Best Light Bulbs: Incandescent vs CFL vs LED

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energy saving lightbulbAs you know, lightbulb technology is the subject of many financial blog posts. With the right lightbulb, you could see a reduction in your power bill, saving you money over time. Indeed, many of us, by now, wouldn’t even think of purchasing incandescent lightbulbs, now that the price of CFLs has come down, and you can buy them in bulk at your local warehouse club store.

But are CFLs really that much better than incandescent bulbs? And what about LED lightbulbs? How do those compare? Your lightbulb choices continue to expand, and it’s worth taking a few minutes to figure out what is your best option.

Incandescent Lightbulbs

Obviously, incandescent lightbulbs are the cheapest available. You can buy a package of four 60W bulbs for anywhere between $1 and $3, depending on where you go, and how long the bulbs are supposed to last. The bulb pack I’m thinking of costs $1.49 for a four-pack, or about $0.37 apiece. However, these bulbs use more energy. Indeed, every hour, this bulb will use 60 watts — that equals 0.06 kilowatts (most power companies will charge by the kilowatt). Look on your power bill to see how much you pay. I pay about $0.09 per kilowatt. The cheaper bulbs are rated for right around 1,000 hours of light. So, I’ll be using 60 kilowatts over those 1,000 hours, at a cost of 60 x $0.09 = $5.40 per lightbulb.


Now, we get to the cost of the CFL lights. I can buy an eight pack of CFLs for $9.99, or about $1.25 for each. However, the energy use for the bulb is 13 watts per hour, rather than 60. With a rating of 8,000 hours, that means that each CFL bulb would use a total of 104,000 watts, or 104 kilowatts. That amounts to $9.36. Now, here’s where we have to make a fair comparison to the incandescent lightbulb. Sure, the lightbulb costs more in energy — but it lasts eight times longer than the incandescent bulb. You would have to buy eight incandescent bulbs for every single CFL, meaning that the energy cost for the incandescent bulbs, for the same time period, would actually be $43.20.

Clearly, over time, the CFL is going to cost you less in energy, easily overcoming the difference of $0.88 between the two bulbs. However, many people don’t feel that CFLs offer the same lighting benefits. Even if you prefer CFLs (I use them and like them), you do have to be aware that there are particular disposal concerns. And, there is a delay from when you flip the switch to when the light actually comes on.


The next incarnation of lightbulbs is the LED. Some feel that CFLs are really just placeholders. We used LED Christmas lights last year on our tree, and I noticed a a difference in the power cost. We spent $20 less (we use a lot of lights on our tree) in power for December 2010 than we did for December 2009. Of course, I don’t know how much of that was entirely due to the LED Christmas lights, since I wasn’t really keeping close track of what we were doing.

In any case, the you can buy LED lightbulbs rated for 30,000 hours for $19.95. That’s pretty hefty compared to CFLs and incandescent bulbs. However, LED bulbs only use 7.5 watts an hour. So, over 30,000 hours, it uses 225 kilowatts of power. The energy cost is $20.25. Now, since LEDs have such a long lifespan, I would have to buy 30 incandescent bulbs to match it, at an energy cost of $162 to match it. I’m going to say that you would need to buy four CFLs to get 30,000 hours, so the energy cost would be $37.44. While, over time, the energy savings would more than make up the difference between an incandescent bulb and the LED, the price on the LED would need to come down a little bit to make up its cost difference with the CFL.

LEDs, though, have advantages that CFLs don’t: They are easier to dispose of, and lighting is instant as you flip the switch. However, it’s important to note that LEDs are directional; they don’t yet light up an entire room the same way other bulbs do. However, there is likely to be some strides made in that direction, and as the price comes down, LEDs will probably become the new lightbulb of choice for long-term energy savings.

(Photo: Muffet)

{ 26 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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26 Responses to “Best Light Bulbs: Incandescent vs CFL vs LED”

  1. billsnider says:

    Not sure where you live. I pay $0.20/KWH. That makes incandescent’s even more expensive to use.

    I bought an LED flashlight. Not as bright, but the battery will last longer. Happy with it.

  2. Texas Wahoo says:

    My problem with CFLs is that for whatever reason I have had them go out a LOT faster than they are supposed to. In my basement, I have had at least two CFLs go out before other incandescent bulbs that were in the house when I moved in a little over a year ago. I’m not sure why, perhaps the GE CFLs I have been buying are poor quality.

  3. Glenn Lasher says:

    Notational issue: The bulb does not use 60 watts every hour; it uses 60 watts. It uses 60 watt-hours every hour. This sounds trivial, but it is actually very important from an engineering perspective, because it starts to lead to units like “watts per hour” which is a rate of change in power consumed, not an amount of energy consumed.

  4. Jonathan Ira says:

    I have used CFL bulbs for many years – I flick the switch and the bulbs turn on – no wait. I’m not sure where you live, but at least where I live in California, I’ve purchased many 3 and 4 packs of CFL bulbs for only $1.00. 99¢ store where I shop currently sells CFL bulbs for 59¢ and 2 for $1.00. Yes, higher wattage-output CFL bulbs do cost more, but they also pay for themselves faster.
    I agree that LED bulbs hold great promise, but they just don’t have the light output of CFL bulbs, although newest LED bulbs can be much brighter than they were even a year ago.

  5. Traciatim says:

    I’ve found that in most cases (except for one spot in our house for various reasons) that CFLs last far less than their advertised claims. We’ve switched back to incandescent (except that one spot) until LEDs come down in price some.

  6. freeby50 says:

    I outfitted my whole house with CFL’s around 12-13 years ago. They last many years in general. I’ve only had to buy a few replacements over a decade. However some of them do burn out faster. I think its a combination of getting a few bad ones and some manufacturers of CFL’s making crappy product. Most of the CFLs last years. I’m sure if you really looked at how fast your incandescent bulbs burn out that you’ll find some of them burn out much faster too due to getting an occasional bad one. I distinctly remember having to replace incandescent light bulbs within a month or two once or twice in the past due to parts that burn out quickly.

    As Jonathan said there is no delay when you turn on the modern CFL’s. Older fluorescents had that issue but new ones don’t. I do have some of the larger round style fluorescent bulbs in my garage and those take a few seconds to warm up and turn on. The small light bulb size CFLs are all instant on.

  7. Jenny says:

    The problem that I have with CFL is that the light that they put out is cold and ugly. The light that comes off an incandescent is much prettier – warmer. Even the light give off by the “warm” CFLs is harsh and unpleasant. I’ve been using the CFLs recently, but I will miss the pretty incandescent lighting.

    • Richard Breen says:

      It’s gotten a little more complicated to pick the bulb that has the qualities that you want. It is possible to find CFLs that are much closer to the warm color of a standard incandescent, but it is unlikely they will ever be a perfect match. Look at: for information on selecting the right color temperature for your tastes and application. 2700K should be close to a standard incandescent in most situations, but each manufacturers bulbs will be a little different because of the different phosphor blends they use. Buy your bulbs at a store that will take them back if you don’t like them without any questions. (I buy a bunch of different bulbs at once and try them until I find the ones I like and take the others back.) Make a note of the ones you like so you can find them easily the next time. 😉

  8. uclalien says:

    A few comments on the topic:

    1. If you live in California, the incandescent vs. other types of light bulbs isn’t going to matter much longer. CA is in the process of banning them altogether.

    2. This article hints at it, but doesn’t explain why CFLs are harder to dispose of. Each CFL bulb contains small amounts of highly toxic mercury. When a CFL breaks, the EPA warns consumers to open a window and leave the room immediately for at least 15 minutes because of the mercury threat. I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t sound like the EPA believes CFLs are all that safe.

    3. As many people have stated, CFLs never seem to last as long as advocates claim. PG&E conducted a study that showed CFLs, on average, last 40% less than stated. From what I’ve read, this happens because CFLs simply aren’t useful in many instances. I’ve read that using CFLs in enclosed lights, recessed lighting, or even smaller bathrooms will significantly shorten the life of a CFL bulb. If you think about the ways people use light bulbs today, that nearly covers it.

