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LED vs CFL Bulbs: Which is More Energy Efficient and Better for the Earth?

The wholesale switch from incandescent light bulbs, which were discontinued for wattage above 40 watts in 2014, to the more energy-efficient compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) bulbs and light emitting diode (LED) bulbs have been evolving for years. A lot of confusion still exists, however, about these bulbs, starting with which is which. Is the long light bulb the CFL bulb and the LED the curly light bulb? Or is it the other way around — CFL is the curly light bulb and LED is the long light bulb? And that’s before we even analyze which one is more energy efficient!

In short form, here are the answers: CFL is the curly light bulb and LED is the long light bulb. And, in the CFL vs LED battle for energy efficiency, the LED light benefits make it a winner, hands down. Here’s what you need to know.

CFL vs LED Bulbs

To understand LED light benefits, it’s important to understand the difference between the two bulbs. LED light bulbs produce light when an electrical current passes through them. In CFL bulbs an electric current flows between electrodes at each end of a gas-filled tube. The reaction creates ultraviolet light and heat, which is then changed into light when it hits a phosphor coating on the bulb’s interior. This process takes anywhere from 30 seconds to 3 minutes to complete, according to ENERGY STAR®, which is why it can seem as if your CFL light takes a while to be fully lit.

CFLs use 25-35% of the energy used by incandescent bulbs, but if you really want to make the biggest environmental impact on the environment, choosing LEDs is the way to go. Residential LEDs, especially those rated by ENERGY STAR, use more than 75% less energy and last 25 times longer than incandescent lighting. Energy.gov notes that by 2027 widespread use of LEDs could save about 348 TWh of electricity, the equivalent of annual electrical output of 44 electric power plants (1000 megawatts each). It’s also a total savings of more than $30 billion at today’s electricity prices.

Here are some other differences to keep in mind when examining CFL vs LED bulbs:

  • LEDs emit very little heat. In contrast, incandescent bulbs release 90% of their energy as heat, CFLs release about 80% of their energy as heat, according to Energy.gov.
  • Another LED light benefit is that LEDs, because they emit light in a specific direction, do not need diffusers or reflectors that trap lights. This helps increase LED efficiency for uses such as downlights (recessed downlights are common in residential kitchens, hallways and bathrooms) or task lighting.
  • The Department of Energy estimates that there are at least 500 million downlights in U.S. homes, with more than 20 million sold each year. The DOE estimates that both CFL and LED lighting could decrease downlight wattage by at least 75%.
  • The same LED string of holiday lights could still be in use 40 holiday seasons from now, according to Energy.gov.

Why people still use inefficient incandescent light bulbs

Starting in Jan. 2014 the United States no longer manufactures or imports incandescent bulbs – although stores can still sell what they have in stock. The phaseout is a result of federal rules to switch to more energy-efficient bulbs.

Energy-efficient bulbs cost more than incandescent bulbs but last much longer and save on energy costs in the long-term. So why are people still buying incandescent bulbs and what will the phaseout mean for you?

Incandescent bulbs cost much less than their energy-efficient alternatives – mainly CFLs (compact fluorescent lamps) and LEDs (light emitting diodes).

An incandescent bulb can cost as little as 70 cents. Meanwhile, a CFL bulb sells for at least a few dollars and an LED starts at $10 but usually runs around $20.

The problem with incandescents is you end up paying more in electricity costs. Incandescents are inefficient – 90% of the energy goes toward heat and only 10% toward light.

Incandescents also don’t last as long as CFLs and LEDs. The typical incandescent bulb lasts about 1,000 hours, while a 15-watt CFL bulb lasts 10,000 hours and a 12-watt LED bulb lasts 25,000 hours. In other words, incandescents last about a year while CFLs can last 10 years and LEDs up to 25.

All told, your energy costs can be 25%-80% less by switching to energy-efficient bulbs, according to Energy.gov.

Despite the savings, many still stick with incandescents because they typically don’t spend that much in the first place on lighting in their homes.

“There hasn’t been a lot of incentive to go more efficient because it’s not going to make a big deal on their electric bill,” said Joe Rey-Barreau, a lighting design professor at the University of Kentucky and a consultant with the American Lighting Association, about why some people haven’t switch to more energy-efficient bulbs.

