Boycott Buying Bulbs Part 1*

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*Some exclusions apply, like if you want light after sunset.

UPDATE: I’m not giving up!  Stay tuned for Part 2.

If you found yourself befuddled trying to buy a light bulb lately, as I often have, this post is for you.  It is also for the architects I was swapping “light bulb aisle war stories” with yesterday.  And for the Houzz reader who asked what should have been a simple question.  I hate buying light bulbs.  And this is my job.

I spent thirty minutes in the light bulb aisle at my local Lowe’s Home Improvement Warehouse today attempting to buy the “right” 60-watt-equivalent light bulb.

Thirty minutes.

With a calculator and a clipboard.

Just looking for a decent replacement for my beloved 60-watt incandescent light bulb.

Lowe’s helpfully narrowed down their selection recently to one brand- GE.  While other retailers offer multiple options from a handful of companies, this one-manufacturer-approach should simplify the selection process.  I decided to make it easy on myself and eliminate spot lamps, PAR bulbs, vintage-style bulbs, reflector bulbs, and everything that was not attempting to be a plain old ordinary light bulb.   I also looked only at options labeled 60-watt equivalent; no 75w, 100w, or 3-way.

That narrowed the playing field to eight choices.  EIGHT CHOICES FOR A BASIC LIGHT BULB FROM ONE MANUFACTURER IN ONE STORE.   Okay, enough of the all-caps type.  If you can hear me right now, you’ll sense the frustration boiling over and steaming out of my ears.  If I start to add in options from other stores and other manufacturers, I could end up with dozens (and likely hundreds) of choices for this one silly bulb.

I was on a mission, and I brought my clipboard.

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I wrote down the product line, cost-per-bulb, and every lighting fact and energy fact I could find on the packaging.  I could write another post about how the most important information (color rendering quality, lumen depreciation over life, color consistency over life, photometrics, and other esoteric facts) are not even on the packaging.

First, I eliminated three options I could see no solid reason to buy.  If you really love this stuff, read why at the end of the post.

Then I brought four LED bulbs and one Halogen bulb home to test.  It just so happens that I have a handy four-bulb assembly that makes this easy.  This is one of the joys of being a lighting designer, and why I need a bigger garage.

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From the left, I tested four LED bulbs from GE:

  1. GE Classic LED (frosted, soft white)
  2. GE Relax LED (frosted, soft white)
  3. GE Reveal LED (labeled their best)
  4. GE Refresh LED (frosted, daylight)

Ah, who would not want to feel classic, relaxed, revealed, and refreshed?  I should go into marketing.  Names aside, the above photograph shows that Classic and Relax are a little warmer (more yellow), while the Reveal loses some yellow and the Refresh goes blue.

The Refresh bulb is exactly the wrong thing to use in the late afternoon and evening.  Since that is when I use my lighting at home the most, I took that bulb out and put in the GE Halogen bulb, which is essentially an incandescent bulb that is slightly more efficient.

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The Halogen bulb on the far right is Gold Standard of Good Lighting, according to most.  The problem is that burns out thirteen times faster and costs five times as much to operate than the three LED bulbs.   So I just used it as a benchmark.  In this case, all the bulbs were reasonable (the color is exaggerated a bit in the photograph).   But before I made my final answer, I hooked them up to a dimmer.

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This is where most LED bulbs fail miserably.   While the Halogen bulb on the right, our benchmark, dims very smoothly to very low levels and shifts warmer in color temperature, all of the LED bulbs just get “grey.”   The only bulb of the three that dimmed to respectably low levels was ironically the least expensive, the GE Classic LED (frosted). And every single LED bulb buzzed and hummed when dimmed.  All of them.

That’s right- Lowe’s did not offer a single LED option that could be mistaken for incandescent.  Not one.  So what’s a guy to do?

  1. For spaces and lamps that I do not dim frequently, I might buy the GE Classic LED (frosted) bulbs.  They are very affordable, have a decent white light, are low wattage and were the longest lasting of the options.
  2. Keep using Halogen in the fixtures I dim very low, like my dining room chandelier.  I would gladly pay more for an LED that dims low and warm and does not buzz, but I have yet to find it.
  3. Keep shopping, sigh.  We have the technology to make a longer-lasting, smoother-dimming, warm-glow, color-shifting bulb that can be whatever we want it to be at any given moment, but I am not ready to fork over $100 per bulb.  Not yet.

Well, folks, that’s all the time I have this week for buying a (grit teeth and growl or hurl expletives at the world) light bulb.   Maybe in 13.7 years when all of these burn out there will be a better option.

UPDATE: Coming soon, I’ll post Part 2.  Two more stores and another bag of bulbs later, will I find a contender?  Or will I need to go to Part 3: The Internet??

Not satisfied?  The only real way to know is to do what I just did- buy the top contenders and test.  Good luck!

 

 

If you are curious, here are the options I eliminated the following from my testing:

  • GE Basic LED.  Unbelievably, these bulbs lasted half as long as the other LEDs yet COST MORE than the “Classic” line.  I’m not sure why- I this is a top-selling item because it is labeled “Basic,” and we all want that.  So they marked it up a bit more, cut the life in half, lowered the lumen output, and are making a killing on these.  Skip them.
  • GE Reveal Halogen.  This saves a few watts on the original, but the LED version will pay for itself in less than a year of use and will last 13 more years.   I don’t see a reason to buy these anymore.
  • GE Classic LED, Clear.  These look familiar, with clear glass and LED “filaments” inside.  They dim better than most, but the clear option nearly doubles the cost from the frosted version.  I do not see a reason to buy these, either.

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