LEDs: A better light bulb. Again.

Cree Non-weird Shape

So you remember CFLs, right? The curlicue bulbs? The time they took to go on? The harsh light?

imagesDespite their drawbacks, compact fluorescents have sold fairly well in the US. They save customers money. Utilities promoted and subsidized CFLs, particularly in California. Walmart pledged to sell 100 million of them. Time magazine put one on the cover. By 2012, CFLs represented 27 percent of the bulbs installed in the over 3 billion medium screw-based sockets in the United States, according to a Navigant study quoted by NRDC. Other researchers put the number lower, about 20 percent, says IMS Research.

The trouble is, no one likes CFLs very much. Some CFLs took three minutes to turn on, for goodness sake! Consumers were dissatisfied with the quality of the light, and rightfully so, as even advocates of CFLs acknowledged.

Which is why Cree, a leading manufacturer of LED bulbs, is taking direct aim at CFLs, as well as old-fashioned incandescents, as it tries to win mainstream America over to LEDs–which, by most accounts, are a superior alternative to CFLs and incandescents.

Can CREE and other leading manufacturers of LEDS—-they include Osram Sylvania, Phillips Lumilens, and GE–persuade Americans to change their lightbulbs, yet again? The stakes are high,  for consumers and for the environment. 

Recently, I asked Mike Watson, Cree’s vice president of marketing, about the company’s approach.

He told me that Cree will try to sell LEDS by telling people that they last longer and cost less than CFLs and incandescents, without requiring any sacrifice when it comes to performance.

“The whole point of the CREE LED bulb is to mimic incandescent light as much as we can,” Watson told me.

“CFL presented consumers with a lot of frustrations and tradeoffs,” he said. “As energy efficient as they may be, you paid for it by not having the light you want.”

As for incandescents, he said, they are like throwing money out the window. It’s time to bury that technology, as this Cree TV commercial suggests.

One thing that Cree will not do is focus on the environmental benefits of its bulbs.

“We don’t market ourselves as a green company, even though we really are,” he said. “The term ‘green’ to a consumer is as much political as anything else.”

“The economics come first,” he said.

He’s probably smart to shy away from green labels. As National Geographic reported recently, when academics at the Wharton School and Duke surveyed consumers about energy efficiency, they found that conservatives turned away from the bulbs when they were labeled with a “protect the environment” sticker. Crazy.

The fact is, LEDs are the environmentally-preferable choice. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) studied LEDs, CFLs and incandescents, looking at their  “total environmental impact, including the energy and natural resources needed to manufacture, transport, operate and dispose of light bulbs.” Its reportconcluded:

Today’s light-emitting diode light bulbs have a slight environmental edge over compact fluorescent lamps. And that gap is expected to grow significantly as technology and manufacturing methods improve in the next five years.

But while LEDS make economic and environmental sense, persuading consumers to try something new and different–again–won’t be easy. Sticker shock remains an issue. But a Cree 9.5-Watt dimmable LED bulb, which is the equivalent of a 60-watt incandescent, retails for $12.97 at Home Depot. A 6-pack of GE 60-watt incandescent bulbs sells for $3.97.

Of course, they are simply not equivalent products. LED bulbs use 80% or more less energy and last 25 times longer than incandescents, as CREE’s marketing message says:

Cree Burn Out OOH


Most experts believe that CREE and the other leading LED makers will eventually be able to overcome those obstacles and drive sales. Prices of the bulbs are falling–some sell for less than $10–and the light quality is fine. CREE sent me a few sample bulbs a few weeks ago and I’m satisfied, so far. They turn on instantly, and they are dimmable. Consumer Reports said recently that its initial tests of Cree and Phillips bulbs priced between $13 and $15 showed promising results.

Earlier this year, Gerard Wynn, a market analyst for Reuters, wrote:

The LED lighting industry is set to dominate the global market more than a century after its discovery, benefitting from a widespread ban of conventional incandescent bulbs and as the market share of competing green replacements fade.

Let’s hope he’s right.


  1. ed maibach says

    I have been experimenting with them, more out of professional interest than out of dissatisfaction with CFLs. They are very bright…almost too bright. Installing a dimmer in one key location is the next chapter in my ongoing experiment.

    • Joel says

      No, there is no mercury in them that require special handling. If they break though there are a lot of electronic in some LED bulbs. Not sure about Cree. There are capacitors and resistors. But can throw them out. I would still recycle them for recouping precious materials.

  2. says

    My main complaint was that I stocked up on CFL’s and finally gave them away on Freecycle. The dimmable factor, and the instant illumination factor, sold us. You buy them, put them in, and that’s it. With CFL’s, they annoyed me every time I turned on the lights.
    They have a good selection at Costco. For the developing world they are a no-brainer. This is leapfrogging tech – many people in the world will never have bought an incandescent or a CFL. They are going straight to LED light.

  3. Larry Kaplan says

    A little-known drawback of CFL’s—they do not work well with light-sensor on/off switches, the kind you may have outdoors to turn on lights when the sun sets or off as it rises. Because the ambient light fades or comes on gradually, the switches will cause the CFL’s to flicker until they fully come on. During that flickering phase, the strain on the CFL causes it to burn out, sometimes in less than one week. I have had to replace the CFL’s using the light-sensor switches in my building with old fashioned incandescent bulbs (CFL’s work fine with regular switches or timers, where the on-off is quick and sudden). My question is—how will LED’s perform?

    • Larry Kaplan says

      PS: same problem with motion detector switches, especially in places where there is a lot of occasional traffic, such as in a public restroom. The constant on-off activity wears out CFL’s prematurely.

      • Marc Gunther says

        Thanks for your comments. I have asked Cree to respond to several of the questions posed here. I don’t know about the end-of-life issues with LEDs, nor do I know whether they will work with motion detectors or light sensors.

  4. Chuck Palmer says

    I have a lot of recessed overhead lighting in my home. I switched to dimmable CFL’s several years ago, but was dissatisfied with the dimmability of the bulbs. I also don’t like the fact that with the mercury in the CFL’s, they are hazardous waste. I’ve switched over to LED’s and am very satisfied. They make them in a warm light, they’re more dimmable, and they use very low amounts of energy. And they’ve come down significantly in price lately.

  5. Christopher says

    I would also recommend checking out the website 1lightbulbs for LEDs and CFLs for sale. Just got a great deal on them and shipped to my house in 2 days.

  6. Ghanshyam Shrestha says

    I read sometime back in a newspaper about SMART BULBS that consume very less energy and throw light according to the room environment. It switches on/off automatically and can also be monitored by mobile phones including adjusting brightness as per the need. The bulb has a guarantee of 25 years. The price is not yet known. If this is true and is available at your local market, go get it and be smarter.

  7. says

    Thanks for posting this nice and informative blog. Yes I agree to you that CFL bulbs saves customers money but even they have some drawbacks which are replaced by led bulbs and so led bulbs are the perfect lighting device in this modern age.

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