Interior designers at Brentwood Custom Homes know what's good for their customers—and for the planet—even if those homeowners have never heard of it.

That's why the designers who work in the Altamonte Springs, Fla., builder's extensive Élan Home Design Center occasionally spec cutting-edge light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, for ceiling-mounted pendants in the kitchen and for path lights on staircases when buyers ask for green products.

"Sometimes we spec it if even if they don't ask for it," says design director Catherine Lane. "They don't always know what LED means. We know it's a good energy-saving option, and we let the customer know that. A lot of times if you know more about what's out there than the customer, that's good for the customer."

She adds: "Right now, energy savings is what's a concern all the way around."

With the increasing focus on energy efficiency, both LEDs and compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) are capturing the attention of pros and consumers alike. And while CFLs have grabbed most of the mass-media spotlight during the past few years, LED technology is advancing rapidly and is expected to eventually begin winning market share of its own.

LEDs Hold Promise

LEDs aren't light bulbs, but tiny semi-conductors encapsulated in plastic. They're familiar as the green, red, or yellow indicator lights on computers, calculators, and car dashboards. Within the last couple of years, manufacturers have figured out how to make LEDs, which can last for 50,000 or more hours, in shades of white and cluster them into the shape of a light bulb for use in familiar light fixtures and table lamps. But they also can embed the miniature lights into a fixture—or into crown molding or quarter-round or the bottom of a cabinet, for instance—to create a permanently lighted building material that doesn't rely on light bulbs for illumination.

The super-efficient light source uses as little as 6 watts of energy to produce the same amount of light as a 30-watt incandescent light bulb. Unlike an incandescent, which expends 95 percent of its energy to make heat and just 5 percent on light, an LED is cool to the touch. And unlike an energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulb, which contains small amounts of mercury and can be difficult to dim, the easily dimmable LED harbors no toxins.

Plus, the LED's decades-long lifespan outshines the incandescent's 750- to 2,000-hour life, the halogen's 2,000 to 4,000 hours, and the CFL's 10,000.

The rub: LEDs are expensive. Prices range from $20 to more than $1,000, according to manufacturers, who say the best LEDs cost the most. And while the asking price for an LED is dropping as the never-need-to-change-them lights catch on in commercial buildings, most doubt they'll be staples on big-box store shelves any time soon. Homeowners also may resist LEDs' brighter light, which usually isn't as warm as that of incandescents, a detail that is improving as manufacturers continue to make refinements.

Brentwood Custom Homes is one of very few home builders that even occasionally spec fixtures with LEDs and they're on the leading edge of residential lighting design.

Still, Kurt Mandelik, vice president of lighting manufacturer Luraline, calls LEDs "the next super trend." American Lighting Association consultant Joe Rey-Barreau labels them "the future of lighting."

"It's getting to that point that it's going to be a lifetime light bulb," says Rey-Barreau, an architect, lighting designer, and associate professor in the University of Kentucky's College of Design. "There's going to be so many new things happening in the next few years that it's difficult to really predict where we're going to be even two years from now. I look at LEDs today as the Wild West of lighting. We're very early in the game."

Manufacturers, on the other hand, foresee huge applications for the miniature lights.

Indeed, says Govi Rao, CEO of LED manufacturer Lighting Science Group, makers of building products are likely to embed pencil-point-sized, sensor-controlled LED chips into millwork, drywall, cabinets, and quarter-round that will light up when someone enters a room. The wall-mounted light switch, predicts Rao, could become obsolete.

"Today, you have a table lamp with a lamp shade, and you put a bulb under the shade," Rao explains. "In the future, the shade itself will be the light source. The surface of it will light up, and you can make it slowly change the color of light."

Or perhaps the lamp and shade will become obsolete as well. "The light could be integrated into the ceiling, into drywall, or a table top, or pillars, columns, or beams," he says. "You would not have to buy a fixture."

He continues: "In the future, you'll see the shape of light changing dramatically. You won't buy a light bulb like you always bought a light bulb. You'll buy a light bulb like you buy your furniture."

That future is five to seven years away, foresees Rao.

