LED Light Bulbs - Why Make The Switch?

by cazort

LED light bulbs have recently dropped in price; offering long-life, mercury free bulbs with light quality rivaling incandescents, and the most energy efficient technology yet.

LED light bulbs (light emitting diodes) are a relatively new technology. LED lighting is somewhat of a "gold standard" of lighting, superior in many ways to both incandescent bulbs and fluorescents. But until recently, LED's were prohibitively expensive.

Recently, the price of LED's has been plummeting, making this form of lighting accessible to everyday homeowners.

Here I will explain the benefits of these bulbs, and then give recommendations of specific bulbs, each of which I have personally tested.

LED's vs. CFL's: Why Switch to LED's?

Both LED's and CFL's are more efficient than incandescent bulbs. But LED's have numerous advantages over the older CFL technology.

CFL's, compact fluorescent light bulbs, have been available (and affordable) for well over 10 years now.  Why would you switch to the newer LED technology, which is still more expensive?  LED's offer several compelling advantages:

  • (Even) More Energy Efficient - CFL's are more energy efficient than incandescents, but LED's improve on the efficiency further.  A CFL 60W equivalent typically uses around 16-17 watts, whereas an LED 60W equivalent uses only 9.5-11W.
  • Longer Lifespan - CFL's have a lifespan of 6,000 to 15,000 hours, about 0.7-1.7 years if the bulb were on continuously.  Contrast with only 750-1,000 hours for a typical incandescent.  LED's further improve on this: their lifespan is estimated at around 25,000 to 50,000 hours, but they have the added advantage that instead of burning out or breaking, they usually just become a little dimmer.
  • Instant On - CFL's have a "warm up" period: when first turned on, they are a little dim, and it takes a few minutes for them to reach full brightness.  LED's come on instantly at full brightness.
  • Mercury Free - Mercury is highly toxic and can be a safety concern, as well as a broader environmental concern when bulbs are disposed.  Most CFL's contain significant amounts of mercury, whereas LED's do not.
  • Better Light Quality - CFL's never seemed to quite get to where they looked as good as old-fashioned incandescent bulbs, but LED's, simply put, do.  LED's even offer a few improvements in dimmers, offering unchanging light color at low levels.

In summary, LED's are better on all counts...in my opinion, now that the price has come down, there is little reason to not buy them for all new lighting purchases.  You may even wish to replace some of the CFL bulbs that are still in use.

Have you ever bought or installed an LED light bulb?

How much money can I save? Lots.

LED's can pay for themselves in a year, if replacing heavily-used incandescent bulbs. For other bulbs, the return on investment is still high.

If you switch from a 60W incandescent bulb to the 9.5W Cree bulbs listed below (currently the best price on the market) you will save 50.5 watts per bulb.  This means that if you use the bulb an average of 1 hour a day, you'll save about 18.4 kWh.  Typical electricity prices are around 10 cents per kWh, so at this price, you'll save $1.84 a year.  But for a bulb that gets heavy use, like 3 hours a day, you'll save closer to $5.53.  The bulb will pay for itself in a year!

If you switch from an already-efficient CFL, the savings will be more modest.  For example, switching from a 13-watt CFL to a 9.5-watt LED bulb will only save 3.5 watts, which, for an hour a day and electricity at 10 cents / kWh, will amount to savings of only about 13 cents.  But for a bulb that is on for a longer period of time, like one in an office or public building, used for 10 hours a day, the savings would amount to $1.28 a year.  For a $5 bulb (Cree bulbs are available in some regions as low as $5, everywhere for $10), this represents a ROI (return-on-investment) of over 25%!  This is a huge ROI.

LED's are so efficient that they represent a high return-on-investment even on bulbs that you only use for a few hours a day, and for more heavily-used bulbs, even when replacing energy-efficient CFL bulbs.

What do they look like?

You can't easily tell the difference between these and old-fashioned incandescent bulbs. The bulbs are round, without the twist of CFL's.
LED Light Bulbs (Philips) in Recessed Fixtures
LED Light Bulbs (Philips) in Recessed...
Photo by Alex Zorach
Cree 9.5W in Recessed Fixture
Cree 9.5W in Recessed Fixture
Photo by Alex Zorach

Dimmability of LED Bulbs - A Few Caveats

I recommend the Philips bulbs for dimmers; Cree bulbs claim "dimmability" but performance is inferior.

