The lighting industry has finally come up with an energy-efficient replacement for the standard incandescent bulb that people actually seem to like: the LED bulb.
Although priced at around 20 times more than the old-fashioned incandescents, bulbs based on LEDs, or light-emitting diodes, last much longer and use far less electricity, a savings that homeowners are beginning to recognize. Prices for the bulbs are falling steadily as retailers like Home Depot and Lowe’s sell them aggressively and manufacturers improve the technology.
And because the light in LED bulbs comes from chips, companies have been able to develop software applications that let users control the bulbs, even change the color of the light, with tablets and smartphones. Apple sells a three-pack of such bulbs, made by Philips, with the hardware to operate them for about $200.
“You’re seeing all of your growth in the LED category,” said Brad Paulsen, a Home Depot merchant. “We absolutely expect LED technology in four or five years to be the most popular lighting technology that’s out there.”
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Last year, LED sales, though small at about 3 percent of the residential market by some estimates, grew faster than those of any other lighting technology, according to retailers and analysts.
Among A-type bulbs, the most common, LEDs will outsell incandescents in North America in 2014, according to projections by IMS Research, an electronics research firm.
And LEDs will become the most popular A-type technology by 2016, with North American shipments reaching almost 370 million, a more than tenfold increase from the roughly 33 million shipped last year, the firm estimates.
Already at Philips, LEDs were responsible for 20 percent of lighting sales last year, according to Ed Crawford, general manager of the lamps division.
Incandescent bulbs, while cheap, are inefficient, wasting most of their energy as heat as they pump electricity into filaments to make them glow.
The government has been pushing consumers to other technologies for several years, in part by phasing out the manufacture or import of the least efficient bulbs.
The first big alternative to emerge, compact fluorescent bulbs, has left many consumers dissatisfied. The light quality is seen as harsher, the bulbs can be slow to warm up and difficult to dim, and they contain toxic materials.
LEDs are more expensive but offer better light quality and more flexibility. And thanks to heavy marketing by retailers, customers are beginning to discover their appeal.
“The LED you buy, even though you pay even $25 or $30, it will last like nine or 10 years,” said Tariq Syed, a machinist at an electrical utility who was eyeing LEDs recently at the Home Depot in Vauxhall, N.J. “And environmentally, it’s safe, too.”
Bulb manufacturers are rushing into the market, sending prices falling. Home Depot sells some 40-watt-equivalent bulbs for about $10.
“The company that can dominate will make a lot of money,” said Philip Smallwood, senior lighting market analyst at IMS Research. “So it’s a big push to get into it early.”
With demand growing for LEDs in other uses — like backlighted phone and computer screens, automotive lights and street lamps — manufacturers have been able to develop their technologies and benefit from economies of scale to help bring the price down, said Thomas Pincince, the chief executive of Digital Lumens, which sells LED systems to businesses.
In the commercial and industrial sector, use of LEDs is more common than in homes, analysts say, because companies are more likely to do the long-term cost-benefit analysis of buying lighting than homeowners, who are still largely driven by the upfront price.
Goldman Sachs estimates that in the residential sector, penetration of LEDs will rise from 3 percent last year to 16 percent in 2015, still lagging the commercial and industrial sector as well as outdoor applications like parking lots and billboards.
But as the cost of an LED approaches $10 — a tipping point that would speed mass adoption, according to Smallwood — retailers have been stepping up their efforts to market the lights, often with proprietary brands like Home Depot’s EcoSmart jostling for shelf space with established names like Philips and General Electric.
“One day I randomly walked into a Home Depot and thought, ‘LED — when did that happen?’ ” said Clayton Morris, 36, a host of “Fox & Friends Weekend,” who was buying the bulbs in Vauxhall as part of his project to slowly replace the incandescents in his Maplewood home. “It’s a hefty investment upfront,” he said, “but it just seemed like a great savings.”