In the meantime, builders are likely to wade slowly into the world of LEDs by specifying them as accents or to light tray ceilings, home theater floors, staircases, and perhaps the underside of kitchen cabinets.

But as general-purpose lighting, "I say we're not ready," says Rey-Barreau. "They're not there yet."

CFLs Come on Strong

While the public waits for LEDs to get "there," more homeowners are turning to efficient compact fluorescent lamps to replace the familiar, energy-hogging incandescents that still light 99 percent of American homes.

The steady rise in energy and fuel costs has heightened public awareness, says Rey-Barreau, which has translated into a willingness to spend more than triple for a CFL than for an incandescent bulb because the CFL uses only a quarter of the energy.

The acceptance was rather sudden, in fact. CFLs have been on the market for more than a quarter-century, yet only in the past year and a half have they shown up en masse on big box shelves and in the homes of the newly energy conscious.

"It's probably the biggest revolution in light bulb technology in 100 years," says Rey-Barreau. "The impetus for change has been extraordinary."

Steve Reeger, a building science specialist at ICI Homes in Daytona Beach, Fla., can attest to that. Once deluged by consumer skepticism about CFLs because of bad memories of harshly colored early versions that buzzed and hesitated, Reeger heard only "a handful" of negative quips from the 4,000 visitors this spring to a showcase home lighted solely with CFLs. He attributes that to the warm color and quiet operation of the CFLs in his model, which are typical of the new generation of CFLs.

The builder guarantees that the cost to heat and cool the Energy Star-rated, 3,278-square-foot home will not exceed an average of $67 a month over three years, a feat he credits partially to CFLs, which do not produce heat like incandescents.

"We know that bulb or [a CFL-only] fixture is going to reduce your energy use by up to 75 percent compared to a comparable incandescent fixture, and will reduce the amount of heat by 90 percent per bulb," Reeger says. "Those are huge numbers when you're looking at your power bill and what it's taking to keep the house cool."

Still, Brentwood Custom Homes' president Mark Herring says CFLs are a tough sell in a rough economy. In the homes he builds in a LEED-certified community, he installs CFL-only fixtures that will not accept incandescent bulbs. But in other locales, he says, "Right now, I just don't use them. I'm not really able to sell the additional cost, especially in this market. Customers want to spend their dollars elsewhere."

That might be OK for now, but by 2012, the federal government will hold lighting manufacturers to more stringent energy-efficiency standards. California already requires half of kitchen lighting in new homes to be high-efficiency, a requirement builders are meeting through a combination of energy-efficient lamps, fixtures, and motion sensors.

Herring says it could be builders who ready their buyers for a future of energy-efficient lighting. "We're just becoming educated to educate the customers," he says.

Lighting Lingo

Homeowners put light bulbs into table lamps—or so they say. Lighting manufacturers call these items something else altogether. Here's a guide to the gobbledygook:

  • Lamp = light bulb
  • Fixture = the product into which the light bulb screws
  • LED = light-emitting diode. This is a light source and technically not a light bulb. With LED technology, the light source is integrated into the fixture.
  • CFL = compact fluorescent lamp. CFL fixtures accept only CFL bulbs. The CFLs that go into these fixtures have pin-based sockets; incandescent bulbs do not.

Terzani. The Light is a Queen collection combines elements of traditional Italian craftsmanship with a modern aesthetic, according to the company.Designed by Jean-Francois Crochet, the Tresor metal suspension lamp is made from 3,900 minted coins. The coins are individually hand-welded and finished with either a gold or silver leaf decorative treatment. This fixture is compatible with CFL or halogen bulbs. 954-438-7779.

Kichler. Inspired by Edith Wharton's principles of tasteful design, the Wharton collection combines contemporary and traditional styles. The line includes a five- and a nine-light chandelier, as well as a three-light foyer chandelier. The fixtures come in brushed nickel with satin-etched cased opal glass (pictured) or a natural brass finish with pine bark glass. All of the collection's fixtures are compatible with CFLs or standard incandescent bulbs. 866-558-5706.

