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Spending Smart: What Light Bulb Technology Should You Use?

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By Gregory Karp

Their disadvantage, at least right now, is upfront price, which is many times more than alternatives. At $10 to $20 a bulb, replacing a houseful of 50 bulbs all at once would cost a whopping $500 to $1,000. The good news is that prices on LEDs have dropped dramatically from the $40 to $50 range a few years ago.

We’ll sidestep the political rhetoric about the government telling people what they can and cannot buy as a result of the bulb phase-out, technically the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 signed by President George W. Bush.

Instead, we’ll try to help answer the question, “What should I buy right now?” Here’s what to consider, assuming you’re not hoarding the old incandescent bulbs, the last of which should start disappearing from store shelves early in 2014.

—Efficiency: If you care most about saving energy, and price is no object, buy LEDs. They are more efficient than CFLs and generally superior in quality.

—Quality: If you care most about light quality and performance, and money is no object, buy LEDs or halogen incandescents — and don’t be in a hurry to change out your existing incandescents. But remember that top quality is seldom needed in every socket.

—Frequency: Splurge on LEDs for lights you use often. Besides being more energy efficient than CFLs, they’re better than CFLs at being turned on and off frequently — something that shortens the life of compact fluorescents, says Dave Bisbee, a lighting expert with the Sacramento (Calif.) Municipal Utility District. That guest room closet light that you turn on six times a year for a few seconds? Don’t worry about the energy use of that bulb.

—Sockets: Where the bulb is used matters. “You can put a really good product in the wrong place and have bad results,” Bisbee says.

Consider splurging for LEDs for outdoor lights in cold climates. Similarly, CFLs in closets and dark hallways are not ideal, because many don’t come to full brightness right away.

“What is the environment like where the bulb is going to be used, and how much time is somebody going to use it?” says Pamela Price, a retail marketing manager at Osram Sylvania.

—Accessibility: Hard-to-reach places — those that require a ladder, for example — are ideal for long-lasting bulbs, like CFLs and LEDs, because you replace them less often, cutting hassle.

—Experiment: Learn your preferences by buying a single CFL or LED to see how you like it in various sockets.

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