High efficiency light bulb specification inflation explained

This is a response to a homedepot.com review I saw posted by JoeW here in which he pans Home Depot for carrying Philips' LED bulbs. He thinks Home Depot should carry EarthLED's EvoLux LED bulb because he claims it "looks better and is more efficient". With all the thumbs downs votes on his "review", I took a look at why other people might think his assertions are dubious. Besides posting my response back to Home Depot's website, I cross-posted here to see what other folks might think of the current state of residential high efficiency lighting.

Comparing Specifications
I went to EarthLED's website and checked out their product page for the EvoLux product JoeW mentions. Right at the top of the page, there's a few sentences and link advertising that they've released an even newer LED bulb than the original EvoLux, the EvoLux 2. The manufacturer claims that the newer LED bulb is better performing, has lower power consumption and is lower cost than the previous EvoLux. Indeed, when you compare the specifications for the EvoLux 2 and the Evolux, the claims hold true at 700 lumens vs 650 lumens, 12 watts vs 13 watts and $39.99 vs $47.99, respectively.

When you compare the EvoLux with the Philips 17 watt LED bulb, which is where JoeW posted his review, it starts to get interesting at 650 lumens vs 1,100 lumens, 13 watts vs 17 watts and $47.99 vs $39.99, respectively. The Philips bulb actually costs less and it puts out more lumens but at the cost of power consumption for those extra lumens compared to the EvoLux. Not bad if you're looking for more lumens.

That's not a fair comparison though, comparing a 17 watt LED bulb with a 13 watt LED bulb. Let's make it an even better, apples to apples, comparison by picking the lower wattage Philips 12 watt LED bulb and comparing that with the new and improved 12 watt EvoLux 2 LED bulb. Unfortunately, at the same wattage, 12 watts, the improved EvoLux 2 can't match the performance and even lower cost of the Philips 12 watt LED bulb at 700 lumens vs 800 lumens and $39.99 vs $24.99, respectively.

JoeW's Claims
So going back to JoeW's claims that Home Depot shouldn't carry the Philips brand LED bulbs because the EvoLux looks better and is more efficient, I'll give him his former claim but his latter claim that the bulbs are more efficient is just plain false. The EvoLux's 50 lumens/watt doesn't match up to the 64.7 lumens/watt that you get out of the Philips' 17 watt. Even when you compare the EvoLux 2's improved 58.3 lumens/watt efficiency, it still doesn't match the Philips' 17 watt LED bulb's 64.7 lumens/watt, let alone the watt for watt 66.6 lumens/watt of the Philips' 12 watt bulb. The only way you're going to get close to the claim that any of EvoLux's LED bulbs are more efficient than any of Philips' LED bulbs is if you confuse power efficiency with power consumption. Then, of course, the Philips 17 watt bulb is going to use more power because it's putting out almost twice the lumens then a 12 watt LED bulb. Whether you're looking at Joe's claims or the manufacturer's claims, the Evolux LED bulb doesn't match Home Depot's choice of stocking the Philips' LED bulbs. Home Depot is stocking the better performing and lower cost product. Good thing one of JoeW's claims about the EvoLux LED bulb being "better" wasn't cost since it certainly loses on that when comparing the more similar products.

The bigger problem with the industry
As much as comparing technical specifications like the output of lumens, the ratios of power efficiencies and wattage tell us about the performance of LED bulbs, the average in-store consumer won't have access to this information. The most the consumer will see on the packaging will be how many watts it consumes and its so-called "incandescent equivalent". You'll be lucky if you can find anywhere on the box that'll even mention lumens and/or lumens/watt. Even on the Home Depot website, you've gotta' dig into the specs.

When most people go to the store to buy a light bulb, they actually don't care about lumens and that's because, for as long as we've had incandescent bulbs, they've remained relatively unchanged for the over 100 years that they've been commercialized. The light output has mostly closely related to its power input. So much so that that's what we use to identify different light output bulbs, watts. Rightly so since power input is important to the consumer because it relates to the electrical costs they'll incur running the bulb. And so for much longer than I've been alive, people have relied on wattage as a single measure of both light output and power consumption in light bulbs.

With the arrival of more efficient technologies like the CFL and the LED bulbs that put out similar amounts of light while only using a percentage of the power consumption that incandescent light bulbs consumed, CFL and LED bulb manufacturers now have two barriers to overcome in getting consumers to adopt their "new" product over the incumbent product. Unfortunately, educating the consumer on a new term, lumens, and trying to get them to consider using the more accurate measure of light output poses two barriers for manufacturers: 1) you have get the consumer to stop using their single measure of value, wattage and explain to the customer why they have to use two measures of value, lumens and wattage, when they've only needed to know one in the past. Once you get them to understand why they need to care about both lumens and wattage, you have to figure out how to compare that to the incumbent product to show that it's better. 2) The CFL and LED bulb manufacturers then have the unlikely task of trying to convince every single incandescent bulb manufacturer to change their retail packaging to specifically highlight how many lumens their incandescent bulbs put out along with their respective wattage when they currently only label wattage in order to make it easier for consumers to shop for a comparatively more efficient CFL and/or LED bulbs.

