With the final phase of the incandescent bulb ban now in effect, consumers are looking at alternatives to these energy-gobbling lights. LED bulbs — an expensive novelty not too long ago —  have come on to the scene in a big way over the last year. If you’re looking to replace you lights, we’ll tell you what you need to know about these incandescent alternatives.

How Do They Stack Up To CFLs?

Unloved by consumers, compact fluorescent bulbs were the first, flawed wave of energy-saving bulbs. They cast a cold-hued light, took some time to come on, and contained mercury, making them a poor alternative to incandescent bulbs. However, the energy savings were undeniable. A CFL that casts as much light as a 60-watt incandescent could draw as little as 13 watts, cutting the cost of keeping the lights on by nearly 80 percent. So how do LED bulbs stack up to CFLs? They light up instantly and can now match the warm tones of an incandescent bulb, making them a great option for those that sat out the first round of energy efficient lights. And with a typical 60-watt replacement drawing a mere 9 to 10 watts of power, they are even more efficient than CFL bulbs.

The biggest thing going against LED bulbs is the cost — with many bulbs priced at $30 to $50 when they first debuted a few years ago. But prices have fallen rapidly, and the bulb marker Cree has introduced the first LED to hit the $10 mark — still a significant cost compared to CFLs, but when you consider that they bulbs can last as long as 20 years, the price doesn’t seem so bad.

New Form Factors

Ditching a tungsten filament for future-age, solid-state technology comes with certain benefits, but these bulbs can also pose a bit of a challenge. LEDs pack a lot of technology into each bulb, and as a result, many of these lights take a slightly different shape than traditional lightbulbs, which can cause problems fitting these lights into certain spaces such as lamps or recessed light fixtures. So before you run off to replace a home’s worth of lights, buy one and make sure it will fit in your different fixtures.

However, ditching the traditional bulb shape can also open up new possibilities. Strip lights, like the Philips Friends of Hue light strip or the more affordable alternative from Ikea, can give off great ambient light, perfect for watching TV or lighting a hallway at night. 

Know What You’re Buying

With incandescents, picking a bulb was pretty straightforward: choose the wattage you need to get the brightness you want. But with LED bulbs, the choice is far more varied and can be a little confusing to the uninitiated. First off, wattage is no longer a reliable indicator of brightness. Energy efficiency can vary greatly between bulbs from different manufacturers, and a bulb that uses 9 watts of power can be just as bright as a bulb that consumes 12 watts. Rather than rely on wattage for brightness, consumers should check a bulb’s lumen output. A 60-watt incandescent bulb, for instance, typically puts out 800 lumens, while a 100-watt bulb puts out 1600 lumens.

Wattage isn’t the only thing consumers can no longer take for granted. Compact fluorescent bulbs irritated many consumers, who complained that these lights cast a harsh and cold light. But with LED bulbs, consumers can now pick their preferred color temperature, which is measured on the Kelvin scale. For those looking to mimic the warm tones of incandescent bulbs, grab an LED in the 2700k-3000k range. Color temperatures higher up on the Kelvin scale, say up around 4100k, will give you a whiter, more neutral light. Fortunately for consumers, LED bulbs now bear a lighting information box on the back of the package, which spells out lumen output, bulb lifespan, color temperature and energy usage.

The Future is Smart Bulbs

While the energy savings of these bulbs are a real plus, the real future of lighting lies in smart bulbs. These wifi-connected lights allow you to control your home lighting from a smartphone or tablet. The technology is still in its infancy, but app markers are already developing cool new uses for these bulbs. For instance, you can set up your lights to come on as you approach your home, and turn off when you leave. Or maybe you want to ditch your alarm clock and program your light to turn on slowly, simulating a sunrise in the morning.

While the cost of smart bulbs is still astronomically high — a starter pack of three Philips Hue bulbs will set you back $200 and TCP’s Connected kit costs $110 — the technology is promising and consumers can expect to see prices fall in the near future.

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