Unlike incandescent bulbs, LED bulbs are not necessarily dimmable.  Furthermore, some manufacturers will make claims of the bulbs being "dimmable", even if they do not necessarily behave gracefully in dimmers.  The good news, however, is that there are better options for using LED bulbs in dimmers than using CFL (Compact Fluorescents), which pair notoriously poorly with dimmers.

If you plan on ordering LED bulbs for a dimmer, I recommend not going with the cheapest (Cree) bulbs, but spending a little more money for the Philips 11 watt bulbs.  I've tested these in dimmers, and they behave much better.  The Cree bulbs claim to be dimmable, but they buzz and flicker, and cannot be dimmed as low.

If you install a bunch of Philips bulbs on the same dimming circuit, they sometimes flicker (or come on full brightness) if you turn them on on the lowest setting.  This is easily remedied by ramping the dimmer up for a few seconds, then dimming it again.

An Advantage of LED's in dimmers: People may be surprised to learn that there is one way in which LED bulbs outperform incandescents in dimmers.  This is the fact that they retain the same light color and quality as they are dimmed.  Incandescent bulbs, when dimmed lower, become more orange and then reddish at the lowest levels.  This can be problematic if you are trying to do anything involving color at low lighting levels.  LED's solve this problem beautifully.

Cree 9.5 Watt LED's

This is my recommended bulb of choice for replacing simple bulbs. It is the cheapest bulb on the market that offers outstanding light quality, and is among the most efficient.
Cree 9.5-Watt (60W) Soft/Warm White (2700K) LED Light Bulb *6-Pack*

Individually Wrapped. Set of 6.

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Cree 9.5-Watt (60W) "2-pack" Soft/Warm White (2700K) LED Light Bulb

This is a 2 pack of Cree's famous 60W replacement bulbs. The products are in Cree's packaging as shown in the photo.

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How cheap would LED's need to be for you to buy them?

Philips 11 Watt Dimmable LED

This bulb offers the best light quality of any LED bulb that I've tested. I've also tested it in a dimmer, finding it dims gracefully.
Philips 423491 11-watt (60-Watt) Ambient LED A19 2700K (Warm White) Light Bulb, Dimmable

The NEW Philips Energy Saving LED 11-Watt A19 household bulb is ideal for use in kitchens, living rooms, bedrooms and hallways. Featuring a new sleek, white desgin and ENERGY ST...

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3 Way Lamp? Buy A Special Bulb Or Use One Setting

If you use a normal LED bulb in a 3-way lamp, you'll only get access to two settings: on and off. A special bulb is necessary to get all 3 settings.

Just like regular bulbs, if you put a normal LED light bulb in a 3-way lamp, it'll work fine, but you'll only be able to use it in two states: on or off.  To benefit from all three states for the bulb, you'll need to buy a special bulb.

Unfortunately, 3-way LED bulbs haven't come down in price as much as the regular bulbs have.  Expect to pay a little over $20 a bulb if you want this functionality.  Is it worth it?  You decide.  I bought two bulbs, mainly out of curiosity, and because I want to support the manufacturers of these bulbs out of principle, to create the sort of market demand that will eventually drive the price down.

If you'd like, the two bulbs that I would recommend (which were the most reasonable I could find on the market currently) are featured below.

Two Recommended 3-Way Bulbs

3-Way LED bulbs are still a bit pricier. These two options, both of which I've tested, are the best I could find. The EcoSmart bulb is dimmer and the Cree bulb brighter.
EcoSmart 10-Watt (60W) A19 3-Way Soft White (2700K) LED 018564 Light Bulb

The EcoSmart 3-Way Light 10-Watt (60W) LED Light Bulb can replace a standard 60-Watt bulb. The LED bulb puts out 810 lumens with 10 Watts of power and can last up to 18.26 years...

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LED - 3-Way - 3/8/18 Watt - A21 - 30/60/100 Watt Equal - 320/820/1620 Lumens - 2700K Warm White -...

Cree 3 Way 3/8/18-watt (30/60/100-watt) Soft/Warm White (2700k) LED Light Bulb - 320/820/1620 Lumens - Omnidirectional

View on Amazon

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I am very passionate about sustainability, and have also written on a range of other topics. Check out some of my other pages!
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Updated: 12/28/2014, cazort
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VioletteRose on 08/06/2014

I prefer using LED light bulbs. You are right, they last longer and also has better light quality.

cazort on 08/04/2014

Switching over as bulbs burn out is a great way to do things, if you're upgrading from CFL's to LED's.

CSMcClellan on 08/04/2014

I've been using CFLs almost exclusively for years. I started even before the prices dropped, and it was worth it. I'll be switching to LEDs as they need to be replaced.

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