To get around those two barriers for consumers, CFL and LED bulb manufacturers have devised the "incandescent equivalent" which is supposed to give the consumer a way to surmount the two barriers to adoption without 1) losing on the opportunity cost of educating the consumers about lumens rather than marketing their product and 2) getting the entire incandescent light bulb industry to change their labeling when it actually hurts them more than it benefits them. So now, instead of saying that this CFL or LED puts out X amount of lumens, they can just say their bulb is equivalent to a Y watt incandescent. Problem solved? Well, partially.

Specification Inflation
One of the things that the LED bulb manufacturers have had to figure out in developing their product is how to sell their product when they couldn't output enough lumens to compete with incandescent products. In order to sell their products, besides collectively standardizing on the incandescent equivalent for use while marketing their bulbs to consumers, they've also all practiced in specification creep or specification inflation.

As I mentioned before, lumen output vs wattage has mostly stayed the same for the incandescent bulb and so if you go to Wikipedia and look up the incandescent bulb, there's a table there that tells you that for a 60 watt incandescent bulb, you'll get about 850 lumens and for a 75 watt incandescent bulb, you should get about 1,200 lumens. Now that the new term "incandescent equivalents" that disassociates the actual lumen output from the product, manufacturers can claim that a product is similar to an incandescent bulb without it actually outputting the same lumens. It just has to be close. When you translate that to what EarthLED markets their improved EvoLux 2 to, it's marketed as an equivalent to a 100 watt incandescent bulb. The problem is when you compare the actual 700 lumen output of their "100 watt equivalent" LED bulb doesn't even come close to the expected 1,700 lumen output of a real 100 watt incandescent bulb. This is rampant across the entire LED bulb market. A consumer will purchase an LED bulb marketed as being a particular wattage equivalent but when they take it home to use, it will almost always underperforms in actual light output. I think most manufacturers are hoping consumers won't notice but it does the LED bulb industry a disservice.

This is where I give Home Depot credit for going with Philips. What they market as their 60 watt equivalent, their 12 watt LED bulb puts out 800 lumens which is actually a 55 watt equivalent. That's still an underperforming bulb but a 50 lumen underperformance gap is an awful lot closer than the 1,000 lumen underperformance gap between the EvoLux 2 marketed equivalent and the actual 100 watt incandescent. The same applies to Philips' 17 watt LED bulb that's marketed as a 75 watt equivalent. Its 1,100 lumen output is a lot closer to the expected 1,200 lumen output of an 75 watt incandescent. The Philips 17 watt bulb actually matches up in light output with a 70 watt incandescent bulb but it seems like Philips is engaging in specifications creep/inflation but to a lesser degree than other manufacturers with a more reasonable underperformance for the sake of marketing at equivalents that consumers are used to. When was the last time you bought a 55 watt or 70 watt bulb?

Whether it's an actual act of duplicity on the part of Philips and the other manufacturers or just an ease of marketing for the consumer that this currently exists, I'm hoping that the situation will improve as the technology to close that lumen output gap improves and LED bulbs' adoption increases to fund the research to improve the technology.

Wrap-up
As much false hype is being thrown around by the LED bulb industry, it's not something I can fault Home Depot for. Obviously, it wouldn't hurt if Home Depot continued to push manufacturers into being honest about their product marketing but the only thing I would knock Home Depot for is maybe not carrying the EvoLux 2 for its looks. As much as the particular LED bulb underperforms, overpromises and is more expensive, one of the few complaints that the Philips' 17 watt LED bulb gets is that 1) it is either too long or 2) the three yellow orbs don't have the appearance that people enjoy as other designs ie the traditional incandescent bulb.

Choosing the 12 watt Philips LED bulb over the 17 watt Philips does fix the length issue by it actually being shorter than the 17 watt LED bulb and equally as long as an incandescent bulb. You're not going to find a similarly better looking Philips' bulb though unless you can find a retailer that still has stock of Philips' discontinued 7 watt LED bulb. It looks very close to the improved EvoLux 2 but with a metallic-silver colored neck instead of a white colored neck but consequently isn't going to get you anywhere near the lumen output that a 12 watt LED bulb of either brand would.

One of the most successful companies, Apple, puts of lot of thought into product design and it's part of its winning strategy besides having great specifications in its products. What Apple sells is design and that's what the EvoLux is offering, an LED bulb that is close to shape, size and look to a conventional bulb the people are used to. It may not perform as well as Philips' current line of LED bulbs but I think Home Depot might be surprised how much looks matter to people when they're purchasing products.

Having said that, I understand that retailers have to balance the variety of products that they can offer with the overhead costs of carrying a large selection of products. Thus, I can certainly understand Home Depot's decision not to carry EvoLux bulbs when they already carry a wide selection from Eco Smart as an alternative to the Philips branded products. With the WiFi interference problems that other reviewers have been reporting with their Eco Smart LED bulbs, EarthLED's EvoLux 2 could be on Home Depot's radar as an alternative product to the Philips LED bulbs very quickly.

What do other readers think? Will specification creep/inflation increase like it did with the fake 4G cellular data (once one company does it, everyone else does it) or will they get better as the technology gets better and manufacturers compete with better performing products rather than just saying so?