Are LED and CFL bulbs worth the money? Don’t be left in the dark

by Chris Tecmire

LED and CFL light bulbs

I’ve recently become interested in my electric bill.  Why?  Because it’s too high.

Well, what’s the first thing you think about when you consider your electric bill?  Yeah, me too.  The lights.

A lamp or overhead light is the most obvious symbol of electricity in our homes.  And while it’s not actually what’s costing you the most money, it’s a good place to start I suppose.  (We’ll get to the rest of your electric bill in a later article)

 

So, I decided to do a little research on the different types of light bulbs on the market.  I guess I’m a little late to the party when it comes to light bulb technology, but that’s only because of my affinity for the good ol’ incandescent light bulb that I grew up with.  Like many of you, I can be “change-resistant.”

Old-fashioned incandescent bulbs have three major things going for them.  They’re cheap, they’re what I’m used to, and they’re cheap.  So, when people started talking about compact flourescent bulbs and, more recently, LED bulbs, I usually put my figurative fingers in my ears and ignored them.

 

However, as my electric bill continued to climb I began to loosen my stance and do a little research.  At the very least, I owed it to myself to decide whether there was something worthwhile about the fancy-shmancy bulbs before I completely disregarded them.  After all, I do want my electric bill to shrink, so using less energy is a good start.

A 60 watt incandescent bulb uses, well…60 watts.  However the equivalent compact flourescent bulb only uses 15 watts and similar LEDs use between 7 and 12 watts.  So, they use roughly 1/6th of the amount of electricity that I’m using now when I turn on the lights to go sneak some candy out of the kitchen cupboard.

I recently replaced a few incandescents with a couple CFL (compact flourescent) bulbs and a few LED bulbs.

 

Are LED and CFL Bulbs Worth the Money? 

 

Let’s find out.  Here’s how they compare in a few important categories.

 

The Look

Any light bulb that’s invited into my home needs to have the look.  I’m a traditional warm-white kind of guy, so they need to have that certain soft glow.  I also don’t want to feel as though I live in a cave, so they, of course, must be bright enough.  That’s all I ask.

Incandescent – The standard

CFL – Good warm-white appearance if you purchase the right bulbs.  Slightly less bright when first turned on – they get brighter over time.  However, this doesn’t bother me as much as I thought.  It’s not like they’re really dim when you hit the switch like the old flourescent bulbs.  They’re just a fraction darker at first, but still plenty bright to get junk done.

LED – I didn’t notice much of a difference between the LED and the incandescent.  They are fully bright right off the bat and seem to have the right glow too.  I’ve heard that it can be difficult to find an LED that matches the incandescent’s glow, but I found one right off the bat, so it can’t be too hard.

The Verdict – LED and Incandescent are the winners, but I won’t rule out the CFLs yet either.  The important part when shopping for light bulbs is to pay attention to the Lumens (brightness) and Kelvins (warm white vs cool white).  A normal 60 W bulb usually has somewhere between 800 and 900 lumens, but each bulb is different, so it pays to check the package.  Anywhere near that range will probably work well for normal residential applications.  Also, if you’re like me and enjoy the “soft white” glow of incandescent bulbs, you’re looking for 3000 Kelvins or less…or just look for a package that says “soft-white”.  :)

 

Life of the Bulb

Death is a part of life, but I’d prefer my light bulbs last as long as possible.  We recently went through a stretch where it seemed like our light bulbs were burning out every couple weeks.  The bulbs we were buying were super cheap, and now I know why.  It was like buying goldfish at a 50% off sale.  They might be cheap, but don’t bother naming them because there’s a reason they’re half off.  Nemo’s got a bad cough.

Incandescent – Last around 1,000 hours.  There’s NO WAY that our last couple boxes of bulbs lasted even close to that long, but the industry standard for your average incandescent bulb is usually around 1,000 hours.  However, the life can be shortened a bit if they’re turned on and off frequently.

CFL – Reportedly 8,000 – 12,000 hours depending on the bulb.  The long life is part of the biggest draw of CFL bulbs.  However, it has been widely reported that this can be a little misleading.  The tests that they use for these findings are based on turning the light on for 3 consecutive hours and then turning it back off until tomorrow.  Our lives don’t usually work that way.  We turn the light on for 30 seconds to grab something out of the fridge and then switch it back off until next time.  Unfortunately, the life of a CFL bulb greatly diminishes when turned on and off repeatedly.  So, it may be more accurate to say that CFL bulbs will last between 1,000 and 12,000 hours depending on their usage.  But, that’s a big range.

LED – 25,000 – 50,000 depending on the bulb.  Unlike CFL, LED lights appear to be able to handle frequent on and off cycles without hurting the life of the bulb.  So, their estimates seem to be more accurate.  If you were to have your lamp on for an average of 3 hours per day, 25,000 hours would equate to almost 23 years!  Can you imagine if you put all new bulbs in when your kids were born and they NEVER were able to witness you changing a light bulb because they were in college by the time the first ones died?!

The Verdict – That’s an easy one.  LED runs away with this category.  However, remember that all claims are estimates.  The nice thing is that most LED bulbs come with at least a 3 year warranty, so you know you’re not spending $20 on a defective bulb even if that particular one doesn’t last until you’re old and gray.

 

The Math

Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty.  I’ll do my best to demonstrate how much money each type of bulb would cost you over 25,000 hours of life.  These are just estimates, so please keep that in mind.  To be fair to normal household usage (on and off, on and off) and the strain it can put on particular types of light bulbs, we may discount the number of hours that they last depending on the type.  You’ll notice that the CFL is pretty heavily discounted, but that’s simply based on the studies that I’ve seen.  It is impossible to be too specific when it comes to CFL bulbs in particular.

The energy cost was determined by using the current cost per Kilowatt Hour on my electric bill (13.5 cents per KwH).  Yours may be different.

 

60W Incandescent (800 hours of life each)

Number of Bulbs Needed to achieve 25,000 hours…32 @ $0.50 each = $16.00

Energy Used…60 W for 25,000 hours = $202.50

Total Investment for 25,000 hours of life = $218.50

 

15W CFL (60 W equivalent) (4,000 hours of life each)

Number of Bulbs Needed…7 @ $2.00 each = $14.00

Energy Used…15 W for 25,000 hours = $50.63

Total Investment for 25,000 hours of life = $64.63

 

10W LED (60 W equivalent) (25,000 hours of life each)

Number of Bulbs Needed…1 @ $20.00 each = $20.00

Energy Used…10 W for 25,000 hours = $33.75

Total Investment for 25,000 hours of life = $53.75

 

The Verdict – This is where the incandescent bulbs lose a little steam.  60 watts of power costs 4 times more than an equivalent CFL bulb and 5 – 6 times more than an LED.  That’s where the real savings are.  These figures could change slightly depending on the true life of the bulbs you’re using, but the amount of energy (electricity) being used is steady.  60W is more expensive than 15W.  There’s no denying that.  In that case, CFL and LED win the math category.

The savings for one bulb was nearly $165 when switching from incandescent to LED, but what if you replaced 10 bulbs?  The total jumps to $1,650!  That’s a lot of electricity.

 

So, despite the initial sticker shock, LED is definitely the way to go when considering the full life of the bulb.  But, what if you’re more of a live in the moment kind of person?  How long will it take before the LED bulb actually saves you money?

Let’s say that you have a lamp that is generally on for about 5 hours each day.  We’ll use the same figures as above for everything else.

Incandescent 1st year cost = $15.92 (bulbs + energy used)

LED 1st year cost = $22.46 (bulb + energy used)

What about the 2nd year?

Incandescent 2 year cost = $31.85

LED 2 year cost = $24.93

In fact, it only takes about 2,750 hours (or 18 months in this example) for the LED to surpass the incandescent to in total savings.

 

What if the light is located in a closet?

Most of our lights and lamps get turned on quite frequently and are on for several hours each day.  However, closet and hallway lights that rarely get used may not be good candidates for an LED swap.  Let’s do the math once more.

 

If we only use the light for 30 minutes per day and the incandescent light lasts for 800 hours…

An incandescent light will cost a total of $1.48 in electricity per year and $0.50 for the bulb for a total of $1.98.

The LED bulb will only cost you a measley 25 cents in energy, but will cost around $20 for the bulb for a total of $20.25.

In this situation, it will take the LED bulb about 15 years before it starts to save you money.

So, as you can see, the REAL savings all depend on the specific situation and how much you’ll use the light on a daily basis.

 

Other Factors To Consider

Mercury – Trace amounts of mercury are used in most CFL bulbs.  While it’s more than 100 times less than what was used in the old mercury thermometers, it’s still something to consider.  You’ll have to decide whether the mercury is a big deal to you or not – only you can decide what’s right for you and your family.

The location of the light bulb – CFL bulbs tend not to last as long in recessed or track lighting because they’re hung upside down.  This position apparently shortens the life of the bulb.

The durability of the bulb – One area where LED is far superior is the durability of the bulb.  Incandescent and CFL bulbs are quite fragile, but LED bulbs make me want to toss them against the wall to see what would happen.  I haven’t given into the temptation yet, but I won’t rule anything out.

 

The Final Verdict

To be fair, I’ve only been trying the LED and CFL bulbs for about a month, so I don’t feel as though I can speak with absolute authority on what the best option is.  Much of it depends upon the life of the bulb, and that can’t be known in a month.  However, I’ve been quite impressed by the LED bulbs.  I was expecting something completely different, but they now make LED bulbs that look and act a lot like the good ol’ incandescent that I know and love.  You just have to make sure you check the package and get the correct Lumens and Kelvins that you’re looking for.

I’m not a huge CFL fan.  It’s not that they can’t save you money.  They can.  But, I feel like the LED lights are a better option for the heavy traffic areas of the house with a lot less questions about mercury, frequent usage, and other factors.  As for the incandescents… they will continue to hold a place in my home as well…in the closets.

