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Beyond the $10 LED Light Bulb March 12, 2013

The industry has recently been flooded with press covering a new LED light bulb that you can buy with an Alexander Hamilton. The $9.97 40-Watt replacement is from Cree, a leading manufacturer of high quality LEDs. (They are also releasing a 60-Watt replacement for a less headline-worthy $12.97.)

As far as incandescent replacements go, it’s hard to dispute that it’s a great buy for your dollar. However, while comforting to look at, the traditional A-style lamp represents an inefficient use of LED technology. LEDs are directional; to achieve the almost-360-degree glow of incandescent lighting, manufacturers place diodes facing outwards from the middle of a lamp. Usually this is then topped by a globe-shaped lens to soften the light while also hiding the mechanics inside and mimic Edison’s design.

That lens is responsible for blocking approximately 10% of the lumen output from the LEDs. Beyond that, inevitably some light gets wasted where it’s not useful: on the ceiling or bouncing around within the very fixture in which the omnidirectional bulb is installed.

This is why spotlights and downlights are emerging as the leading application for LEDs: rather than molding this directional light quality into a less efficient version of itself, it is optimized through bulbs and fixtures that transmit light only where it’s needed. In a 2010 shareholders meeting, Cree CEO Chuck Swoboda even acknowledged the production of A-lamps as a necessary means to appeal to old-fashioned attitudes rather than fulfilling substantial lighting needs:

“It’s not about the light bulb. Yes, we are going to do things to enable companies… to do the light bulb. But at the end of the day… this represents only about 10 percent of the market opportunity,” Swoboda said, calling upon partners to think outside the bulb. “…(T)he light bulb will eventually become completely irrelevant. It only exists because it breaks all the time and you have to replace it. Fundamentally there’s no reason to have a bulb when the LED lasts as long as the rest of the lighting fixture. And so while we will do things to move the market, we will do things in this area because it does change consumer perception, it is just a step toward really changing an industry.”

In line with this goal, this $9.97 LED bulb will be brought to you exclusively through Home Depot. This is good for widespread adoption of energy saving lights, but bad for the small businesses whose products push innovation within this disruptive technology. If it’s at all economically feasible for you, join the green revolution by purchasing LED bulbs from smaller, higher end companies rather than big box stores. Or, to support both the engine of our economy AND the technology, consider LED recessed light fixtures and other LED-optimized systems that constitute the other 90% of the lighting market.