Recently, I made a purchase that’s right on the fine line between my desire to investigate frugality and my enjoyment of new technology. I purchased three very expensive 60 watt light bulbs, not much different than any other light bulb. The catch? These bulbs were LED bulbs, among the first LED bulbs designed to replace incandescent bulbs available on the market.
About LED light bulbs To put it simply, LED light bulbs will eventually be what we use to replace incandescent bulbs – CFLs are merely a stopgap measure. LED bulbs are made out of clusters of light emitting diodes – you’ve seen them in use in countless places, but perhaps most commonly as the small indicator lights on electronic devices. LEDs use very little energy for the amount of light they produce.
The problem with using LEDs for normal light bulbs are many fold. For one, the light they produce is directional, meaning that they work great for things like flashlights where you want to point the light in one direction, but they don’t work nearly as well for general room lighting. For another, individual LEDs generally aren’t all that bright – individual ones don’t produce a great deal of light, certainly not enough to light up a room. Another problem is that the process for making truly white LEDs pushes the very limits of technology.
In short, LED light bulbs are just barely at the edge of being commercially viable. The first manufacturer that I’m aware of that’s producing direct replacement bulbs that replace normal 60 watt light bulbs is C. Crane, which is making what they call GeoBulbs. These bulbs cost an astounding $119.95 a pop, but they last for 30,000 hours and use only 7.5 watts of energy (less than the 13 watts or so an equivalent CFL would use, and far less than the 60 watts a comparable incandescent would use). Even better, they light up immediately like an incandescent and don’t have disposal hazards like CFLs do.
Still, $119.95 for a light bulb? Can that possibly be worth it? And if it’s not, at what price point would such an LED light bulb be the most cost-effective method of home lighting? And how’s the quality, anyway? Do they really compare well to incandescent bulbs?
I decided to thoroughly compare them by comparing three different 60 watt cool white light bulbs – one CFL, one LED, and one incandescent. Let’s see how they work out.
Incandescents, CFLs, and LEDs in Action
I decided to test three roughly equivalent bulbs – a 7.5 watt LED bulb, a 13 watt CFL bulb, and a 60 watt incandescent bulb. The CFL and LED were common generic bulbs as purchased at a typical department store, whereas the LED bulb was the GeoBulb produced by C. Crane. Take a peek at this puppy.
Interesting, isn’t it?
Here they are, all laid out, like daisies in a row.
The big question that most people ask is about brightness, so I installed all three bulbs in a single ceiling fan, flipped on the light, and here were the results.
In this picture, the incandescent is on the left, the LED bulb is in the middle, and the CFL is on the right. This shows clearly that the LED bulb is quite bright. It’s also a rather different color than the other bulbs, but that’s primarily due to the difference between “cool” and “warm” lighting – you can choose the particular type of lighting you like.
The LED does have a minor drawback, though, which you can see here:
Quite a bit of the GeoBulb’s light is directional. It’s very bright directly underneath it, but if you move far off to the side, it’s not producing nearly as much incidental light as the incandescent bulb. For many situations, this isn’t a problem at all – recessed lights and lamps won’t skip a beat. However, for other uses (such as a single bulb that lights a small room), you may want to wait for next generation LEDs.
On startup time As soon as I flipped the light switch, the LED and incandescent bulb lit up immediately. The CFL also came on as well, but it had a brief five second (or so) warm-up time before it reached full brightness.
On heat This was the one area where the LED really blew me away. After five minutes or so of taking pictures and examining the light for myself, I turned off the lights and removed each bulb, intending to see how warm they got in the process. Both the CFL and incandescent bulbs were too hot for me to immediately touch. However, the LED GeoBulb was still cool to the touch. It had produced almost no noticeable heat.
This is a very important but difficult to quantify factor. The heat produced by these bulbs escapes into your house, contributing subtly to the heat level in your home. Over a long period, light bulbs can actually make a noticeable difference in the amount of energy required to heat your home (lessening it a bit) or cool your home (increasing it a bit). The LED bulbs would factor into that equation much less than CFL bulbs or incandescent bulbs.
