Projector prices have dropped like a rock in the last few years. There are many models now selling for well under $1,000. Unfortunately the cost of replacement lamps has not followed suit. Though some lamps are now below $300, most are in the $350 to $400 range and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. Therefore more and more consumers buying entry level projectors are shocked to discover that replacement lamps can cost as much as half of the projector's original price.

A lot of folks are understandably confused and irritated at this situation. Nobody likes a surprise bill for $400 that they didn't expect. But it is a lot easier to deal with when you anticipate it, budget for it, and put it into perspective.

Video projectors are not like televisions that can run maintenance-free for a decade or more. They need to have their lamps changed on occasion, and most have air filters that need to be cleaned every month or two. Lamps typically last about 2,000 hours on most models. Some of the newer projectors offer extended lamp life of 3,000 hours, and a few are up to even as much as 5,000 hours. Keep in mind however that some lamps won't make it all the way to their estimated life spans. If you operate your projector in a warm environment that is not adequately ventilated, or at higher elevations, this can reduce lamp life. Also, failing to keep the air filter clean may reduce lamp life as well. And some lamps will just fail sooner than others--estimating average lamp life is not an exact science.

While extended lamp life is a plus, don't let lamp life itself be an overly huge factor in selecting a projector. Certainly a longer lamp life can mean lower cost of ownership. However, if you get 2,000 hours out of a lamp it will deliver 1,000 two-hour movies. If the replacement lamp is $400, that is about forty cents a movie. If you watch thirty movies a month, your lamp cost is about $12 per month—the cost of a medium Domino's pizza. Compared to the cost of renting or buying those thirty DVDs a month, the lamp cost is almost invisible.

Of course if you are intending to operate the projector up to 10 hours a day or more, you will burn through lamps more quickly than will the typical home theater user, and replacement cost becomes a more significant issue. But if you are the typical home theater enthusiast who might watch a movie a day or less, you will probably conclude that lamp life and lamp costs are not very important cost factors in deciding between projectors.

Either way, no matter what type of usage you are planning for, when you are buying a projector make sure to estimate your intended hourly usage per month. Then ask the dealer for average lamp life and replacement lamp prices so you know what you are signing up for. Only after you've estimated your lamp usage can you put the cost of replacement lamps into accurate financial perspective and budget for it accordingly.

For those thinking of buying a used projector to save money, a bit of caution is warranted. There is usually no warranty on a used projector, and the lamp is likely to be almost expired unless the seller specifically guarantees you a new lamp. You may not be ahead of the game if you spend $500 on a used projector, only to find that you must lay out an additional $400 for a lamp to operate it. Quite often you'd be better off buying a new projector with a fresh lamp and full warranty.

Projectors are excellent tools for delivering huge video images in your home, office, or classroom. However, they are not maintenance-free. But as long as you are aware that replacement lamps are not cheap and you will need one on occasion, you can usually budget for them over the life of your projector without it having any serious unexpected impact on your finances.