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I just spent $154 on 26 lightbulbs, and you should too

LED lightbulbs look a lot like conventional bulbs.
LED lightbulbs look a lot like conventional bulbs.
Photo by David Becker/Getty Images

In December, I spent $154 to buy 26 lightbulbs. That works out to about $6 per lightbulb — way more than for conventional lightbulbs you'll find at the supermarket. But I expect to earn back that investment in lower electricity costs within a year or two — and then save hundreds of dollars more over the next decade.

These were no ordinary lightbulbs. They're based on a cutting-edge technology called light-emitting diodes. LED lightbulbs consume about one-fifth as much electricity as an incandescent bulb to produce the same amount of light.

The savings will add up. The old-fashioned 60-watt bulbs I was replacing each cost an estimated $5 per year to run. Each of my new LED lightbulbs should only consume about $1 worth of electricity, saving me $4 per bulb, per year. So I'll be able to fully recoup my investment by mid-2017.

And here's the best part: While conventional bulbs often burn out within a year or two, LED bulbs are designed to last for 10 to 20 years.

Over the next decade, then, I can expect my $154 lightbulb investment to save me around $1,000 in electricity costs alone — while also saving the cost and hassle of buying dozens of replacement bulbs.

And these aren't like those funny-looking compact fluorescent lights that turn on slowly and often give off unflattering light. LED bulbs look a lot like conventional bulbs and can produce light that's very similar to a conventional incandescent bulb.

LED lightbulbs have just one big downside: They're a lot more complicated than conventional ones. You can put just about any incandescent lightbulb in any light socket. By contrast, buying the wrong type of LED bulb can drastically shorten its life and create other headaches (more about these later).

But don't worry: In this article I'll walk you through all of the important factors, allowing you to confidently select the perfect LED lightbulb for your needs — and start saving money.

Make sure your LED bulbs won't overheat

Popular Incandescent Bulbs Phasing Out In New Year Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Since the days of Thomas Edison, conventional incandescent lightbulbs have worked by heating up a wire filament until it's hot enough to glow. That's why you could burn yourself touching old-fashioned lightbulbs, and it's also why more than 80 percent of the energy of an incandescent gets wasted as heat.

In contrast, LEDs are sophisticated electronic components built from the same kind of semiconductor materials as computer chips. LEDs produce a lot less heat, making them more energy-efficient.

But they still produce some heat. And the fragile parts inside an LED bulb can get damaged — becoming dimmer or failing altogether — if they get too hot. So one of the biggest technical challenges facing LED lightbulb manufacturers has been been keeping them cool.

This is why some LED bulbs have ventilation holes to improve airflow and help cool the LED down. It's also why it's easy to find LED bulbs to replace 40- and 60-watt incandescents, but LED replacements for 75- and 100-watt bulbs are still rare and expensive: Brighter LEDs produce more heat, making them more challenging to keep cool.

One implication for consumers is that you have to be careful when putting an LED bulb into an enclosed light fixture. If you buy a bulb that's not designed for that kind of fixture, it could overheat, drastically shortening its life. Most bulbs should indicate whether they're designed for enclosed fixtures or not.

This also means you shouldn't put LED bulbs in places where things are likely to get hot, according to Jeremy Snyder, a lighting researcher at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

For example, Snyder notes, "In an oven hood might not be the best location for an LED bulb." The high heat will tend to shorten the bulb's life, making a conventional bulb a better option.

Think about lumens instead of watts

Popular Incandescent Bulbs Phasing Out In New Year
The spiral compact fluorescent lightbulbs, left, are expected to lose market share to even more efficient LED bulbs.
Photo Illustration by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Every 60-watt incandescent lightbulb gives off about the same amount of light, and we've been using incandescents for so long that we've grown accustomed to treating the watt as a measure of lightbulb brightness.

But watts are actually a measure of power consumption, not brightness. An LED lightbulb that's as bright as a 60-watt incandescent lightbulb will only consume 10 to 12 watts of power.

