LEDs certainly are the future but are they the present? There is little doubt that in 20 years, perhaps 5, this will be a quaint discussion as the world will have completely convereted to LED but are LEDs current;y a better choice than compact fluorescent (CFL) light bulbs?!?!
With the rapidly dropping costs for LEDs (currently about $3.40-7.00 bucks for a A19), it’s pretty easy to see the amazing returns these bulbs provide versus standard incandescent bulbs. There are many ROI spreadsheets out there so I won’t replicate here but if you want to geek out, check out this one at Tony White Designs. At $0.2329 per kWh, as long as the bulb is used more than 3 hours a day the bulb cost is recovered in the first year. What is even crazier is that the inital cost of an incandescent bulb is actually going up (!), whereas they used to be less than a buck they are now closer to $1.90 as they are being phased out of use. Right off the bat, incandescent bulbs are dead. Let’s move on.
The ROI comparison between compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs and LEDs is much closer. Much like the LEDs, the CFL technology is becoming more mature and both the costs are going down and the expected useful life is increasing (going from 8,500 hours to 10,000 hours on these bulbs which cost $2.12/each). This compares to the best selling LED A19 on Amazon with a cost of $3.40 and a useful life of 25,000 hours. Now we can get a meat and potato comparison of the three bulbs (I kept incandescent in there for shits and giggles):
Note: The kWh reported above is what my bill is right now
The LED bulb does beats out all the other bulbs for total return over the LED’s useful life of 25,000 hours. But that is a lot of hours! Based upon the industry standard for useage, this is over 23 years!! Buy if you buy it, will you use the bulb that long?
Probably not. In 2013, the National Association of Home Builders did a study finding that most homeowners stay in their house for 13 years. That equates to 14,130 hours at average usage. Now you could replace all the LED bulbs in your house back to CFl before you moved out and take the LEDs with you but that seems unlikely with all the other stuff you have to do moving plus you would need to factor in the cost of the new CFLs. This is what happens when we cut 10,000 hours off our ROI analysis:
*LED Bulb life was capped at the expected usage for 13 years.
** Bulbs needs was rounded up to cover the number of bulbs you would actually have to buy while living in the home
I was actually surprised, I expected CFLs to beat out LED over the shorter time horizon but thanks to the cost of LEDs falling in price so dramatically over the past few years there was not much additional upfront cost to overcome.
Two final considerations, the first is the newness of the LED technology and the associated issues with reliability of any new technology. Secondly is environmental concerns.
Here I can only interject my own experience. My first one was great, I had some hard to reach overhead lights in my old house in 2008 and decided to install LED so I didn’t need to replace them often. Back then, the bulbs were purchased for about $15/each. They lasted the entire time I was at that house (6 years) with no issues. If I did the ROI analysis , CFLs would be sure to beat them but I consider never having to change the bulbs once to be a win. So when we moved into a new home in 2014 with all CFL bulbs, I immediately replaced CFLs as they failed with LED replacements. The first ones to go were in a high bathroom light fixture which was a pain to change. The perfect situation for some long lasting LEDs. Just over a year in, the two LED bulbs in that fixture died! Sadness ensued.
The second consideration stems from how the two technologies actually work. CFLs work by driving an electric current through a glass tube containing argon and mercury vapor. This process creates ultraviolet light that translates into visible light. The process has two weaknesses, it takes a few moments for them to warm up and reach full brightness and it also contains mercury. Mercury for those unscientific is bad, real bad. It causes brain damage, of which I already have too much, and is also listed as a heavy metal which harms the environment. And as a final demerit, CFL bulbs can’t be dimmed!
LED however work in a much cleaner way bringing together currents with a positive and negative charge to create energy released in the form of light. No brain destroying heavy metals here. The light is also instantaneous and can be dimmed.
When I started this, I thought the perceived cost benefits of LED bulbs would be mitigated when the time frame was shortened. It was quite satisfying to see that thanks to the costs of LED bulbs dropping, payback period has shortened quite a bit. With the added benefits of helping the environment by not using products containing mercury, I’ll happily continue to replace all my current CFL bulbs with LEDs as they fail.
The A19 is most standard bulb out there but I also ran this analysis for speciality bulb that our builder seemed to really like using for our recessed lights, the BR40. Here the lifetime cost difference was greatly reduced due to the much higher upfront costs associated with LED but it still came out ahead: