Light Bulb Showdown: LED vs. CFL vs. Incandescent

Just a couple decades ago, light bulbs were light bulbs. No matter your budget, you really had only one choice when it came to interior lighting options for your home: Head to the hardware store and pick up some incandescent bulbs, choosing a wattage based on how bright you needed the light to be.

But in recent years, technology has brought us bulbs — namely, CFLs and LEDs — that put incandescent lighting to shame. Not only are these new options more energy efficient, they can also last years, or even decades, longer than the standard light bulb we all remember from our childhoods.

And while prices for LED light bulbs were astronomical when we first covered this topic just a few years ago — upwards of $100 for one bulb — you can now pick up a cheap, 60-watt-equivalent LED light bulb for less than $5.

That’s probably why incandescent light bulbs are being phased out: An almost complete ban on their sale started in 2014 and will take full effect in 2020. Simply put, they waste a lot of energy and don’t last very long.

As incandescent light bulbs around the country burn out for the last time, let’s look at the other options available. Cost will obviously be a factor as you make your decision, but there are other variables you should consider as well.

CFL vs. LED Light Bulbs: What’s the Difference?

Let’s examine the two most popular new light bulb options, CFLs and LEDs, and look at the advantages and disadvantages that come with each.

CFLs: Compact Fluorescent Lights

According to EnergyStar.gov, CFLs work differently than incandescent bulbs in that, instead of running an electric current through a wire filament, they drive an electric current through a tube that contains argon and mercury vapor. This process creates ultraviolet light that quickly translates into visible light, unlike incandescent lights which put off a warm glow.

The big difference between CFLs and incandescent bulbs is how much energy it takes to use them over time. CFLs use about 70% less energy than incandescent bulbs. They also last years longer than traditional bulbs, and only cost about a dollar more per bulb.

However, one of the biggest drawbacks of CFLs is that it takes a few moments for them to warm up and reach full brightness. That means they’re not ideal in spots where you want lots of light as soon as you flip the switch, such as a dark, steep basement stairway. They also cannot be used with a dimmer switch.

Plus, modern CFLs contain a small amount of mercury, which is very harmful to both your health and the environment. That means it’s bad news to break one (here’s how to clean it up safely if you do), and they shouldn’t be disposed of in your regular household trash (here’s how to recycle them).

LEDs: Light-Emitting Diodes

Light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, were for years most commonly found in small electronic displays, such as the clock on your cable box. Because the light emitted by each tiny LED is directional and fairly weak, household LED bulbs were on the fringe of mainstream technology just a few years ago.

According to the Lighting Research Center, LED light bulbs work by bringing together currents with a positive and negative charge to create energy released in the form of light. The result is a fast source of light that is reliable, instantaneous, and able to be dimmed.

What sets LEDs apart from incandescent bulbs and CFLs is just how long they can last. According to Consumer Reports, LED light bulbs can last anywhere from 20,000 to 50,000 hours, or up to five times longer than any comparable bulb on the market.

But that combination of efficiency and durability has historically come at a cost. LEDs cost more money than CFLs and incandescent bulbs. The good news, however, is that their price has dropped considerably over the years.

Where once it was common to pay $50 or even $100 for an LED light bulb, they’re now available for about $8 a bulb on Amazon. IKEA sells its own 60W-equivalent LED light bulbs for just $5, and Home Depot is reportedly running a promotion in May that will discount Philips LED light bulbs to as low as $2.50 per bulb.

Comparing Costs: CFLs vs. LEDs

When most people need to replace their light bulbs, cost is the biggest factor in their decision. But the actual cost includes more than just the upfront price of each bulb you buy; you should also factor in how much each option will cost to operate over the years.

As with most things, it turns out a bit of money spent today can often lead to substantial savings in the long run.

Buying one quality bulb that lasts decades is less expensive in the long run than buying a dozen or more cheaper ones that keep burning out.

And then there’s the cost of the electricity used to light the bulb: Utility prices vary by state and by season, of course, but in 2013 residential electricity customers paid an average of 12 cents per kilowatt hour in the United States. Both CFLs and LEDs use considerably less electricity than traditional bulbs.