So it makes more sense to talk about lightbulbs using lumens, which is actually a measure of brightness. According to the Department of Energy, a "40-watt" lightbulb produces 450 lumens, a "60-watt" lightbulb produces 800 lumens, and a "100-watt" lightbulb produces 1,600 lumens.

Many LED lights will be sold with an "equivalent wattage" rating, but these are often just approximations. So ignore them and instead look at how many lumens the bulb will produce and how many watts of power it will consume.

A "60-watt equivalent" LED lightbulb might produce as little as 750 lumens or as many as 850 — and it might actually consume 10 or 12 watts of power. Looking at the actual lumen and watt figures will give you a more accurate idea of how much light you're going to get and how much electricity will be consumed.

Most people will want a "color temperature" around 2,700 K

Huge Snow Storm Slams Into Mid Atlantic States
Sunlight has a "cool" color temperature around 5,000 Kelvin.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Most lightbulbs produce "white" light — but different bulbs produce subtly different shades of light, and that can change the ambience in a room.

The light produced by a conventional incandescent bulb is skewed toward the red end of the rainbow. This is commonly described as "warm" or "soft" light.

On the other hand, if you go outside on a nice day, the sunlight will be skewed more toward the blue end of the spectrum — commonly described as "cool" light.

The warmness or coolness of a bulb's light is measured by its "color temperature," measured in Kelvin (this is a reference to a physics concept called black-body radiation). Confusingly, "warm" light has a lower color temperature than "cool" light.

If, like most people, you want an LED bulb that works like an old-fashioned incandescent, then you need to buy a bulb with a color temperature of 2,700 K. That's the color temperature of the warm, welcoming incandescent light we all grew up with.

On the other hand, if you want the inside of your home to feel more like a bright, sunny day — or a big-box store — you can try an LED lightbulb with a cooler temperature around 5,000 K.

Check to see if a bulb works with dimmers

The simplicity of incandescent lights allows them to work with all types of dimmer switches. That's not true of all LED bulbs. As the power is turned down, some LEDs will either start flickering or simply switch off without dimming.

Most lightbulbs should indicate on the package whether they work with a dimmer switch or not.

There are too many options! Can you just tell me which bulbs to buy?

I haven't reviewed every lightbulb on the market, but I did spend many hours researching options and reading reviews before I bought bulbs for my own home.

Here are the bulbs I ultimately decided to purchase. My research focused on ones available on Amazon — if you're buying bulbs through some other retailer, there might be better options available.

  • Cree 60W equivalent dimmable light, $6 each. This was one of the most versatile bulbs I found. It's dimmable, it works in enclosed fixtures, and Cree claims it will last for 22 years (assuming three hours per day of use). The main downside: a higher price than some others. Also, the bulb's ventilation holes might look a bit odd if the bulb itself is visible.
  • Philips 60W equivalent light, $4 each. I bought a dozen of these because they were the cheapest 60W-equivalent bulbs I could find with a reputable manufacturer and solid reviews. I also liked them because they look more like conventional bulbs than most others on the market. However, these bulbs are much less versatile than the Cree ones: They're non-dimmable and don't work in enclosed fixtures. And Philips says they'll only last for about 10 years.
  • Philips 100W equivalent light, $9 each. This is the 100-watt-equivalent version of the previous bulb. They have all the same strengths and weaknesses as their dimmer cousin, but cost more.
  • Cree 65W equivalent dimmable flood light, $9 each. I needed to replace some recessed flood lights in the basement. These Cree bulbs fit the bill, but they were fairly expensive.
  • Philips 60W equivalent dimmable light, $15.50 each. I paid $12 each for these bulbs, making them the most expensive ones I bought. And their price appears to have risen since my purchase. I paid a premium here because our kitchen has a row of track lights connected to a dimmer switch — so I needed several LED lights that were the right shape, looked attractive, and were dimmable.