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Should You Replace Your Compact Fluorescent Bulbs With LED's?

Is it really worth replacing your compact fluorescents or CFL's  with LED bulbs? That's the question that many people are asking these days, now that LED replacement bulbs are coming onto the market. It's a "no brainer" to replace your old incandescent bulbs with more energy efficient ones, but which is the better choice? Opponents of CFL bulbs often raise the issue of mercury. The amount of mercury found in a standard CFL bulb is about 5 milligrams, or enough to cover the tip of a ballpoint pen. One could argue that by using CFL bulbs vs. incandescent bulbs, less power is required to be generated by coal burning power plants. These power plants release a lot more mercury into the environment than a few broken or non-recycled CFL bulbs ever will. CFL bulbs are "less evil" than incandescent ones, but are still not a perfect technology.  LED replacement bulbs seem to offer consumers the best of both worlds. They contain no mercury and use even less energy than CFL's. They are "solid state" devices, meaning they contain no moving parts, gasses, etc. Below is an illustration of an LED bulb from Energystar.gov

illustration of LED light bulb.

So, is it worth the money to switch from compact fluorescent bulbs to LED ones?  Even at this stage of the game, with LED replacement bulbs still new on the market and relatively expensive, they  seem to be a worthwhile investment. (Just a couple years ago these same bulbs cost well over $100 each, so prices have already come down a long way.) Let's take a look at some of the features of each type of bulb and see which one is the clear winner.

Comparison Of LED Bulbs To Compact Fluorescent Bulbs

To equal the amount of light produced by a standard 60 watt incandescent bulb, you'll need an LED replacement bulb of about 8-9 watts. Note that LED bulbs produce light in more of a spot pattern, such as 180 degrees, and do not radiate light in all directions as standard incandescent bulbs do. Because of the way they radiate light, they work very well in can type fixtures, track lighting, ceiling fan light kits, etc.  If you are used to the appearance of light from incandescent bulbs, look for those LED bulbs which produce light in the range of 2,700K to 3,000K. At the time this article was written, the lowest cost of a 60 watt equivalent LED bulb was about $20.  This price is for the "sno cone" type which radiate light in a 180 degree pattern. Note that these "sno cone" bulbs do not carry the Energy Star label, because they don't offer the same light pattern as a 60 watt bulb. The agency was concerned this would cause some consumers to have negative associations with the Energy Star label if they were disappointed with the light pattern of the bulbs. For true Energy Star rated LED bulbs, such as those made by GE, Phillips and Sylvania, and which produce a wider pattern of light, expect to spend about twice the money vs. "sno cone" LED bulbs.

The price of all types of LED bulbs will surely come down with mass production. Below is a chart comparing home LED bulbs to CFL's and incandescent ones.  The chart below assumes a 15 watt CFL, 60 watt incandescent and an 8 watt LED bulb. Energy cost assumes a home with 20 bulbs, with all of them on for at least 12 hours a day, and an energy cost of 10 cents per kilowatt hour. Note that the 50,000 hour life span is based on manufacturer estimates. LED bulbs don't really "burn out" like other bulbs do, but rather begin to produce less light toward the end of their lives. There seems to be no industry accepted standard on LED bulb life claims. This may be the reason that LED lifespan claims on product packaging tend to vary so much.  When performance drops below 70% it would be most likely need to be replaced. Life span of LED bulbs in the home could be much less than 50,000. Many bulb makers, such as EarthLED, claim a 25,000 hour life span for LED bulbs. This may be a conservative estimate according to some electronics experts.

LED Bulbs vs. CFL And Incandescent 60 Watt Incandescent 15 Watt CFL 8 Watt LED
Life Span 1,200 hours 8,000 hours 25,000-50,000 hours
Energy Required To Equal 60 watt Incandescent N/A 15 watts 8 watts*
Yearly Energy Cost Per 20 bulbs $525.60 $131.00 $69.35
Cost (Lowest), 2011) $1.00 $2.50 $20
Number of Incandescent Bulbs Saved N/A 6.0 41
Contains Mercury? No Yes No
Comes On Instantly? Yes No Yes
BTU's Of Heat Generated Per Hour 85 30 3.4
Cycling On And Off Affects Life Span? Yes Yes No

(This is when using "sno cone" type LED lights in an overhead or directional light fixture.)

Conclusions

The cost benefits of LED bulbs vs. CFL and incandescent bulbs are obvious; it's just the high up-front cost that is hard for some consumers to bear. Considering that in bulb replacement costs alone, over an 11 year time span (assuming each bulb is on 12 hrs a day), the LED bulb pays for itself more than twice vs. incandescent bulbs. The bulb cost savings of LED's vs. CFL's isn't as great, but still the LED bulb about pays for itself by reducing the number of CFL's used. LED replacement bulbs really shine, (no pun intended) when it comes to energy savings. If you replaced 20 regular bulbs in your home with LED's, you would save $456.25 per year vs. incandescent bulbs. At a cost of about $20 each for LED bulbs, you come out ahead by $56.25 in the first year, not to mention the bulbs you don't have to replace. As for energy use of LED's vs. CFL bulbs, you would save about $62 a year in a home with 20 bulbs. Since they last longer than CFL's, you could save about $682 in energy costs alone over an estimated 11 year lifespan of the 20 LED bulbs compared to compact fluorescents. (Based on a 50,000 hr. life of LED's).  Compared to incandescent bulbs, you could save $5,012 of energy costs in 11 years by switching to LED replacement bulbs, plus another $830 or so in bulb costs. The savings in bulb costs alone pay for the LED lights twice over, not including the $5,012 in energy savings. Wow! (Of course that's figuring the "best case" scenario using 50,000 hours of life, which is claimed by some manufacturers.)

 What's The Bottom Line About The Economics Of Switching From Compact Fluorescent Bulbs to LED Lights?

For a more conservative estimate, using an LED life span of 25,000 hours, you would still save over $341 in energy costs vs. CFL's in the bulb's 5.7 year life span. Also, you should save more than $150 in bulb costs by using LED vs. CFL bulbs. So, if you replaced 20 compact fluorescent lights with LED's, you would save about $491 over 5.7 years. Assuming you spent around $400 on the bulbs, your net savings would be around $91. If money is not your motivation, then consider that you are reducing your home lighting's carbon footprint by nearly half vs. that of CFL bulbs and you won't have something containing mercury in your home. I also enjoy not having to change out dozens of CFL bulbs over all those years. (I have seen some of my GE ones burn out in as little as 1000 hours, especially those in the bathroom that get turned on and off a lot.)  Also, some of the bulbs in my home are in pretty hard to reach places, and a broken leg could cost me, well, an arm and a leg, since I have high deductible health insurance!

 Another factor that needs to be taken into account is the amount of heat generated by incandescent and CFL bulbs vs. LED ones. In summertime, your air conditioner is going to be running a lot more just to make up for the heat produced by all the conventional light bulbs in your home. How much heat do incandescent bulbs give off? If 20 of them in the home are left on for 12 hours each day, its the equivalent of running an electric space heater for two hours. For 20 CFL bulbs used 12 hours a day each, it would be like running an electric space heater for slightly less than one hour a day.  That's an awful lot of heat compared to the measly 68 Btu's that an equal number of LED bulbs would give off in a day.   (If you live in a cold climate, heat generated by light bulbs might seem like a good thing, but using incandescent bulbs is a very inefficient way to generate heat).  LED bulbs generate almost no heat, which in summertime is good news. Some other good features of LED bulbs are that they are not affected by heat or cold, they reduce the risk of fire, and their life span is not affected by "cycling" or turning them on and off quickly.  The life span of CFL bulbs can be drastically reduced by cycling. 

 Of course these numbers are just estimates,  but it looks like a "no brainer" to me. The hardest part will be convincing consumers that spending 20 times the price of an incandescent bulb makes sense. LED replacement bulb costs will come down, there's no doubt about it. It will help if you think of them as a long lasting appliance. In some applications, such as a closet for example, they will be the last bulb you ever purchase. If you're concerned about the color of the light produced by LED bulbs vs. incandescent or CFL's, try  just one of the 2,700-2,800K bulbs out before ordering a whole set of them. I personally find the light from this K range to be very easy on the eyes. I hope these estimates of mine reflect accurate numbers but if you spot a mistake, please drop me an e-mail about it here: contact

Some Disadvantages Of LED Light Bulbs.

  •  LED bulbs cannot be placed in a closed light fixture. Even though they generate very little heat, in an enclosed fixture that heat will build up and shorten the life of the bulb considerably.
  •  These bulbs don't work well in light fixtures that point straight up, unless you want to illuminate the ceiling, due to the 180 degree directional pattern of light they emit.
  •  Cost. Spending $400 or more to convert a home's lighting in these tough times is out of the question for many people. Consider changing one of your bulbs every month, which costs about as much as 3 specialty coffee's.
  •  It's a new technology and although they have been around for several years, there is not a lot of long term track record of bulb life, failure rates, etc.
  •  Not all LED bulbs are Energy Star Rated. (This is because the agency felt consumers would not like the 180 degree light pattern of "sno cone" LED bubs as seen below, not because of energy use or quality.)  GE, Phillips and Panasonic make LED bulbs that radiate light similar to an incandescent bulb. Expect to pay about twice the price of "sno cone" type LED bulbs for ones with a wider light pattern. Update: Energy Star is considering allowing "non standard LED bulbs, such as the cheaper "sno cone" LED bulbs, to become Energy Star rated if labeling is changed to reduce consumer confusion.  Non Energy Star rated bulbs can still earn LEED points in green building projects.  

                                                                             

I'm happy so far with my decision to switch from CFL to LED bulbs in my home. Since we have a rooftop solar power system and solar hot water heater, I am starting to see months with zero energy charge on my bill. (Note that I've also implemented other energy saving measures, such as using "smart power strips",  insulating my attic and using solar screens.)

Here To Stay

LED bulb use in home lighting is a technology that is likely going to be around for decades. The U.S. Department of Energy claims that if every home in America adopted their use, 40 fewer power plants would be needed. A new technology that is quickly being developed for the consumer market is that of OLED's or organic light emitting diodes. These will consist of sheets of material which glow when a current is applied to them. A whole wall could be covered with thin OLED film to illuminate the room instead of having light come out of a fixture. Note: If you find this article useful, please post it on your Facebook or other page using the tool here: Bookmark and Share    Article by N. Hart, 10/08/2011

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