    4. The other issue that I’ve run into is that these other types of bulbs simply aren’t as bright as their incandescent counterparts. In some instances, I’ve found that I have to use 2 CFLs to light a room in the same way as an incandescent light bulb.

    • Steve says:

      Point 2 sounds like FUD. Can you provide a link?

      However I definitely agree about point 3. I have never had a CFL last as long as it was claimed to. In fact they often seem to last no longer than an incandescent, depending on the fixture. Without the longer life, they are really not a very good deal (neither financially nor ecologically.)

  9. julie says:

    I’m thinking of buying motion sensor outdoor porch lights and it takes only incandescent. What do I do if incandescent become obsolete? Can I use any type of bulb?

    • Jim says:

      The device won’t know what kind of bulb is in it. Chances are you can use anything as long as it has a standard socket. That said, you won’t want to use CFL in it because CFLs are best if you turn them on and leave them. Turning them on and off constantly, as a sensor light would, is going to shorten their lifespan.

    • Brent says:

      If the motion sensor says incandescent only, it usually won’t work well with CFLs. The sensor draws a small amount of current through the bulb when it is off, but the ballast circuit in the CFL doesn’t usually allow this. Often times, the result is that the light blinks every few seconds when it’s supposed to be off, and it might not come on at all when it should.

      Also, most CFLs don’t work well at low temperatures. I have four 26W CFLs (100W inc. equiv.) on a large covered porch, and when the temperature is below 55F they’re nightlites until they warm up. At 20F, they don’t warm up.

  10. Brent says:

    Most CFLs are designed to be mounted base down in an open fixture. The electronic ballast in the base is damaged by heat, and this is what usually fails first when installed in a closed fixture or in a fixture that mounts base up. Unfortunately, this describes most of the fixtures in my house. Even in some of my older table lamps (open bulb, base down) CFLs don’t fit in the socket due to the large neck of the CFL.

  11. Chato Mate says:

    The reason some CFL bulbs don’t last is because they have the electronics in the base. If they are in an enclosed fixture, the electronics can’t handle the heat and burn out. Then there is the disposal, and aesthetics. It’s all about choice until you encounter the environmental police.

  12. Ron says:

    I believe the author has made a mistake in some of the electrical units. When multiplying Watts by hours you get Watt-hours or kiloWatthours (kWh). Anyway, in dollars it makes sens to use the CFL bulbs.

    I use mostly CFL bulbs in my house. No incandescent bulbs are entering my home anymore. The LED bulbs are just a bit to pricy yet and there is little experience that the lifetime expectations are actually met.

    I have noticed the past year that LED prices have dropped dramatically. I hope that the prices of LED will drop some more. When they do I’ll be the last person to start replacing spent bulbs with LED!

  13. Kirk says:

    Some of the problems with CFLs have been rectified in newer CCFL, which uses the cold-cathode technology for instant on, dimmability, longer-life, works with timers and sensors, and works well in enclosed fixtures.

    For anyone shopping for new light bulbs, CCFLs would be useful in certain lighting and fixtures. They are more expensive than the contemporary CFL counterparts. But put one in your dusk-to-dawn light on your patio, and you’d be surprised.

  14. Penny King says:

    CFLs worry me. The mercury in them may not be much but if we throw into landfills it’s going to build up. I replaced all my bulbs with LEDs last year and they’re great. Good light, instantaneous, and use way less electricity. Love the bulbs from Cool brand. Good price – £14.95. Wish people could get over the initial price because you soon start saving.