 

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Lebron James February 21, 2013 at 6:24 am

What about tanning bulbs? That’s all I use in my house anymore and I couldn’t be more happy. It not only provides excellent light but has also saved on my heating bill!!

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Chris Tecmire February 21, 2013 at 7:44 am

Doesn’t really seem like you’d need to do a lot of tanning, but whatever floats your boat Lebron ;)

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Yena :) February 21, 2013 at 8:44 am

We started a year or so ago to put the date we are replacing a bulb on the plastic base, to see how long each bulb would last. I don’t think we have changed one yet that we had written the date on, but it will be interesting to see.

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Chris Tecmire February 21, 2013 at 8:50 am

Great idea Yena. Thanks for the comment. I put a little spreadsheet together to track it too. I’d say I’d update everyone on Simple Family Finance when the LEDs quit, but if it ends up being 20 years from now…who knows :)

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joyce February 21, 2013 at 10:35 am

i’d also heard that the cfl’s last longer if they’re not in an enclosed light (they need air circulation). three of our ceiling lights have globes that entirely cover the light base and bulbs. i’ve not switched many of ours over yet, because of the cost and also because in the living room i like the fact that i can use a three way bulb and put it on the lowest setting as a little ‘night-light’ type of thing when our teens are out later, so they don’t come in to a completely dark house. the cfl’s we already have purchased were the ones that warm up slowly, and that kind of bummed me out on buying any more. i might try again one of these days, now that there is more info available about them.

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Chris Tecmire February 21, 2013 at 1:09 pm

Yeah, it does seems like there are a lot of stipulations with CFLs, huh? I think that’s why I’m going LED. It just seems like there’s a few too many IFs and BUTs with CFLs. I don’t doubt that they can still save money over incandescents if used in the right way, but I like the do anythingness of the LED bulbs. They seem closer to incandescent in that way. Good luck Joyce!

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Grandmama February 21, 2013 at 4:34 pm

You’re better than the “Consumer Report” and far more entertaining!! I’m so proud of
you – it ALMOST converts me to be “thrifty” — I’m starting with the cancelation of my
subscription to above mentioned magazine (smile, smile) Seriously, keep it up grandson!! LOVE YOU

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Chris Tecmire February 21, 2013 at 7:14 pm

Thanks Grandma :)

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dude August 10, 2013 at 5:52 pm

I have never seen a study on the actual cost of the e waste created from cfl bulbs. I believe that they save money for the consumer but I have to ask the question do they make sense long term. Incandescent lighting contain glass metal and ceramic. CFL contain a PCB, PVC, mercury, silicone, plastics, and other components. To recycle these components is difficult and costly. To recycle a incandescent bulb seems much easier without using as much electricity. Sure if they both end up at a dump who cares until legislation bans it completely. I think the lobbyist that pushed phasing out incandescent may be getting their pockets filled from cfl and incandescent manufactures due to more gross profit.

As i step down off my soap box…. Love the 2.00 a day meal idea. You are correct it is only money.

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Chris Tecmire August 22, 2013 at 7:48 am

Thanks dude. I did look into the CFL bulbs and some of the controversy surrounding them and that’s part of the reason I tend to lean toward LED bulbs myself. I’m sure they’re not perfect either, but they don’t seem to have some of the mercury, etc that CFLs contain. But, I wouldn’t doubt that you’re right about the lobbyists…

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RK November 13, 2013 at 8:53 pm

I have found the quality of the fixture can greatly reduce the life of a cfl. When put in a fixture that is old and has terminals that might be corroted like in a bathroom or moist area, old wiring, or just really cheaply wired fixtures. The life can be greatly compromised. Not for sure, but things like polarity wrong, could also have effects on cheaply made cfls. I believe the electronic ballast can’t handle the resistance very well in some of these situations. Work as Maint. Dir in a older healthcare facilty. Some fixtures eat these bulbs fast. For example had an old fixtue that kept burning out bulbs, I took it apart and cleaned up all the connections and now its beeen going strong for a year or so.

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Chris Tecmire November 17, 2013 at 9:32 am

Good point RK. I hadn’t thought about that, but it makes a lot of sense. Thanks for the comment!

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sami jones January 3, 2014 at 6:49 pm

Cfl’s in my experience are a waste of money because they DO NOT last under normal use (turning on and off) more than 50% of the advertised time. Our experience is they generally last 20 to 30% of the advertised hrs and I have read that the average cited on packaging etc is tested where the light is turned on and not turned off. Now who actually lives like that?

The cost is far greater than old incandescents when you consider this not to mention the whole of life cost which includes production cost through to disposal.

We would be better spending that extra money on many many things like insulation, better windows stop gapping etc etc to save energy. Or heres a thought just turn off all digital clocks and revert to manual ones not to mention all those other gadgets you have in the house that are really not in use. As i sit here typing this I can see 4 appliances in that all have digital display’s. Now even that has to be costing us energy to burn.

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