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Are LED or CFL Bulbs Worth the Cost?

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I keep up with the latest technologies that are available, and lighting is just a part of that. Being that I am in the process of updating my lights in my home (bulbs are finally starting to die off), I have run in to the situation most of us face (although usually do not realize it): deciding which light bulb replacement type to go with. There are essentially three different types:

  • Incandescent (these are the oldest ones, the cheap ones we are all familiar with, usually coming in boxes of four)
  • CFL (this stands for compact fluorescent, and is the next step up in price. These come in spiral shapes if you are looking at normal bulbs)
  • LED (these are the latest and greatest the technology has to offer; at least for us consumers. They are also the most expensive as a result)

Each of these, as you can tell, have their benefits. It ends up more or less becoming a battle of whether you want to spend more up front or more over time; to a point. Oddly enough, running the numbers comes up with an interesting finding.

Marketing the Bulbs

When you are looking at marketing for the LED bulbs, they always push for the same thing: you will save money on your electricity bill by purchasing them. Being that they use little electricity, this makes a lot of sense. They also end up pushing the fact that they last longer than the other bulb types, therefore you have to buy and replace them less often. And, of course, if we follow the marketing hype at its word, it all sounds great. But is it really? This is what I set myself out to figure out. And I was surprised by the results.

Running the Numbers

To help figure out the cheapest course of action, I went through and looked for the bulbs that were the most cost efficient. In the case of LEDs, these usually only come in a single pack and that was the same in this case as well. For the CFLs, though, I ended up finding a great deal on an 18 pack (which is a lot of bulbs, but it saves money on a per bulb price. And do not worry, you will see why this does not have a big impact on the results shortly). The prices I came up with for the bulbs ended up being as follows:

  • CFL: $1.50 (in the 18 pack)
  • LED: $11.00

Now, there are definitely more expensive bulbs on both ends of the spectrum. LEDs can run nearly a hundred dollars each, but I was going based on their watt usage, estimated life time and their price. The overall goal here was to pick the most efficient bulbs for their long term value, rather than short term (as that is how the LED ones are being marketed as well). The full stats of the bulbs I ended up with were:

  • CFL: $1.50 each, 10,000 rated hours, 13 watts used
  • LED: $11.00 each, 25,000 rated hours, 4 watts used

After then using mathematics to figure out how long they should last, assuming that we use the LED as the base line and scale the CFLs up to the same period of time (25k hours), we come up with the following prices for using each bulb for 25k hours, including the bulb costs and an estimated cost of electricity of $0.12:

  • CFL: $19.35 (and 2.5 bulbs would be used)
  • LED: $23.00 (and a single bulb would be used)

This ends up with a price difference of $3.65, with the CFL coming in the lead. If we lower the price of electricity, the price difference grows. So while $0.12 may be a bit higher than a lot of people are paying, it helps stress that even with expensive electricity, the CFL came out ahead.

So at this point you may be wondering what prices the bulbs would need to be at for the LED to be equal to the CFL over time. For the purpose of the pricing, I am going to assume that CFL stays at around the same price, and that LED is what gets cheaper since it is a newer technology. So, assuming you can get CFLs at $1.50 each still, a LED would need to be at $7.35 to break even if your electricity cost is $0.12 per kilowatt hour. If you paid only $0.10 per kilowatt hour, you would need to get the bulbs at $6.75 to break even.

Please note that I gave all the math behind the numbers so that you can also run your own calculations based on the price of electricity and such in your area. I have had to deal with far too many people that claim LED bulbs are cheaper over time simply because they appear to be, and many refuse to even look at the math for proving that this is wrong. The best deal is not always as it seems, and with LED we are not seeing the best deal yet. I think over the next year or two, though, we should hit that sweet price mark, and then as the prices go down it will just be an added benefit. But until that happens, the math simply does not add up to what we are being told; at least unless you live in a place where electricity is extremely expensive (like in the 18c/kw area or so probably). It is also worth noting that if you generate your own home's electricity through solar or wind power, your benefit to switching to LEDs is going to come at a much lower price than those of us who pay for the energy we are using. Always be sure to run the numbers on your own, based on your own costs, to ensure that you are making the right decision. While it may be cheaper for one person to use CFLs, for others it will be cheaper for the LEDs. The only way to know is to plug in your own data and see where it takes you.