    • Richard Breen says:

      Penny, as a chemist I’m also very concerned about the mercury, but you have to look at the whole picture — including human behavior — to evaluate the CFL choice. Studies in Europe indicate that outlawing standard incandescent bulbs will generally lead to people buying the closest equivalent bulb available — unless they understand good reasons for doing something different. This usually means they buy higher efficiency halogen incandescent bulbs even though they cost more and save very little electricity. Back to the mercury issue. I’ve run the numbers on mercury released by coal-fired generators and it turns out that the energy saved in using a CFL stops more mercury from being released than would be release by crushing the bulb at the end of its life. I don’t know what your situation is in the UK?, but here every major department and hardware store takes spent CFLs and other style fluorescent bulb for safe recycling at _no_ cost to the consumer. This has reduced the amount of mercury released from spent bulbs a lot. Back to human behavior. LEDs are still perceived as a very costly alternative by all but the early adopters and very serious eco types with money in their pockets to spend. For those people that can tolerate the limitations of the CFL, I recommend them over an incandescent bulb to cost-effectively reduce energy use and thereby reduce greenhouse gas and mercury emissions to the environment. The bulb you replace with a CFL should — on average — last 3 years or more and by the time it dies the LEDs should be a cost-effective and proven contender.

  15. Dan says:

    Have been replacing every buld with LEDs when they burn out. Allows for spreading out the cost and really seeing savings in power. I have recessed lighting that used to have 50 -75 watt halogen spots. replacing with 60 watt eq. Ecosmart (Home Depot exclusive) LED. only 13 watts! also they have developed a omni dircetional 60 watt eq. for lamps! get the 3000K has a warmth similar to incadecent bulbs.

  16. lighthouse says:

    Regarding the energy and money savings of using different light bulbs:

    1 Replacement savings might be great for the main lights.
    But US households have 45 lighting points on average.
    No “big savings” with upfront expensive lights in rarely used lamps. Add in broken or lost or “dud” bulbs…

    2. The incandescent heat is proven to save room heating costs
    when it’s dark its often cold, and use with air conditioning cooling is of course optional

    3. The so-called “power factor” (look it up, not the same as power rating) of ordinary “energy saving” fluorescent bulbs means that they use twice the energy at the power plant than do ordinary incandescent
    bulbs, compared to what your meter says., with references.
    Electricity consumers of course eventually have to pay for this “hidden cost” in higher bills. LEDs often also have the hidden power factor energy cost, correcting circuitry adding to cost.


    • alan says:

      Your PF argument is wrong. Someone wrote a nice brief summary above. It makes a difference but that difference is negligible and planned for.

      Heating as a result of an incandescent is silly. If an incandescent generates 60w of heat and a cfl 13w, that is a difference of 47w. Take the energy savings of that 47w and use that instead to run a heat pump, purchase gas heat, etc, and you will fall far short of the 60w total consumed (from a cost perspective). Heating with electric is very expensive relative to home heating oil / gas etc.

      Your 4th point, in most places energy use continues to increase. Utilities can’t build more capacity (or would rather not spend on the infrastructure) and reducing demand (particularly peak demand) saves them capital. They will sell plenty of kwh no matter what, but they would rather do it with less investment. In the era or energy deregulation, we have also seen energy efficiency programs in effect. Government mandates requires the companies to close old, polluting coal plants, nuclear plants are not having licenses renewed, and the companies are using all available funds to prevent their capacity from decreasing. Meanwhile, demand is increasing. If you want rates to stay the same (as opposed to increasing) then you want the utility to not have to build more infrastructure because that’s what drives your rate increases.

      Oh, and saving 1% of all energy usage would be phenomenal.

      Fluorescent lighting is a time proven technology that has powered commercial lighting since the 30’s. It rocks. Bringing it to the home is obvious.

      Your ceolas website author seems to have a very deliberate agenda.

  17. lighthouse says:


    4. Conversely:
    With any electricity saving the electricity companies make less money,
    and they simply raise the electricity bills, or receive state subsidies (out of citizens pockets) to compensate
    Already happening in California, Ohio and other US states, the UK etc, as described and referenced

    Overall society energy savings from switching away from incandescents is less than 1%, from Dept of Energy stats and surveys
    – with more on why savings for individual users are not as great as supposed, either.

    Heads you lose – Tails they win

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