Hi-Lite. This fixture from the Milkman collection is available in several energy-efficient options, including CFL, metal halide, or high pressure sodium lamping, as well as standard incandescent. The company offers a dimming ballast for the CFL fixture. This model is available in more than 50 finishes, including a variety of solid coppers and brasses. In addition to a hanging pendant, the fixture can serve as a wall sconce, vanity bar, chain pendant, or gooseneck wall mount. Homeowners also can choose jelly jar lamping with a cast guard or wire guard. 800-465-0211.

Progress Lighting. The company incorporates LEDs rather than light bulbs into six families of LED fixtures, including mini pendants, cove lighting, step lighting, and recessed fixtures. The manufacturer's Everlume line (pictured) uses a high-output, warm white LED source, which can be dimmed with standard, off-the-shelf dimmers. The bell-shaped mini-pendant features painted tortoise glass and a brushed nickel finish. The fixtures use between 2 and 15 watts, emit little heat, and have a life span of more than 30,000 hours—15 to 20 years with normal household use. 864-678-1000.

Lighting Science Group. The company's Edison-based LED lamps fit into traditional recessed cans and other sockets, and come in cool white as well as warm white and in narrow- and wide-beam distributions. Aluminum fins, die-cast in a patented design, dissipate heat from the rear of the bulbs. The company says the lamps are more efficient than incandescents, halogens, and CFLs; their life span is eight to 25 times longer than halogens and incandescents and more than six times longer than CFLs. 877-999-5742.

Philips. The company's LivingColors lamp contains four LEDs: two red, one blue, and one green. Consumers can use a remote control to increase, reduce, brighten, or dim each color to create nearly unlimited color combinations, the manufacturer claims. The lamp, designed for interior use only, comes encased in either a transparent or black surround with a translucent power cable that connects to an adapter. A mini version also is available. The lamp will last eight to 10 years if used 1-1/2 hours a day, the manufacturer says. 800-555-0050.

GE. Reveal halogen lamps produce pure, true light to make colors in the home more vibrant. This company added neodymium, a natural element that filters out the dull yellow cast by other bulbs. Reveal halogen bulbs are up to 10 percent brighter and last up to three times longer than standard incandescents, according to the manufacturer. These lamps are available in styles including standard, globe, spotlights, and floodlights. 800-435-4448.

Luraline. The Facets collection combines classic industrial design with retro flair. Available in ceiling, pendant (pictured), and wall-mount designs, these fixtures feature three configurations for CFLs, metal halides, and standard incandescent bulbs. The cylindrical bullet diffuser is offered in clear or satin-etched prismatic glass with optional wire guard and perforated aluminum enhancement. The custom, textured finish is available in eight colors, and homeowners may request custom shades. 800-940-6588.

Thomas Lighting. The Tahoe collection includes several fixtures, including three chandelier options. Available with three, five (pictured), or nine lights, these chandeliers come in brushed nickel (pictured) or burnished or painted bronze. All of the chandeliers feature alabaster-style glass. Homeowners can choose between fixtures that are Energy Star-rated and take CFL bulbs only or fixtures that are compatible with standard incandescent bulbs. 502-420-9600.

Sylvania. The Dulux EL CFL lamps come in a variety of wattages and types, from general purpose and directional to décor and specialty. This line of lamps includes the Micro Mini, the smallest CFL available, the company claims. The 13-watt version is approximately one-third smaller than the average mini-twist or mini-spiral CFL, the manufacturer says. This Energy Star-rated bulb can last up to 12,000 hours and saves homeowners up to 75 percent in energy costs over standard incandescent lamps. 800-544-4828.

Cooper Lighting. Bulbs in the Halo compact fluorescent recessed downlighting line are dimmable. The downlights are Energy Star-qualified and feature energy-efficient electronic ballasts and dimming from 15 percent to 100 percent, according to the manufacturer. Available for both the 5-inch and 6-inch aperture lines, the 5-inch housings use 26-watt bulbs and the 6-inch housings take 26-watt and 32-watt bulbs, the company says. Homeowners can choose from a variety of housing trim styles and finishes, including reflectors, baffles, wall wash, and shower trims. 770-486-4800.