Reducing Effort in Replacing Light Bulbs

This is actually something that I have been enlightened on. While the actual monetary value may not be in these new light bulbs yet, there are some people that would rather cut down on the number of times they have to go out and purchase new bulbs, or replace the ones that are burning out. Especially in rooms with high ceilings, or outside and places like that, it is easier to just throw a bulb in it and forget about it than to constantly have to keep swapping it out with a new one. I would consider this as a convenience fee, in a way, but for a lot of people it does have that desirability. In most light fixtures it should not be an issue one way or another, and the normal CFLs should be more than enough for the time being. For any fixtures you would rather deal with the least amount as possible, though, going with an LED, despite the fact that they are still more expensive than alternatives, may be the best option. That is something you will have to determine based on where the lights are going, how accessible they are and how you feel about replacing them. Of course, when the LED bulbs go down to the price range that makes them at least equal to CFL or incandescent, it will definitely make sense to start upgrading as older bulbs start to burn out. Until then, though, you will need to evaluate their importance to your life as compared to the increased cost.

Conclusion

While we are constantly being told what the most efficient path to take is for our money, sometimes you need to run the numbers yourself to be sure. I was one of the people who saw that bulbs can use as few as 4 watts and thought it was an awesome thing (and, really, it still is). But when you really break down the numbers and calculate the cost, you end up coming up with the result that LEDs need to drop in price by nearly half in order to actually save money in the long run. This, tacked on with the fact that they cost a lot more up front, shows that, at least at this point, they are not a good buy unless you are just trying to help save the environment. With that said, I have no doubt that they will continue to get lower in price, as the technology is still pretty new right now. This time last year, for example, they were almost four times their current cost. So to get the price down to the 5-6 dollar range I think is more than doable!

Update: New LEDs Released

There appear to be some new bulbs that have been released recently that are classified as LED, but have almost the same power usage as their CFL counter parts. It is hard to tell where this comes from, being that I was under the impression that all LEDs were energy friendly and that is where their benefits reside, but that appears to have changed. It is also worth noting that some cheaper LED bulbs that have low life lines are also out there now, so it is important that you are paying attention to all three things: energy efficiency, cost and the approximate life that they should be good for. All three of these are what you are going to plug in to the formula to determine whether the bulb is worth picking up or not. If you are looking at LEDs that run a few dollars each and are using 10 watts still, for example, you are probably better off just grabbing the CFLs that are pretty much the same thing but cheaper. Just be aware of what you are buying before you do it. Do not let the word LED throw you off and make you automatically think that you are getting a great deal; you might not be.

Update 2: Different LED Bulbs...

As of the past year or so, many new brands of LED light bulbs have been released. This has caused a bit of confusion among consumers, because of the cost differences. The important thing to do when looking at these is to pay attention to the price and the number of hours they are rated for. For example, if one bulb is $5 and has a rated time period of around 10k hours but another is $10 and is rated for 25k hours, the second one is the best when it comes to pricing. It is very, very important to watch both of these numbers. Furthermore, you may need to do some mental math, as they usually just show the calculation in terms of “days,” based on 4 hours. Keep this all in mind when you are out shopping, as it is easy to think that you are getting the best deal when you are actually just overpaying and should not be.

It is also worth noting that the number of watts is important. A bulb that uses 3 watts will take half the electricity as one that uses 6 watts. This is another hidden thing on a lot of bulbs that you will want to look out for. Essentially, if you are going for LED, you want one that is going to last a long time but use very little electricity. Otherwise, you are probably better off just dealing with CFL. As technology keeps progressing and newer things keep coming out, the prices and their life times will continually change, but for now, it looks like LED and CFL are where it is at – assuming you are paying close enough attention to the actual value you are getting.

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