While an office building may use 21% of its electricity for lighting, a house uses as little as 13%, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Home improvement store Lowe’s did a study comparing electricity costs of an LED vs. an incandescent bulb. Energy costs for the LED added up to $30 over the bulb’s 22-year lifespan. Energy costs for using an incandescent bulb over that same period added up to $165 – savings, certainly, but perhaps not significant enough for many homeowners over two decades to alter their buying habits.

Color

Incandescents are known for their warm light, which looks particularly good against skin tones, Rey-Barreau said. On the other hand, fluorescent lights have gained a reputation for casting a harsh, bluish light.

Rey-Barreau said that belief is a “carryover” from what the lights first looked like.

“Today, you can have fluorescents that match incandescents exactly,” he said. Light bulb manufacturers are required to include on their label the color temperature of their bulbs, so consumers can know exactly what they’re purchasing.

Life span

Some consumers complain that CFLs don’t last as long as advertised. One characteristic of CFL bulbs is they are “fairly fragile” and can succumb to overheating, said Terry McGowan, director of engineering for the American Lighting Association.

“Those life ratings are established in a test lab and not established in somebody’s living room fixture,” McGowan said. “When you put them in a fixture and bottle them up in a glass shade, they get too hot and the life will be shortened.”

LED lights can also overheat. McGowan recommends using these bulbs in light fixtures that have good ventilation.

CFL bulbs are also susceptible to shorter life spans when they are frequently turned on and off. A bathroom might not be a good place for a CFL, for example. A table lamp, floor lamp or hallway light would be more likely to extend a CFL bulb’s life span, McGowan said.

Weird look

Another complaint about non-incandescent bulbs is how they look. CFLs, in particular, have a curly design.

“The corkscrew shape of the CFL was troubling” for some consumers, Lowe’s spokesperson Karen Cobb said.

“We heard from customers who said it’s just an unusual shape and it doesn’t look as nicely as the incandescent bulbs in their light fixtures,” Cobb said.

Rey-Barreau said if you don’t see the shape of the bulb, the light of a CFL looks no different than an incandescent.

Habits

Part of what’s driving the use of cheap, inefficient incandescent bulbs is simply that they are familiar.

“That’s all people have known for most of their lives, and it’s only the last five, six years this whole issue of energy efficiency has become a greater priority,” Rey-Barreau said.

But LEDs are increasingly becoming popular. At Lowe’s, the number of LED bulbs sold at its stores doubled in the last year, Cobb said. Currently, one in three light bulbs purchased at Lowe’s is a CFL or LED bulb, she said.

LED’s popularity is partly driven by consumers’ familiarity with LED in other products such as TVs and computers, Cobb said.

The price of LED bulbs has also gone down significantly. The first LED bulbs to hit the market cost $30 each. Now some manufacturers offer LED bulbs for as little as $10, Rey-Barreau said.

As the cost continues to drop, he predicts LED bulbs will become “the default light source.”

What is Earth Day?

Earth Day is now a global event each year, and we believe that more than 1 billion people in 192 countries now take part in what is the largest civic-focused day of action in the world.

It is a day of political action and civic participation. People march, sign petitions, meet with their elected officials, plant trees, clean up their towns and roads. Corporations and governments use it to make pledges and announce sustainability measures. Faith leaders, including Pope Francis, connect Earth Day with protecting God’s greatest creations, humans, biodiversity and the planet that we all live on.

Earth Day Network, the organization that leads Earth Day worldwide, has chosen as the theme for 2018 to End Plastic Pollution, including creating support for a global effort to eliminate primarily single-use plastics along with global regulation for the disposal of plastics.  EDN is educating millions of people about the health and other risks associated with the use and disposal of plastics, including pollution of our oceans, water, and wildlife, and about the growing body of evidence that plastic waste is creating serious global problems.

From poisoning and injuring marine life to the ubiquitous presence of plastics in our food to disrupting human hormones and causing major life-threatening diseases and early puberty, the exponential growth of plastics is threatening our planet’s survival.