For more than a century, incandescent light bulbs held back the night for countless homes and businesses. Now the sun is setting on the incandescent bulb made popular by Thomas Edison, and more efficient alternatives are rising to take its place. For a while, the primary contender to supplant traditional bulbs was the CFL, or compact fluorescent light bulb. It is much longer-lasting than the old bulbs and uses less electricity to produce the same amount of light, but it has its drawbacks as well. Another popular option is the LED, or light-emitting diode bulb. In the past, the higher cost of LED bulbs made them prohibitive for most consumer applications despite their advantages, but new manufacturing technologies have brought the costs of LED bulbs down substantially.
Compared to their incandescent predecessor, both CFL and LED bulbs are superior choices, but how do they stack up against each other? In the past several years, the price of LED bulbs has dropped by more than an order of magnitude, making them roughly comparable in initial cost to CFL bulbs, or very slightly more expensive. However, LED bulbs last between two and three times longer than their CFL counterparts on average – meaning that you’ll have to buy fewer bulbs for the same fixture over time. That’s not the only way LED light bulbs save you money: they’re also more energy-efficient than CFL varieties, consuming less energy for the same amount of illumination. If you replace just a few bulbs in your home with LEDs, you’ll see the difference in your electric bill.
Cost is an important factor in choosing the right kind of light bulbs, but it’s not the only consideration. Performance, versatility, and environmental impact are also important factors – and these are where LED bulbs clearly pull ahead of their CFL competitors.
CFL bulbs function by passing an electric current through a tube filled with argon and mercury vapor. This quite efficiently produces light, but it’s bad news if you break a bulb. Mercury is toxic to humans, pets, and the environment, and a broken bulb must be cleaned up carefully and the room aired out. It’s also not advised to dispose of burned-out CFL bulbs in your regular trash, because of their mercury content; special recycling is available at many home improvement stores. By contrast, LED bulbs contain no mercury, and may legally be disposed of in landfills.
When it comes to actual usage, LEDs outstrip CFL bulbs in almost every way. While CFL bulbs may take a little while to reach full brightness when switched on, LEDs illuminate the area fully and immediately (which can be tremendously important when making your way down the basement stairs!). In cold temperatures, CFL bulbs may not illuminate fully, or might fail to turn on at all. LED bulbs are the best choice for outdoor or porch lights, especially in areas with cold winters. CFL bulbs are only capable of burning at a fixed brightness level, while LEDs are compatible with dimmer switches, giving you greater control of the illumination level. LEDs also stay cool to the touch, losing very little energy to producing heat.
Are there any drawbacks to LED lights? An LED is a directional light, making it ideal for recessed or track lighting, reading lamps, and other “targeted” light fixtures. More diffuse, ambient light is a little harder to achieve with LEDs, though there are LED bulbs available with lenses and reflectors that more readily simulate the room-filling glow of old incandescent bulbs.
On balance, LEDs are the superior choice for your home, your wallet, and the environment.