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May 8, 2009

LED Bulb Makers Following CFL’s (Horrible) Lead?

Category: Companies,Household – Tom Harrison – 5:51 pm

product_pharoxIt’s pretty clear that LED is indeed the lighting of the future — CFL is an important, yet transitional technology. But LED is not ready for prime time — still too expensive, and still not bright enough, and still not suitable for many applications … yet.

But LED makers are doing everything they can to get people to buy, according to an article in the Green Inc. blog of the New York Times. Consider this point, made about a newly announced LED bulb:

…for starters, the advertised light output of the Pharox is about 300 “lumens” — the metric used for measuring the light coming off a bulb. That places it somewhere between a 25-watt and 40-watt incandescent. A 60-watt incandescent emits up to 900 lumens.

The company explained that the light output is comparable to a 60-watt bulb, depending on where one uses the bulb and for what purpose. “There are 60-watt soft tone/flame bulbs that generate less light than a Pharox 6-watt,” the company said.

Please, let’s be realistic: when we’re talking about comparing light bulbs that look like “regular” bulbs, as the Pharox does, I think it’s appropriate to compare their output to the same bulbs.

I have written several times about how CFL manufacturers and retailers seem to be their own worst enemies. The first mass-produced, inexpensive bulbs were 60W equivalent, which is pretty dim, leading people to think CFLs weren’t as bright. Cheap bulbs failed to live up to their claims of longevity, or worse, broke. Bulbs were sold as “60W Equivalent” were different in important ways — some took several minutes to achieve full brightness, and many were sold as “daylight” bulbs, which sounds great, but has a blue cast — not the warm light we’re used to in our houses. Dimmable CFLs, and other specialty applications failed (in some cases miserably) to live up to their promises.

Eventually, quality increased, and marketing improved. But it seems to be too late. CFLs were tainted already. Recently (mostly unfounded) concerns about mercury scared off people. And they are still a bit more expensive. This is a terrible travesty — in reality there are many good applications for CFLs, and they save a pretty substantial amount of electricity.

For the last few years LED bulbs for household applications have been appearing. They are even more efficient than CFLs, far more durable, more flexible in several ways compared to CFL, instant start, the chance for smooth dimming, no buzzing, and fewer issues with producing pleasing light.

But the “60 Watt” bulb above is expected to retail for $50 later this year. Sorry, but 60 Watt bulbs were one of the things that got CFLs in trouble, and paying a premium of twenty times over a comparable CFL is kind of silly. And worst of all, they are talking trash about CFLs.

I recognize that companies are trying hard to engineer a good product that can be a suitable, marketable alternative to CFL and incandescent bulbs, which means prices have to fall, and brightness has to increase. But if they follow the same course as the CFL makers, they’ll just end up needlessly disappointing us … again.


  1. I agree that equivalency is a dangerous game to play and will lead to disappointment or, at the very least, trash talk. The Scottish miser in me can’t wait for LED lights because of the low power consumption and longevity. But not only that, I have some hard-to-reach bulbs that don’t necessarily get used every day, so LED bulbs could conceivably last decades there.

    Someone like me will buy LED bulbs no matter what, just as soon as I can buy them at a reasonable price at the same stores where I buy toothpaste or bathtub caulk. I know the minimal power consumption, and I’ve never seen a burned-out LED in a computer, even though I work on some very old computers at times, so I’m sold on their longevity. But I’m not everyone.

    Comment by Dave Farquhar — May 9, 2009 @ 2:53 pm

  2. Dave –

    I totally agree that LED technology for lighting will be a real solution — it’s better in almost every way than CFL. Today, it’s getting close, but it’s not there yet (despite what at least some marketers would have us believe).

    Soon …

    Comment by Tom Harrison — May 10, 2009 @ 4:28 pm

  3. This may be true for the LED lights in question, but it’s not true of all LED lights. Check these out:

    In case you don’t feel like reading that, the light it discusses is 1000 lumens. It’s also worthwhile to point out that it consumes much less power per lumen than an incandenscent bulb and slightly less than even a CFL. Added benefits include: 1) 50,000 hour life span, compared to 8000 hours for a CFL and 700 for an incandescent. 2) almost no heat produced 3) safer, easier disposal than a CFL.

    I’m excited for the day they won’t be incredibly expensive.

    Comment by Tad — June 19, 2009 @ 1:28 am

  4. Tad — this light looks very promising — the brightness is key, of course, but I would still argue that it has missed one important quality that people value in incandescent lights: a warm color.

    Early versions of CFLs were all very “cold” (5000K to 6000K), and gave objects a bluish color cast. It seems apparent in the photos provided on the site you linked that there’s a bit of a green color cast (and as I dug around the site, it did indicate that the “warm white” version had a color temperature of 3000K — this is good, but most incandescent bulbs are 2700K — the difference is notable.

    It’s also the case that LEDs are pretty directional — one of the user comments indicated as much. This is not always a bad thing, but it’s something worth knowing.

    Finally, the bulb appears to implemented using a mechanical fan –

    revolutionary active cooling system that employs a silent internal fan to cool the heatsink

    I question the durability of such a solution.

    There’s no indication of whether the bulb is dimmable.

    So to be fair, this looks like a good product that has made another step in the evolution of LED to become what is clearly the light of the future.

    But the point of my article was that it seems like LED makers are sending products to market that will disappoint users — this one seems good, but it’s not quite as bright, not quite as warm, has an unproven mechanical component (which might work fine, don’t know), and which has a non-diffuse light. All of these are different than the incandescent bulbs people are used to, and few are mentioned in the marketing.

    I am also excited for when LEDs will not be incredibly expensive, but I am more excited for the day when they can reasonably be used to replace existing bulbs, even if they do cost more.

    Comment by Tom Harrison — June 19, 2009 @ 1:59 pm

  5. I love just about any kind of LED Lighting. It even looks better than traditional lighting. LED Bulbs and other led replacements are truly our future.

    Comment by Denny — July 2, 2009 @ 9:27 pm

  6. [...] LED bulbs get today — you can buy brighter, but they are usually specialty bulbs. I do think LED makers seem to be avoiding some of the traps the CFL makers fell into.But the brightness thing is an issue. It probably won’t be resolved for another year or [...]

    Pingback by LED Light Bulbs to Replace CFL or Standard? Not There Yet. | Five Percent: Conserve Energy — December 13, 2010 @ 11:42 pm

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