Lights Out

January 1, 2013, ushered in not just a new year, but a different way of specifying screw-in light bulbs. On that date, the popular 75-watt incandescent bulb will be discontinued, a casualty of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA). Last year, 100-watt bulbs went out of production because they could not meet the new EISA efficiency standards, and in 2014, the golden glow of 60 and 40-watt light bulbs will meet the same fate.

InsightsPicBulb.gifThe reason: incandescent bulbs waste energy. Only 10 percent of the energy they use converts to light; the rest escapes as heat. And that excess electricity adds up. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) estimates that the average American home has about 40 light sockets, and that switching to LEDs could reduce the country's lighting electricity load as much as 33 percent by 2027.

But not all LED lighting is created equal. For electrical contractors, the challenge is to choose replacement bulbs that match the incandescent qualities clients have come to expect in terms of brightness, dimming capabilities, and color. Stephen Gerhart, owner of Day One Lighting in West Palm Beach, Florida, says that thanks to upgraded LED chips, the latest models offer a clearer, brighter light per watt than earlier versions. But color quality still varies from manufacturer to manufacturer. For interior lighting, he selects bulbs that score at least 80 (out of a possible 100) on the color rendering index (CRI), which indicates how accurately a light source renders colors compared with natural light.

"You'll find variations from batch to batch like you would fabrics, but the better manufacturers are binning their chips properly to get a consistent color outcome," he says. "Check samples, and stay with proven manufacturers so you know what a factory is producing over time."

Chad Rodvold, owner of E2 Illumination Designs in Dallas, Texas has learned that lesson. "Some of the LED bulbs we installed a few years ago are burning out already. You want a company that has been around a long time and can back up a warranty rather than finding the cheapest source on the Internet."

Binning is another complicated quality-control process whereby manufacturers sort out inferior results, making sure their products' LED chips are identical to produce consistent color temperature and lumen output. "Many LED bulbs on the shelf have inconsistent coloring even across the same degrees Kelvin," notes Kattie Harris, marketing manager for Lighting Science Group, which produces EcoSmart bulbs for The Home Depot.

When in doubt, look for the Energy Star label, which certifies that bulbs have passed litmus tests for brightness, stamina, color quality, and energy performance. They must consume 75 percent less energy than standard incandescents, have brightness at least equal to existing incandescent or fluorescent bulbs, and evenly distribute their light. Other criteria include consistent light output over 25,000 to 50,000 hours of use (the allowable life claim depends on the bulb's lumen maintenance percentage), and a bulb that comes on instantly, does not flicker when dimmed, and doesn't draw power when it's turned off.

The new EISA standards amount to a paradigm shift: get used to buying bulbs by their light output (lumens) rather then energy usage (watts). A rule of thumb, according to the DOE, is to replace a 75-watt incandescent bulb with an energy-saving bulb that produces about 1,100 lumens. A 60-watt bulb replacement should give you 800 lumens, and a 40-watt bulb about 450 lumens.

An example is the 17-watt LED A21 bulb from Phillips Lighting. With a color temperature of 2,700K and a 1,100 lumen output, it's equivalent to a soft white 75-watt incandescent bulb. "This dimmable bulb is for table and floor lamps and pendant fixtures," trade marketing manager Christina Mele says. "It has a yellow cap, so when the light is off, it looks like an orange bulb, but when illuminated, it produces a soft light that's a little whiter and brighter than an incandescent." It, too, awaits Energy Star certification.

Good quality LEDs in well-designed fixtures can be expected to last from