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Getting used to dimmer, but more energy-efficient LED holiday lights

The Christmas tree in front of the White House is decorated with LED lights.

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Kai Ryssdal: If you happen to be a big fan of the 100-watt incandescent lightbulb, you've got just about a year left to stock up. Come New Year's Day 2012, you're not going to be able to buy 'em in this country anymore.

If that news catches you by surprise, you've got plenty of company. Surveys show a lot of Americans don't know about a federal law that'll phase out most incandescent bulbs by 2014. Some cities and towns across the country are trying to get ahead of the curve. They've switched from traditional Christmas lights this year to decorations that use light-emitting diodes, or LEDs. But as Shannon Mullen reports, the new look of LEDs can take some getting used to.


Shannon Mullen: LED holiday lights are brighter these days than they've ever been, but you still know them when you see them. Even the newest strands can look cold and dim compared to the warm glow of their incandescent counterparts.

So imagine what LEDs looked like back in 2007, when the town of Concord, Mass. bought them for its holiday tree, and flipped the switch.

Chris Whelan: As opposed to the cheer, there was a little bit of a groan that there wasn't nearly as much light.

Town Manager Chris Whelan says he got a lot of complaints about the LEDs.

Whelan: I'm sympathetic with the folks who thought it was much colder winter light than people were accustomed to, so I can see what they're saying. But as billed, they save 90 percent of our electric bill for the whole season, which we thought was great.

And Whelan says taxpayers have been asking town officials to save energy and money wherever possible. Concord's also experimenting with LED technology to comply with new federal energy efficiency standards. They're part of a law passed during the last Bush Administration that phases out many common incandescent light bulbs consumers use today.

LEDs use a fraction of the energy, and the technology's been around for decades, but its use in holiday lights was still a novelty when Concord bought them. It can't justify upgrading to the latest models, so residents are stuck with the dim bulbs -- and, some say, less holiday spirit. But other cities and towns are just buying in.

Mike Streb: Our customers, they run the gamut from a small mom-and-pop town that might just need basic traditional decorations to Yonkers, N.Y. which put in a large LED giant Christmas tree in their town square this year.

Mike Streb is sales director for Christmas Lights Etc. He says last year his company sold more LEDs than incandescents, for the first time. He adds that LEDs are getting cheaper, but customers still pay three to four times more for them.

Streb: They know that even though there's some upfront investment, that the payback by investing in a product that can deliver great energy savings, that they can recoup their costs in the long run.

Steve Barrett: We've had this conversation at home about switching over to LEDs, but I usually lose out; other people at home want the brighter lights.

That's Concord taxpayer Steve Barrett. He says he used to get more resistance to his LED idea when his argument was just about saving energy. But this year, the discussion also had to do with saving money. And even though he lost again, it was by a much smaller margin.

Barrett: People struggle with those questions, about doing green things and how things look. If everything is LED then we won't know any difference.

Concord's heading in that direction. Town Manager Chris Whelan says there are already some LED lights in town buildings and some newly installed traffic lights.

Whelan: We find that they're brighter, they work very well, but learned that the light is cold, so it doesn't melt away snow in the winter, so we may have to brush the snow away from the traffic lights, so that was an unplanned result for us.

Whelan cautions other towns that are looking into LED technology to make sure they do their research first.

In Concord, Mass., I'm Shannon Mullen for Marketplace.

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