Here’s how much each type of bulb would cost to purchase and operate over a 25,000-hour lifespan (about 23 years at three hours per day):

Incandescent CFL LED
Approximate cost per bulb $1 $2 $8 or less
Average lifespan 1,200 hours 8,000 hours 25,000 hours
Watts used 60W 14W 10W
No. of bulbs needed for 25,000 hours of use 21 3 1
Total purchase price of bulbs over 23 years $21 $6 $8
Total cost of electricity used (25,000 hours at $0.12 per kWh) $180 $42 $30
Total operational cost over 23 years $201 $48 $38

 

As you can see, buying longer-lasting, more efficient light bulbs can really pay off over time. Over a 23-year period, it will cost you over $200 (and many trips to the hardware store) to keep one 60-watt lamp lit with incandescent bulbs. By comparison, it would cost just $48 using a handful of CFLs, or $38 using a single LED light bulb — a savings of more than $150 either way.

How Much Could You Save?

Now consider that those savings are from just one bulb. Think about the number of lights in your house — some fixtures, like chandeliers or ceiling fans, probably even use three bulbs or more. If you replaced 20 incandescent bulbs with LED light bulbs throughout your home, you could save up to $3,260 over their 23-year lifespan (and that’s assuming utility rates don’t rise).

Still, you don’t even have to make that big of a commitment to realize some significant savings. Switching just the five most-used lights in your home — for instance, the lights in your living room, kitchen, and entryway, which are probably in use closer to four hours a day — could save you around $44 a year on your electric bill.

You could upgrade and put that purchase on a credit card with great cash back rewards to save even more – just remember to pay off the balance each month to avoid interest.

Other Ways to Compare CFL vs. LED Light Bulbs

Let’s put cost aside for a moment and look at these lighting options based solely on quality and other important factors. Here are some pros and cons of CFLs vs. LEDs:

CFL Light Bulbs

Pros:

  • Use less energy than incandescent bulbs
  • Cost less than LED light bulbs
  • Produce extremely bright light that spreads evenly
  • Available in soft, warm, and bright white hues

Cons:

  • Cannot be used with a dimmer switch
  • Take a few moments to heat up and reach full brightness
  • Contain mercury, a toxic heavy metal
  • Can be sensitive to cold temperatures

LED Light Bulbs

Pros:

  • Light up immediately, like an incandescent bulb
  • Don’t heat up much at all – they stay cool to the touch even after use
  • Last up to five times longer than CFLs; can literally last a lifetime
  • No sensitivity to cold temperatures
  • Do not contain mercury
  • Some models can be used with a dimmer switch
  • Available in soft, warm, and bright white hues

Cons:

  • Directional light that may not spread as evenly as other sources
  • Currently cost more than CFLs

CFL vs. LED Light Bulbs: Who Wins?

After conducting research using my own personal experience and expert sources like Consumer Reports and EnergyStar.gov, I’ve concluded that it’s hard to beat the value offered by modern LEDs. Not only are their prices getting more affordable every day, they also lasts up to decades longer than the competition.

With soft and warm white hues that mimic the glow of traditional incandescent bulbs, the ability to use some models with a dimmer switch, and their instantaneous illumination, LEDs are simply a better option around the house than CFLs.

It’s Your Home, Your Choice

The bottom line: Sometime in the very near future, you probably won’t be able to buy any more incandescent light bulbs, even if you wanted to. If you’re not one to embrace change, that might seem rather depressing. However, you do have a few options. You can either:

  • Run out to the score and stock up on a few decade’s worth of the cheap, inefficient bulbs you’re used to.
  • Slowly replace burned-out bulbs with low-cost CFLs, while taking special care to dispose of them properly 10 years down the road.
  • Gradually replace your old bulbs with LEDs that may last a lifetime.

Personally, I would choose what’s behind door No. 3. Prices for LEDs are lower than they’ve ever been (and continue to get more competitive), and they are the most durable, efficient home lighting option on the market. It’s hard to argue against a product that more than pays for itself in energy savings and might last for the rest of your life.

You don’t have to make a huge commitment now. If you want, you can upgrade to more efficient lighting one room at a time, or as old light bulbs burn out. Or start with installing an LED light bulb in a hard-to-reach spot, like a cathedral ceiling fixture, since you won’t have to replace it for many, many years.

There is no right or wrong way to make the switch. But the sooner you do, the sooner you’ll start saving.

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