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The pros and cons of CFL, LED and halogen light bulbs

Credit: Mario Rabadi

Tests revealed pros and cons for all types of bulbs. Compact fluorescent lights still lead the pack in quick savings.


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Consumer Reports' latest light-bulb tests uncovered not only which bulbs were the best performers but also shone some light on a few of the most common questions consumers have about compact fluorescent lights (CFLs), light-emitting diodes (LEDs), halogens and incandescent bulbs.

CR's tests revealed pros and cons of all types of bulbs and found that while CFLs have improved, the 100-watt-equivalent CFLs might not be quite as bright over their lives as the incandescents they replace.

However, some Energy Star-qualified 60-watt CFL-equivalents are as bright as regular incandescents, use about 75 percent less energy and last seven to 10 times longer.

For the energy-conscious consumer, CFLs still lead the pack in quick savings.

Replacing just one incandescent bulb with a CFL can save about $50 off the utility bill over the bulb's lifetime.

LEDs can save more than twice that, but they have a much higher initial cost.

An Energy Star LED or CFL costs, on average, about $1 a year to power, whereas a halogen bulb costs about $3.50 and a traditional incandescent bulb costs almost $5, according to the Department of Energy.

On the downside, while the prices of LEDs are dropping, the bulbs are expensive and many have a payback period of two years or longer.

Halogen bulbs use about 25 to 30 percent less energy than standard incandescents, but they cost more and many don't last much longer.

Benefits of halogen bulbs include instantly produced light and fully dimmable functionality.

In comparison, LEDs also instantly brighten and aren't affected by frequent on/off cycles and cold temperatures, and many can be dimmed. However, not all lamp-type LEDs emit light evenly, so look at CR's full Ratings and for the Energy Star logo before buying.

CFLs still need time to fully brighten, and most aren't dimmable.

One of the concerns with LEDs is whether they contain toxins.

Semiconductor chips and electronic circuitry in LEDs can include lead, arsenic and gallium, but those substances aren't accessible, even if the bulb breaks. LEDs should be recycled with other electronic waste, while used CFLs, which contain a small amount of mercury, can be taken to Home Depot, Lowe's or Ikea for recycling.

 

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Incorrect use of an energy-saving bulb can affect its performance and shorten its life.

CR recommends that consumers check the package for proper use and consider these tips to match bulbs to a fixture for best performance:

  • Lamps and ceiling fixtures: Make sure the bulb can be used in a fully enclosed fixture if that's what you have. Consider covered CFLs to hide the spiral look if it's not aesthetically pleasing, but those bulbs take longer to fully brighten.
  • Recessed or track lights: The interior color of the recessed can or track head affects how the light is distributed. Shiny metal and white interiors reflect light. Black absorbs some light, so consider a brighter bulb to compensate.
  • Outdoors: The colder the temperature, the longer it will take for CFLs to brighten up. LEDs aren't affected by the cold, so these might be a better option. Bulbs in the 2,700-to-3,000-kelvin range flatter warm-colored exteriors, while bulbs with 3,500 or more kelvins enhance grays and cool colors and can appear brighter.

Consumers Union Inc.

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