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Just about ready for prime time, the LED is lighting the way to what will become the greatest cost savings yet in household illumination.

Getting a boost from global warming and the need to squeeze more savings out of lighting in general, the tiny LED needs only to match upfront costs with its size to make its energy-efficient lighting technology more economically viable.

LED is short for "light emitting diodes", tiny devices that resemble a very small computer chip sandwiched within thin layers of glass or plastic. When charged with electricity the diode emits light.

LEDs were originally developed as a cheap, reliable solution for both indicator lamps and character displays, say on electronic devices, where they are still used. They are found in consumer electronics, motor vehicle dashboard displays, or any tiny, tight, enclosed area or component requiring a long lasting light source but is not readily suitable for disassembly, repair or replacement.

LEDs are also found in commercial signage and lighting, traffic lights, flashlights, nightlights, book lights as well as jumbo-trons, those massive video displays in Times Square and sporting arenas, according to American Lighting Association

Most LEDs are entering the home today as holiday decorations, small-area task or directional lighting, as well as new lighting fixtures and mainstream, screw-in replacements for compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) and older incandescent bulbs. It's the mainstream screw-in and fixture replacement area were LED cost premiums create, at first glance, a cost barrier.

For example, a 60-watt incandescent bulb costs less than a buck while a comparable 2 watt LED light bulb, generating an equal level of lumens, costs more than $30.

But don't stop at the upfront cost of a single LED lamp to get a true comparison of the savings. Lamp life, electricity use, and maintenance costs over the expected life of the LED product also must be considered.

  • LEDs don't have a filament. Instead of burning out they get progressively dimmer over time.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy good quality LEDs in properly designed fixtures can last as long as 50,000 hours. Some researchers say LED life can be double that. But even DOE's estimated LED lifespan, compared to an incandescent lamp that lasts only 1,000 hours, makes it much more affordable. If it takes 50 incandescent bulbs to match the lifespan of one LED, the replacement costs for the incandescent lamp, at $50, wind up costing more than LED lighting.

CFLs stack up better against LEDs, lasting up to 10,000 hours and larger fluorescent tubes and lamps in fluorescent fixtures can last up to 30,000 hours and more, but there's ballast replacement costs and maintenance to consider.

  • Incandescent filament bulbs also waste energy generating heat to create light. Only about 5 to 10 percent of the energy consumed by filament bulbs is used to create light. Because LEDs have no filament they generate very little heat. A much higher percentage, 80 to 90 percent of the electrical power, goes directly to generating light in an LED.

Right now, that makes LEDs' energy efficiency on par with fluorescent lighting, according to the DOE. But fluorescent efficiency has just about capped out as LED research and development continues to improve efficiency. New generations of LED devices become available approximately every 4 to 6 months, according to the DOE.

  • LED's are much more durable and resistant to vibrations and than both incandescent and fluorescent lamps which are prone to breakage, according to the New York State Electric & Gas Corporation. The corporation also said the life span of both fluorescents and incandescent bulbs are shortened by frequent on and off switching.
  • Finally, aging baby boomers need more light with less glare and LED lights, which tend to focus and beam light with a reduced glare, fills the bill.

There are many larger energy guzzlers in the home. Lights only account for 25 percent of the home's electric bill, according to the American Lighting Association. But homeowners often tackle light efficiency first because it is energy use you can see, fixtures are easy to get at, change is generally cheap and the savings immediate.

Keep an eye out for LED advances.

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