In short, the LED bulbs flip on as quickly as incandescent bulbs (and faster than CFLs) and produce roughly the same amount of useful light, but much of that light is focused in one direction. This makes the GeoBulbs just fine for most uses, but perhaps not appropriate in some cases.
The best way to compare the three types of bulbs is to calculate their costs over 30,000 hours of usage – the lifespan of a single LED bulb.
Standard incandescent bulbs The CFL used here has a lifetime of 1,300 hours, so we would need 23 bulbs over the period of this study. I was able to purchase a single incandescent of this type for $0.34, so our total cost for bulbs over 30,000 hours would be $7.82.
As it uses 60 watts, over a period of 30,000 hours, an incandescent bulb would use 1,800,000 watt hours, or 1,800 kilowatt hours. At the current approximate price of $0.10 per kilowatt hour, you would have to pay $180.00 to run an incandescent bulb over this period.
Thus, the total cost of a 60 watt incandescent bulb over a 30,000 hour lifespan is $187.82.
CFL bulbs The CFL used here has a lifetime of 8,000 hours, so we would need 3.75 bulbs over the period of this study. I was able to purchase a single CFL for $1.24, so our total cost for bulbs over 30,000 hours would be $4.65.
As it uses 13 watts, over a period of 30,000 hours, a CFL bulb would use 390,000 watt hours, or 390 kilowatt hours. At the current approximate price of $0.10 per kilowatt hour, you would have to pay $39.00 to run a CFL bulb over this period.
Thus, the total cost of a CFL bulb over a 30,000 hour lifespan is $43.65.
LED bulbs The LED bulb used here has a lifetime of 30,000 hours, so we would need only one bulb over the period of this study. Unfortunately, that single bulb has a cost of $119.99.
As it uses 7.5 watts, over a period of 30,000 hours, an LED bulb would use 245,000 watt hours, or 245 kilowatt hours. At the current approximate price of $0.10 per kilowatt hour, you would have to pay $24.50 to run an LED bulb over this period.
Thus, the total cost of an LED bulb over a 30,000 hour lifespan is $144.49.
What’s the Best Deal Right Now?
Clearly, given the current market conditions, CFLs are the best bargain at the moment for our home lighting needs. However, they have drawbacks – they have special disposal requirements and do not provide immediate illumination as incandescent bulbs and LED bulbs provide.
However, if you’re avoiding CFLs and are directly switching to LEDs from incandescent bulbs, replacement LED bulbs are already there in terms of cost. You’ll have to judge for yourself if the light quality matches your needs.
My current plan is to use the CFL bulbs for general lighting purposes, incandescent bulbs for focused reading (where immediate light is important), and the LED bulbs will be used in a few very hard-to-reach sockets, since they have a very, very long life span. As the price on the LED bulbs goes down (as they inevitably will over the next few years), I’ll replace the incandescent bulbs first, then the CFLs.
When Will LED Bulbs Be Ready for Prime Time?
My advice is to keep a close tab on the prices of LED bulbs. Ignoring light quality entirely, LED bulbs are already cheaper than incandescent bulbs over a long period, but as they are manufactured by more and more companies, the prices on such bulbs will drop over time – and I believe a rapid drop will occur over the next one to two years.
If you’re switching directly from incandescent bulbs, I would wait for one to two years for the market on these bulbs to mature just a bit – let the technology mature and let other manufacturers get into the game, driving prices down. Wait until the prices on LED bulbs drop to half of their current price – say, $60 a bulb – then begin replacing incandescent lights.
Why not just replace all incandescent bulbs with these bulbs now, since they’re cheaper over the bulb’s lifetime? I believe that in the short term, the prices on LED bulbs like these will actually drop faster than the energy cost savings in buying them now, so I would hold off for a year or so before replacing all of my incandescent bulbs.
If you’re just looking for the cheapest lighting possible, your magic number for LED bulbs is in the $15 per bulb ballpark When those prices are reached, LEDs will then be the cheapest solution for light bulbs in the home – and they won’t have the challenges that CFLs provide, either. I would estimate this price point will be reached in three to five years.