And I thought I had a pretty good understanding of things from talking to folks such as yourself over the years about LEDs. I'll have to forward this to other folks that are trying to comply with the new guidelines before the government insists on it!

  5. stochastic excursion
    February 2, 2012

    Lightbulbs in the application of illumination are starting to look like vacuum tubes in audio applications.  Some audio engineers just can't let go of tubes, whether it's because of their unique operating characteristics or they're just used to working with a certain type of component.  Incandescents have their own adherents, and it's likely they'll have a niche role in illumination applications for some time to come.

  6. Kevin Jackson
    February 2, 2012

    Excellent comparison. Tube amplifiers are terribly inefficient but they were replaced by new technology without government interference. Wish I could say the same for incandescent lamps.

  7. Kevin Jackson
    February 2, 2012

    What a great idea.

    While we're at it, let's have government ban all fossil fuel powered cars and fully subsidize replacement electric cars to be paid for with increases in our electric bills.

    Why not ban, then demolish, all homes and replace them with net zero homes? The costs could be covered by new income and property taxes.

    Why not give everybody anything they have ever dreamed of and pay for it by taking all money away from everybody.

    Personally, I prefer freedom of choice.


  8. prabhakar_deosthali
    February 3, 2012


    The undertone of sarcasm  ignored, your radical suggestions make sense though may be ridiculus.

    Here we are not saying that the govt should force everybody to changeover to environment friendly things – but it needs to lure the people towards these new things that are potentially beneficial to the environment by some attractive schemes.



  9. Ariella
    February 3, 2012

    @Kevin I agree with your libertarian ideals. I think the US here is following in the path of European countries that are far more restrictive with respect to the environment. For example, Germany has disallowed sprays on plants for more than a decade. Major display gardens, like the New York Botanical Garden, are under pressure to be more “green” and have replaced all the roses with varieties that are supposed to be able to survive without chemical applications. I can envision the voluntary movements becoming mandatory down the road. 

  10. Kevin Jackson
    February 5, 2012


    I don't think things can “make sense” and be “ridiculus”.

    I think those concerned with saving the planet will buy the bulbs you want them to.

    I think those not so concerned with the enviornment may buy the bulbs you want them to if they were labled with the lifetime operating costs, similar to how most all major appliances sold in the US are.

  11. Clairvoyant
    February 5, 2012


    Mentioning about tube amplifiers, the reason most of them were replaced was transistors took up less space than tubes, were more reliable, and transistors didn't need to be replaced every so often like tubes did. I wouldn't say tubes were replaced because of efficiency. In some caes, transistors aren't that more efficient. Tubes are still used in higher quality amplifiers.

  12. Kevin Jackson
    February 5, 2012

    So you're saying the transistor units are more space efficent and more efficent when replacement parts costs are considered?

    You are correct of course, but my point was that government intervention was not needed to replace the older technology (for the most part). 

  13. Pitchfork
    February 7, 2012

    Go tell that to a Rock Guitarist!! Few of them are prepared to abandon Valve (as we say in Britain) amplifiers, besides it keeps me in business servicing & reparing them

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.