Making LED Lights Beautiful

LED/OLED Lighting Technology Expo

A visitor touches a LED bulb during the second LED/OLED Lighting Technology Expo in Tokyo, Japan. Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images AsiaPac hide caption

itoggle caption Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images AsiaPac

Once upon a time, America bragged about the glamor of the incandescent bulb. When John W. Doane installed 250 Edison electric incandescent lights in his mansion in 1882, it was so extravagant the Chicago Tribune came to marvel at a “grandeur and beauty rarely witnessed:"

“They made the house brilliant in the extreme, and brought out the elegant toilets in all their rich colors. From the curb to the door of the vestibule, there was spread an awning lighted up with electric lamps, while opposite the house, on the other side of the street, were two [omit] lights.

Almost 120 years later, those bulbs can’t hold a candle compared to newest LED lights.

Beginning in December, the first 60 watt equivalent LED bulbs should be hitting the shelves at your local Home Depot. (See Correction) The Phillips InfraRED bulb is super efficient, and when it’s out, it will be the strongest LED bulb available to consumers. But what’s really generating buzz is its special phosphor coating to make it glow more like a traditional incandescent.

Philips isn’t the only one rewiring their LED bulbs. This year, many major companies are promising new options for the LED market, most of them intended for release within 2010. Among them is the Cree’s CR6, billed as a 65 watt bulb “to provide warm, beautiful light”. (For those interested, October’s Consumer Report evaluates the Cree bulb and LED bulbs already available.)

The focus of the latest wave of LED bulbs is still efficiency, but looks have entered the equation in a big way. And that’s a very good thing.

Remember, LED lights themselves aren’t new; they have been available to consumers for about four years as bulbs that can be screwed into existing light sockets. But so far, these lights haven’t provoked awe and admiration among consumers.

Early consumers critiqued these lights bulbs as, well, ugly. Unfortunately, that same crisp white glow that illuminates your electronics perfectly as a backlight can look cold and harsh in a home. Worse, the strongest LED bulbs have been stuck at a dim 40 watts.

Nearly everything else about LED lights is worthy of admiration. Today’s LED bulbs can emit as much light as a 40-watt incandescent bulb using less than 9 watts of electricity. Furthermore, environmentalists love that these bulbs contain no mercury, unlike Compact Fluorescents, those curly spiral bulbs championed by Energy Star. But according to a survey done by lighting company Osram Sylvania, only 12 percent of Americans are using the LED lighting for their homes.

And that’s where history starts repeating itself a little. At nearly $60 for a new 65 watt equivalent bulb, new LEDs look pretty extravagant to most people. Although over the course of their lifetime, they will last about 10 times as long as the average florescent bulb, 60 bucks is a lot of money for a type of light that you might not like.

There are multiple hurdles before LED lights reach consumers on a larger scale, to be sure. Still, I can’t help but think when LED bulbs are as beautiful, they will shine. Efficiency may be elegant, but it can’t yet replace our aesthetic tastes.

Correction: Oct. 14, 2010

This piece incorrectly stated that Phillips would be the first in market with 60-watt equivalent LED bulbs. Some companies are already ahead of them. Eco-Smart, for example, already produces a stronger 75 watt bulb available for purchase at Home Depot.

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