There is an emerging arms race for high-quality, low-cost light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs amongst the largest retailers in the U.S. LEDs only make up a small fraction of light bulbs screwed into the sockets of American homes, but that's likely to change because of increased availability at the nation's big-box stores.

Cree announced a replacement for a 40-watt bulb for less than $10 at the home improvement giant Home Depot on Tuesday. EcoSmart has a 6-watt, bright-white LED for $9.97 online at Home Depot and Philips also has a similar offering for $10.97. Cree’s bulb is warm white, not bright white. 

A warm white versus bright white is an important distinction, as brightness and color are some of the most important considerations to the average homeowner, according to a recent survey from lighting manufacturer Sylvania.

“You have to give consumers a reason to switch,” said Mike Watson, VP of corporate marketing at Cree. “Consumers have been frustrated and confused.” The new bulb that is available at Home Depot uses Cree’s latest filament tower technology, which arranges the LED chips in a way that replicates the look and feel of an incandescent. The bulb itself is glass, not plastic, which also helps to mimic the incandescent, said Watson. In the image below, the Cree LED bulb is compared to its incandescent cousin, which is on the left. 

Cree led bulb

Last fall, Cree announced it would sell its LED 6-watt at Best Buy for $13.99 to replace 40-watt incandescents, and $16.99 for the 13-watt LED to replace the 60-watt bulb. 

Tuesday’s announcement with Home Depot has seen those prices drop to $9.97 and $12.97, respectively. The 60-watt replacement being sold at Home Depot is 9.5 watts and available in 2700K or 5000K. The latest offering from Cree also comes with a ten-year warrantee, versus five from EcoSmart and six from Philips. 

"As the leading retailer of energy-efficient LED lighting products, our customers look to us to provide them with the most advanced and most cost-effective lighting technologies available," Jeff Epstein, merchandising vice president at Home Depot, said in a statement. "We are pleased to expand our relationship with Cree. It has enabled us to be the first in the market to offer a technologically advanced and affordable LED light bulb in the market today."

The phase-out of incandescents, coupled with falling LED prices, is increasingly bringing consumers around to LEDs. The recent Sylvania survey also found that about one-third of Americans already have an LED light bulb in their home. Cree suggested that if five of the most used incandescent bulbs in a house were replaced with LED bulbs, consumers could save $61 on electric bills.

The majority of American homes, however, have switched at least some lights to compact fluorescent bulbs, making the realized savings potentially lower when switching to LEDs, since CFLs are more efficient than the traditional bulb.

Even if the savings are not as dramatic as jumping from incandescent to LED, the long life, falling costs and controllability will appeal to Americans. Major retailers are also rushing to sell low-cost bulbs in exclusive agreements; in Ikea’s case, the chain has announced it will only sell LEDs after 2016.

Just having more shelf space is not enough, argues Watson. He noted that many consumers tried out CFLs but didn’t go back to buy more, either because they weren’t dimmable or they didn’t like the light or shape. “Our sole mission is the 100 percent adoption of LEDs,” said Watson. “But it has to be done on the consumer's terms, not our terms.”

The new bulbs from Cree will be available in all Home Depots nationwide by the end of March. 

An animation of the LED filament tower, from Cree: