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If you’re still using incandescent light bulbs to light your house in this day and age, you could be unnecessarily throwing a lot of money down the drain. Incandescent bulbs are wasteful — most of the wattage is lost as heat rather than light, and the heat isn’t an energy-efficient kind of heat.

So what are your alternatives?

Most people are now using compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFL), which are less wasteful with energy but come with their own drawbacks, such as the artificial feel of the light, the flickering effect that can sometimes happen, and the use of mercury (which is toxic and escapes when the bulb is broken).

Others have started using halogen lights because they are the most similar to incandescent bulbs: warm and bright. Unfortunately, halogen lights aren’t that much more efficient than incandescents, so they won’t reduce your energy footprint by as much as you’d hope.

But there’s another option: the light-emitting diode bulb (LED), which has only just started to become popular within the last decade. Here’s what you need to know before deciding if LED bulbs are right for you.

The Science Behind LED Bulbs

Incandescent bulbs run enough electricity through a wire to cause it to heat up and glow. CFL bulbs run electricity through a gas that generates ultraviolet light, and when that light hits the fluorescent coating of the bulb, it gives off visible light.

LED bulbs are fundamentally different in the way they produce light: they run electricity through a semiconductor material, called a diode, that emits light as long as an electrical current is passing through it.

Image Credit: DK samco via Shutterstock
Image Credit: DK samco via Shutterstock

The nice thing about this process is that most LED bulbs produce blue light, and blue light can be converted into other colors using phosphors. A phosphor is a material or chemical that absorbs one kind of light and gives off another kind of light. So when a blue-emitting LED is mixed with red and green phosphors, the resulting light can be almost any color.

In other words, older LED bulbs may have suffered from limitations of color and brightness in the past, but you don’t need to worry about that now. Modern LED bulbs have come a long way and are more than good enough for everyday home use.

In fact, cutting-edge LED bulbs can do some amazing things like integrating with smart devices in your home. With a bit of creativity, these integrations can result in some impressive home lighting setups.

The Cost of Using LED Bulbs

There are two main considerations to take into account when looking at the cost of using LED bulbs versus other kinds of bulbs: the upfront cost and the lifetime cost.

The upfront cost is what you pay for the bulb itself. Or in other words, the per-bulb cost. Let’s compare the prices of 60W-equivalent incandescent, CFL, halogen, and LED bulbs. To keep things consistent, I’m going to use Amazon:

As you can see, LED bulbs are significantly more expensive per bulb than the more common incandescent and fluorescent types, yet still slightly cheaper than the not-as-efficient halogen type.

In a studio apartment with ten bulbs, you’d spend about $8.50 for incandescents or $36.60 for LEDs — not an insignificant difference at all. And it becomes even more pronounced for those of you living in multi-room apartments, condos, or single-family houses. LEDs definitely lose here.

Image Credit: Magnetic Mcc via Shutterstock
Image Credit: Magnetic Mcc via Shutterstock

What about the lifetime cost? Or as I like to think of it, how much will it cost me to run these bulbs for one year? How long would it take for the lifetime cost of an LED bulb to make up for the gap in upfront cost? To make those calculations, here’s what we need to know:

  • Most 60W-equivalent LED bulbs only require about 10W of energy.
  • Assume the average household has around 30 light bulbs.
  • Assume these bulbs are active around 10 hours per day.
  • The average cost of electricity in the US is $0.125 per kWh.

For incandescent bulbs: 60W per bulb x 30 bulbs x 8 hours per day x 365 days per year = 5,256 kWh. Multiply that by $0.125 per kWh and you spend $657 for the year.

For LED bulbs: 10W per bulb x 30 bulbs x 8 hours per day x 365 days per year = 876 kWh. Multiply that by $0.125 per kWh and you spend $109.50 for the year.

So by using LED bulbs instead of incandescent bulbs in this particular situation, you would end up saving $547.50 over the course of one year. The difference between 30 incandescent bulbs ($25.50) and 30 LED bulbs ($109.80) would be $84.30. In just one year, you’ve covered the upfront cost of the LED bulbs and started saving! It’s just one of many examples where the upfront cost is well worth it.

One more note about cost: you may be eligible for government incentives that save you even more money with LED bulbs. In the US, you can use the DSIRE website to find and track all kinds of energy-related rebates, programs, policies, and incentives.

These benefits are available at the state level and the federal level, so you’ll need to enter your zip code to see which ones apply to you.

Other Things to Know About LED Bulbs

Despite the huge potential in cost savings, there are a few other pros and cons to consider before diving in and converting your household to LED bulbs.

  1. LED bulbs last much longer. Whereas incandescent bulbs have an average lifespan of 1,000 hours and CFL bulbs have an average lifespan of 25,000 hours, LED bulbs have an average lifespan of 50,000 hours. This further offsets the upfront cost because you buy fewer of them over your lifetime.
  2. Different kinds of white. When an LED bulb is labelled as “soft white” or “warm white”, it’s going to produce a warm yellowish color similar to incandescent bulbs. When it’s labelled as “bright white”, it’ll give off a color that’s much closer to the white you’d expect.
  3. Brightness is determined by lumens, not wattage! A lumen is a standard unit that measures how much light is given off by a source. Two LED bulbs of the same wattage may give off different amounts of light. There is no direct correlation between lumens and watts, so don’t even bother.
  4. Variable consistency and quality between brands. LED bulbs aren’t well regulated, which means a lack of strong quality standards. Even two bulbs with the same wattage, lumen rating, and color rating can be noticeably different. If this bothers you, make sure you stick to the same brand and type of bulbs throughout your house.
  5. LED bulbs are instant and more robust. Have you ever noticed how CFL bulbs are dim in the winter and need time to warm up to full brightness? And have you seen how some CFL bulbs have a delay or some initial flickering before they fully turn on? LED bulbs have neither of those problems.

Despite the potential drawbacks, I’m convinced that LED bulbs are better than both incandescent and CFL bulbs, at least when it comes to residential use. They’re cheaper in the long run, they’re more environmentally friendly, and they don’t have the risks or downsides of CFLs.

If you want to save even more energy, upgrade to a smart thermostat 7 Nest Automation Tricks to Cut Your Heating Bill in Half 7 Nest Automation Tricks to Cut Your Heating Bill in Half If there were a Nest thermostat in every home, it would have the biggest single impact on energy consumption in history; and it could save you more money than you might imagine. Here's how. Read More . You could also consider buying smart LED bulbs, which can improve your home’s safety and security 4 Ways a Smart LED Bulb Can Keep Your Home Safe & Secure 4 Ways a Smart LED Bulb Can Keep Your Home Safe & Secure Did you know that a few LED bulbs could be the difference between a home robbery and peace of mind? Sounds weird, but it's true. Read More .

The one big reason not to use LED bulbs would be when you need a lot of intense brightness for long periods of time, such as when filming. In that case, LEDs won’t suffice (and you probably won’t be able to find LED lighting equipment anyway).

What kind of bulbs do you use in your home? Are you going to switch to LEDs now? If not, why not? Share your thoughts and experiences with us down in the comments!

Image Credits: John99/Shutterstock

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  1. Mike W.
    July 14, 2017 at 5:54 pm

    They may not be the best available but the local Dollar Tree stores now have 60W equivalent, 9.5W bulbs with a claimed 3000K color temperature. At $1 each, I will probably get some even though they are not dimmable.

  2. Charles Biggs
    June 19, 2017 at 4:10 am

    I have several balanced white LED video lights; in my opinion, far better than my old CFL or incandescent lighting systems the generated tons of unwanted heat. This article needs more research; btw, the LED shop lights I just installed: 11W per fixture, 1600 lumens, advertised 55 year life expectancy.

  3. Matt
    March 18, 2017 at 1:18 am

    There are cheaper LEDs, though quality can vary - from a UK pound shop, I got a variety for different uses.
    The 3W golfball & candle were fine, as was the vented 5W full GLS size.
    But the 5W candle bulbs suffered a 100% early failure rate.

    There are also LED replacement bulbs for fluorescent tube fittings - generally they require rewiring the fitting to bypass the control gear - even available for fittings such as the U shape tube.
    Current lamp status - Circular fluorescent in 2 rooms, not found much in the way of LED-tube for those.
    U-tube fluorescent in kitchen, will probably replace with LED-tube when it eventually fails - the use of an electronic starter in this position seems to prolong tube life by giving a clean one-shot start every time. With those U-tube fluorescents being quite expensive anyway, the LED conversion won't be that much more.

    Others, CFL bulbs being replaced with LED.

    I also converted an elderly neighbour (who I change bulbs for) from incandescent golfball and candle (for down and up facing chandeliers) to all LED, apart from the other fittings that were already CFL.
    Apart from that first lot of 5W candle that went pop faster than the original bulbs did, my bulb changing duties are much reduced.

  4. Dim Some
    March 17, 2017 at 9:35 am

    You need to check the lumens ratings of bulbs before you buy. Most of them that claim to be 60w equivalent are much dimmer than the incandescent equivalents.

  5. sbell
    March 17, 2017 at 5:14 am

    They'd better be worth it after all the hype, and the fact that I've changed all my bulbs. Halogen bulbs are way too hot, cfl bulbs are dim when you first turn on the light and incandescent are too expensive to burn. LED it is.

  6. Fik of Borg
    February 16, 2017 at 12:10 pm

    I'm wondering if there could be some efficiency improvement if one were to use a separate low voltage DC wiring for LED "bulbs" vs the common power-supply-in-each-bulb just to make them a drop-in replacement for incandescents sockets. Halogens are not rare, and I think they use a different socket and voltage.

  7. LH
    January 23, 2017 at 3:20 pm

    We have just bought LED's for parts of our home. I was looking for promise when reading this thread.
    Again, no help here. The DSIRE website listied 50 programs in Michigan. It took a few min to fines the one link, maybe two that mentioned LED bulbs and smart thermostats both that I have. I love my Honneywell Stat BTW. But the link that took me to the DTE program, all I got was this. "The page you requested cannot be found. Please try using the Search feature in the upper right of this page to locate your information."

    Again, no help here for me the the lower Michigan area.

  8. Jouni "rautamiekka" Järvinen
    January 23, 2017 at 12:46 pm

    I were almost sure you'd say not to use LEDs. Apart from very rare places, LED is orders of magnitude superior.

  9. JP
    January 21, 2017 at 9:09 am

    Yes, when talking about visible light, an incandescent or halogen is less efficient than an LED. But with that "heat" comes near infrared radiation which is essential for human health, especially since we're not outside enough in modern life to get enough from the sun. With LEDs you have to consider many factors in choosing ones that are healthy for use. The blue LED that you mention is good because it brings the cost down but also provides an unnatural peak in the blue part of the color spectrum. If you look up blue light hazards you will see that blue light can cause large amounts of health problems (sleep disorders, cancer, cardiovascular disease) through biological processes I won't go into here. So you have to consider what wavelengths of light comes out of the bulb. A warmer color temperature will have less blue, for instance. Flicker is also a concern especially if you're dimming an LED, so you need a good system for flicker free operation or you have the same issues as a CFL and also creating dirty electricity (which some people call electrosmog). And these wireless control systems you mention can also be detrimental to health as people can be sensitive to the radiation that they produce. So just wanted to throw this out there because there are many more factors to consider than just energy efficiency in this contemporary discussion on light bulbs. Health factors should also be considered.

  10. ReadandShare
    January 20, 2017 at 11:53 pm

    One place you should leave your faithful incandescent bulb alone: the oven. Do not replace that one. Too hot for LED's! Interestingly, an LED bulb will work just fine in the fridge.