CFL vs. LED Light Bulbs: Time to Flip the Switch?

by Michael on Dec 10, 2013 · 8 comments

Photo of CFL Light Bulb

I have a love/hate relationship with CFL light bulbs. I love the low energy consumption, but I hate certain other aspects of them.

They’re fragile, they contain mercury, they have to warm up to reach full brightness, and they often die young. In other words, they’re far from being a perfect solution.

Nonetheless, when we moved into our current house 7.5 years ago, I gradually changed over all of our light bulbs (and we have a bunch) to CFLs. But now, with LED bulbs becoming (more) mainstream, I’m starting to re-think things.

My CFL experiences

Before we go any further, I want to provide some background on my experiences with CFL bulbs. Back when we first made the switch, I found that the generic 60W-equivalent CFLs that are sold in bulk at Lowe’s and Home Depot worked well.

These bulbs require minimal warmup to reach full brightness and the color is (imho) fine. And they use just a fraction of the energy of their incandescent brethren — a 13W CFL produces light that’s roughly on par with a 60W incandescent.

But still… They never seem to last as long as advertised. Wondering why?

Well, fluorescent lights require a “starter” to kickstart the lamp. With traditional fluorescent tubes, the starter is contained within the fixture and can be replaced separately. With CFLs, the starter is integrated into the base of the bulb.

Under normal household usage, which typically involves lots of on/off cycles, the starter will die long before the bulb reaches its rated lifespan. The result is that you’re left with little more than a mercury-laden chunk of glass and plastic.

So, when used properly, in fixtures that are on for long stretches per use, CFLs can be a good option. But in closets, bathrooms, and the like, they’ll die young.

It’s tempting to go back to incandescent bulbs for these situations, but those are on their way out. Standard 100W incandescent bulbs were taken off the market in 2012, 75W bulbs went away in 2013, and both 40W and 60W bulbs will be gone in 2014.

What about LED light bulbs?

The obvious alternative for those who are interested in an energy-efficient and (hopefully) longer-lasting bulb is to switch to LEDs.

When they were first brought to market, LED light bulbs were costly ($50+ for a single bulb? no thanks). Moreover, the resulting light was criticized as being both overly directional and rather harsh.

Since then, however, the situation has changed.

Prices have fallen (to a point) and the technology has improved. You can now routinely find non-directional, 60W-equivalent LED bulbs in the $10-$20 range and the light quality has (supposedly) improved.

Here’s a rundown of the top-rated 60W-equivalent bulbs from Amazon:

I know, I know. Even at the low end, that’s still a lot to pay for a single bulb.

Yes, these bulbs use fractionally less power than a CFL for equivalent light output (typically 10W vs. 13W for a 60W-equivalent bulb) that alone isn’t enough to justify the price difference.

But many of these bulbs are rated for upwards of 25,000 hours which could be 20+ years depending on usage. And, despite my own poor experiences with LED Christmas lights, real-world testing of household LED bulbs suggests that the long lifespan ratings might be accurate.

So… Is it time to switch to LED lightbulbs? For me, I think the answer is a qualified yes. I’m not going to make a wholesale switch, but I’m done buying CFLs. Going forward, I’ll be replacing our burned out CFLs with LED light bulbs.

It’ll probably take a few years to fully convert, but I’m in no rush. And during this time, prices will continue to fall and the technology will likely improve.

What about you? I’m curious to hear your thoughts and experiences. Web-based readers can scroll down to leave a comment. Those of you reading via RSS or e-mail will need to click through to do so.

1 Money Beagle December 10, 2013 at 12:28 pm

First impressions are everything, at least for me. My first use of a CFL was about 8-9 years ago in my old condo. I had a light over the oven that burned out all the time. I’d put a bulb in and it would burn out within a month. Every time. I decided, hey someone gave me one of these ‘new’ CFL bulbs, I’m going to put that in there. It never burned out, and I lived there for another 3 years or so.

I think the issue I have is that they can’t get the warmth of regular bulbs, even the ‘soft white’ CFLs are not as soft as an incandescent. For some reason they still make the ones that don’t even try to be soft. They just built a new house in our neighborhood and they put all of the ‘blue’ ones in throughout the house. It’s painful just looking through the windows, let alone imagining the people having to live there. I think the bad coloring gives CFL a very bad rap.

2 kurt @ Money Counselor December 10, 2013 at 5:57 pm

In my experience CFL bulbs don’t last nearly as long as advertised. Before I spend $10-$20 on an LED bulb, I’d need to have some assurance that its life is likely to meet the manufacturer’s claim. The other thing I think about is: if my house has ~$300 worth of light bulbs, I’m going to be tempted to take all these with me when I move! Am I cheap or do others do the same?

3 krantcents December 10, 2013 at 7:30 pm

I went with CFL’s about 4-5 years ago and saved a lot in utilities. I think I will wait a little longer to go with LED. The prices are falling fairly quickly. Besides, I have replaced the early burnouts with CFL’s through the warranty. I almost changed out the originals with the warranty bulbs.

4 Mark December 10, 2013 at 9:46 pm

I too did the CFL thing at my house in Arizona and overall I really liked them and I especially liked the energy savings. Costco was a great store to buy those bulbs. Now, I mostly live over in the Philippines and we built a new kitchen and patio this year and my wife and I chose to install LED bulbs. The light is bright white and the kitchen is beautifully lit with the seven lights we installed. We used five 5W bulbs and two 7W bulbs and our kitchen is lit up like day time even when it is totally dark outside. They are expensive, but I can’t rave enough about the color and low energy use. I recommend them for rooms where you use a lot of light like kitchens or living rooms. Make sure you change all the bulbs in one room at the same time to achieve well matched color.

5 jimbo December 12, 2013 at 6:26 am

First of all many people do not understand the colors of the CFL’s and LED’s are based on Kelvin ratings. For instance a bulb rated at 2700-3000 K will be very close to an incandescent bulb. The higher the K rating the whiter the light will be. Also many early LED bulbs promised 50,000 hours which was basically pure BS. I personally have had more CFL’s go bad than incandescent bulbs and the amount of mercury in them is so miniscule but used as a scare tactic for the green enviorment wackos. Also remember the savings using these bulbs will be very small for a standard size house. If it is a commercial office where lighting is on 10,12,14 hours a day the savings are much more. The LED technology is getting better and better and the price points while still high is getting better.

6 desper-otto December 14, 2013 at 3:04 pm

I’ve gone the LED route (100w equivalent) for all seven recessed cans in the kitchen ceiling. I had tried CFL’s there, but couldn’t handle the long (40-50 second) warm-up before they reached full brightness and I could only find 60w equivalent CFL’s — not bright enough.

I also replaced the four outdoor floods in my back yard with LED’s. The incandescent bulbs were always burning out. I’ve got CFL’s in the reading lamps inside and in the “globed” ceiling fixtures. So far, so good.

7 Alan December 14, 2013 at 8:38 pm

I HATE my 8 CFLs in the great room. They take forever to warm up, and they cast an unnatural tint. LEDs are the wave of the future, and I shall start buying them soon. However, I am also hoarding all the incandescents I can find because I shall continue using them until they’re all gone.

8 Paul December 15, 2013 at 2:45 pm

CFLs worked well in our regular lamps, but we did not have long life in pendant lights. Ours were closed at the top, so there was no venting and heat could build up. After 4 CFLs burned out (in three fixtures) in a month or so, we went back to incandescent.
If I buy pendant fixtures in future, I’m going to look for vent holes.

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