The Best Light Bulb for Your Money


Are you still using old-school incandescent light bulbs? Do you tell yourself they're cheaper because of their lower up-front cost? Well, we have news for you: Switching to compact flourescent or LED bulbs will save you around $20,000 over 60,000 hours of use. (That's nearly seven years—if you leave the lights on 24/7. We hope you don't.)

$20,000. That's a semester at an expensive college, a down payment on a house, a new car, a world tour. All from changing your light bulbs!

Plus, home lighting accounts for about 20% of the average home’s electricity bill, according to Energy Star, a program from the federal government.

There are three major kinds of bulbs: compact flourescents (CFLs), light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and incandescents. Here are the pros and cons for each, and which, ultimately, is the best value.


These traditional bulbs haven't changed much since Thomas Edison invented them in 1879.

Costs: Incandescent bulbs are the cheapest upfront, at about 50 cents for a 60-watt bulb, according to American Lighting Association estimates. But you’ll pay significantly more on your electricity bill, and on replacements, than you would with CFL or LED bulbs. (See that big number, above.)

Pros: “It depends on how much you will be keeping the light on. If the lamp needs to be on all the time, a CFL may be the most economical choice,” says Chunlei Guo, associate professor at The Institute of Optics at the University of Rochester. “However, if you only use it occasionally each day, incandescent may not be a bad choice as it probably will take a very long time to offset the initial cost of a CFL.”

Cons: They’re notorious power wasters. About 90% of the energy used by an incandescent bulb goes to emitting heat and only 10% goes to emitting light, according to Kelly Cunningham, outreach director at the California Lighting Technology Center.

Compact Fluorescent Lights
CFLs look like long twisted tubes compressed into the shape of a regular bulb.

Cost:  Your 50-cent incandescent can be replaced with a 13-watt CFL, which costs about $3 and lasts about 10 times longer, according to the EPA.

Pros: These bulbs use about 75% less energy than incandescents.  What’s more, some state utilities provide incentives, sometimes several dollars per bulb, to individuals and businesses that switch to CFLs.

Cons: Price is a major deterrent. Also, the color of light produced by certain types of CFLs, which can make for an unflattering look in the mirror, can be a turnoff.  What’s more, if you use dimmer switches at home, CFLs can burn out long before they’re supposed to, Cunningham says.

Lastly, CFLs contain small amounts of mercury.  Since the substance is harmful to the environment, you’d have you’ll have to find a special facility to discard your bulb, says Cunningham. Some home improvement stores, including Home Depot (Stock Quote: HD), have CFL recycling programs.)

Hot Tip: Energy Star-certified CFLs come with a two-year warranty covering manufacturing defects. If yours burns out before it should (the number of hours it should last is usually disclosed on the product’s package), visit the manufacturer’s web site or contact Energy Star to ask about a refund or replacement.

LED technology allows for a large amount of light to come from a small source of energy without giving off much heat.

Costs: At up to $100 per bulb (although many cost between $20 and $30), converting an entire home to an all-LED lighting system could wind up costing thousands of dollars upfront.

But, like computers and iPhones, LED bulbs will likely get cheaper over time, likely making them a more convincing lighting option.

“The cost of bright LEDs has dropped 95% in the last 10 years and 30% in the last three,” says William Greenhoe, president of PiSAT, a company that makes solar powered LED lanterns and flashlights.

Pros: Each LED light bulb, which uses direct and powerful light emitting diode technology, can last up to 50,000 hours.  That’s five and a half hours a day every day for 25 years.

Also, LED bulbs don’t get as hot as incandescent bulbs, which could make them more safe and efficient for commercial use, especially if they’re left on 24 hours a day, seven days a week

Cons: Converting your home lighting system to all LEDs may not be a good idea if you live in a very cold climate, says Cunningham, citing reports that Canadian consumers switching to LED bulbs eventually had greater demands on their home heating systems due to low heat output from LED bulbs.

And though some companies guarantee their bulbs for life, many LED bulbs are only guaranteed for a year or a few years.

“LEDS are just coming onto the market, so there’s not a lot of regulation right now or information on whether or not they’re going to fulfill their 50,000 hour promises,” says Cunningham. 

It Comes Down to Consumption
Before you decide to make upgrades, “look at where the energy is going in your home,” Cunningham suggests.  Cunningham says the kitchen light is the most used light in the home, followed by the porch light.

Larry Lauck, spokesman for the American Lighting Association, says he uses several types of lighting in his home, including CFL and incandescent bulbs, so he gets "the energy savings and can create the proper atmosphere.”

Related Links:
Your Guide to Energy Efficient Appliances

Home Solar Power: Cost v. Savings

How 3 Tech Companies Are Going Green

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