I’ve written a bit about this before, but I truly find the evolution of the light bulb as a consumer household essential to be fascinating. For over 100 years since its initial invention, and despite being a necessity, the common household light bulb was virtually unchanged. No major product improvements other than price in a century of industrial innovation everywhere else. Incandescent bulbs were and still are inefficient, fragile, and plagued by a short life span.
Then, CFLs came along. Lifespan and efficiency were markedly improved and made them worth buying. Prices declined over the years, however, they still had their downsides, including fragility and concerns over mercury and disposal.
Then LEDs arrived. LEDs virtually wiped out the fragility, lifespan, and efficiency issues overnight. But the light quality wasn’t the greatest (leaving many clamoring for a dwindling supply of inefficient incandescents) and the prices were absolutely ridiculous.
Rather quickly, LEDs have had their own 4-stage evolution within 1 decade:
Phase 1 – First Mover, Money Loser: insane pricing limited the purchase of LEDs to those with a strong environmental conscience. They were a money losing proposition. And the light quality produced wasn’t as good as prior technologies. And that hum…
Phase 2 – The Wise Adopters, Long Payback: significant pricing and product improvements led to financially savvy buyers noticing that LED vs. CFL cost savings had reached a crossover point in their payback analysis. However, prices were still at the level where the typical mass consumer was not going to pull it off the shelf when comparing to cheaper alternatives. And the payback took a few years to reach.
Phase 3 – Foolish not to Upgrade: With further product improvements (producing a light quality on par with incandescents) and price improvements, I declared LEDs had reached “foolish not to upgrade” prices in April of 2015. The Home Depot began selling the eerily-similar-to-incandescent Philips A19 60W equivalent bulbs for $4.97 each, with promotional pricing bringing it down to $4.97 per 2-pack. With this promotional pricing, it had made sense to replace heavily used CFL/incandescent bulbs with LEDs immediately and lesser-used bulbs that stopped working at the time they burned out.
Phase 4 – Every Bulb as LED: Now, I believe we’ve reached the 4th and final stage of LED bulb adoption. Having used my Philips A19 60W bulbs for over 1.5 years now, I can attest that there is no noticeable difference in light quality between these bulbs and incandescents, there is no hum, not 1 bulb has died on me, they have a hardy plastic casing, and every day pricing has now declined to about $1.50 per bulb (you can now get a 16-pack on Amazon for $24).
Meanwhile, the price of vastly inferior CFLs has crept up to similar levels and incandescent bulbs aren’t far behind, so the payback is almost immediate. Simply replace old bulbs with LED to save money (and simultaneously reduce your impact on the environment).
At these prices, I cannot think of one solid argument for buying anything other than LED bulbs for the entire house. If consumers are wise, it should be nearly impossible to find CFLs and incandescents on store shelves, because nobody is buying them.
Until an even more efficient technology comes along and reaches an even better cost analysis, it’s LEDs for the financial and environmental win.