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Christmas lights are going green

Updated: 2013-11-11T04:05:49Z

By STEVE EVERLY

The Kansas City Star

Traditional but energy-thirsty incandescent Christmas lights are facing a dim future.

Holiday light bulbs were exempted from the federal law that’s phasing out other incandescent bulbs, and that seemingly ensured that they could keep decorating trees, decking halls and providing seasonal cheer. But now they’re being put to a test as fearsome as a government regulation: competition.

LEDs — super-efficient lights that use a lot less energy than incandescents — have been around for years. LED stands for “light emitting diode,” which creates light by moving electrons over a semiconductor material, instead of heating up a filament, as a traditional bulb does.

LED technology was expensive, which limited the lights’ appeal, but prices have dropped dramatically. A couple of years ago, an LED to replace a 60-watt bulb cost $40, but one can now be found for under $10.

And LED Christmas lights are cheap enough that the larger ones save enough energy compared with incandescents that most of their purchase cost can be recovered within a year.

The shift is showing up at stores, which are selling more of the efficient lights. Wal-Mart is devoting half of its shelf space for Christmas lights to LEDs and offering a string of 50 mini LED lights for $5, down from $6.30 last year.

“We know our customers are gravitating toward them,” said Debbie Serr, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman.

Costco is selling no incandescent Christmas lights at all.

General Electric, which has peddled holiday lighting for more than a century, expects that two out of every five strings of lights sold this year will be LEDs.

Sales of the lights were up 50 percent last year at the Light Bulbs Etc. store in Lenexa, and while it’s too early to say how they’ll do this season, sales are expected to be strong again.

“I think eventually we’ll see Christmas incandescents go away,” said Larry Fuqua, general manager of the store.

Christmaslightinstaller.com, which sells, rents and installs Christmas lights in several cities including Kansas City, says that 30 percent of new customers are migrating to LEDs.

A Christmas without incandescent lights on a tree? That would end an era that stretches back to the invention of the first successful and practical light bulb.

Thomas Edison, the inventor, is also credited with first using them as Christmas decorations when he strung some bulbs outside his laboratory in 1880. A couple of years later, an associate used electric lights to decorate a Christmas tree. That was soon copied by the wealthy, who could afford a price tag of up to $2,000 in today’s dollars to decorate just one tree, according to the Library of Congress.

That changed in 1903, when General Electric introduced pre-assembled Christmas lights, and other companies rushed in to snag some of the business.

NOMA Electric Co., which would corner the market for Christmas lights, is credited with making them an iconic part of the holidays. Worried about sales in the Great Depression, the company featured nostalgic advertisements of families gathered around a lighted tree. Sales rose and the company survived. (NOMA went bankrupt in the 1960s because of foreign imports.)

Today’s nostalgic moments are increasingly being lit with LEDs, which can save about 80 percent or more of the energy used by incandescent bulbs.

Compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) are still the main energy-efficient option for other lighting such as 60-watt bulbs for lamps. They don’t save as much energy as LEDs, but they’re cheaper to buy. But LEDs are expected to make inroads in that market as their price declines.

CFLs aren’t suitable as replacements for Christmas lights, making LEDs the alternative for energy efficiency.

Holiday lights would seem an unlikely target for a push to save energy. They’re used a few hours a day over at most a couple of months and then packed and put away. But during that short period, they use enough electricity to provide power to 200,000 homes for a year, according to a U.S. Department of Energy study.

Terry McGowan, director of engineering and technology for the American Lighting Association, said no one expected to see LED prices fall so fast. But he saw the effect earlier this year when he stepped into a trade show where retailers purchased Christmas lights to sell this holiday season and found most of them being offered were LEDs.

“We are going to see a lot of action,” he said.

The economic payoff from LEDs varies considerably. LEDs replacing small incandescent bulbs still take a few years to recover their extra cost. But the larger the incandescent bulb and the energy usage, the more an LED can save.

Costco is selling several sizes of Christmas LEDs, and one of the largest, used for outside and indoor displays, costs $15.50 for a set. If used for six hours per day over two months, based on local electricity prices they’ll save $11 over their incandescent brethren in just the first season.

Toss in the fact that LEDs are more durable and last roughly 10 times longer than incandescents and you have a pretty good deal.

But McGowan said a good payback isn’t the top priority for buyers of Christmas lights. They have to first look good. LEDs have good blue and red colors, and there has been a big improvement in white LEDs, although they can still have some greenish-blue tint.

Some think LEDs are not quite there as a Christmas light.

The Country Club Plaza is using a small number of LEDs but will wait to buy more when their aesthetics improve.

“We’re on the path to energy-efficiency,” said Kara Lowe, promotions manager for Highwood Properties, the owner of the Plaza.

But other bastions of Christmas tradition have fallen to LEDs. In Santa Claus, Ind., where they like to say every day is Christmas, the town is getting ready for its annual Christmas light show with more than 300 displays covering 1.2 miles. The lights are LEDs, and they think they look fine.

“We haven’t lost any of that old-fashioned Christmas feeling,” said Laura Barker, a spokeswoman for Santa Claus Land of Lights.

To reach Steve Everly, call 816-234-4455 or send email to severly@kcstar.com

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