LED vs. CFL Costs: the Financial Crossover Point has Arrived

Ahh, the good ole’ lightbulb. Literally a century with zero technological enhancements in mass marketed products. Why? Coal-powered energy was damn cheap! In many ways, it still is. But it has risen to levels that can have a noticeable impact on budgets, over the last few decades. And the result has been a flurry of activity in bringing innovative, energy-saving light emitting technologies to the masses.

It couldn’t have come sooner. The incandescent light bulb needed an upgrade. It had a lifespan of about 1,000 hours, on average (merely days if you accidentally touched it with your skin and transferred body oil). It was incredibly unreliable (and occasionally explosive). But worst of all was its horrid inefficiency. At 60W of energy use, only 5% of consumption resulted in visible light – the other 95% as heat. Literally, 95% of your cash vanishing in to thin air. And, no… light bulb heat is not an efficient means of heating a house.

For these reasons, I had never purchased an incandescent bulb as a post-graduate consumer. I went straight to compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs). CFLs, which hit the mainstream in the late 1990’s, presented vast improvements over incandescents. They promised 10,000 hour lifespans, weren’t as unreliable, and (at the time) only used 20W of electricity to produce the same light output as a 60W incandescent – for an energy/cost savings of 67%. At about $5 each, they resulted in a positive ROI in year 1.

But CFLs have always had their detractors.

First, there was the “they don’t turn on fast enough” objections. From my memory, this issue pretty much disappeared within the first year of mass production. Then there was the “the light isn’t incandescent-ey” crowd. This also disappeared within a few years (although the reputation has persisted). And, finally, there was the “CFLs have mercury – don’t buy them” concerns. This one grabbed me for a bit, but a few years ago an Energy Star study on CFL mercury levels showed that incandescents (through being powered mostly by mercury blasting coal plants) actually produced more mercury (at 5.5 mg) than CFLs contained and produced combined (at 1.6 mg). Check and mate.

Today’s CFLs now come in at an even more economical 13W and their prices have dropped to about $1.50 per unit. With those efficiencies, the stubborn continued choice of incandescents over CFLs proved to be an exercise in cutting off one’s nose to spite face.

Still, CFLs have their downsides:

  • If you have the good (bad) habit of turning lights off when you left a room and on when you entered, CFLs don’t last much longer than incandescents.
  • Any level of mercury is too much.
  • CFLs have the ability to occasionally explode when dropped, or otherwise.

And for those reasons, I had always been hoping for something a bit more. Better technology was out there, it just hadn’t made its way to the mass market yet.

That wait ended about a year ago. I made my first switch to light emitting diode (LED) technology, with replacements for my kitchen track lights. These dimmable bulbs run on just 5W, versus a halogen’s 45-50W. The switch produced similar energy savings as the move from incandescents to CFLs. ROI positive in year 1.

My second switch came when I decided to swap out an old-school 43W CFL in the most commonly used light in my household – the living room lamp. My replacement was the now outdated Philips SlimStyle LED. SlimStyle benefits included:

  • Just 10.5W to produce the same light as a 60W incandescent.
  • An amazing 25,000 hour lifespan (25X that of incandescents and lets generously say 10X that of CFLs).
  • Absolutely beautiful light.
  • Dimmable (dimmable CFLs typically cost north of $10 each).
  • No mercury.
  • A 3-year warranty.
  • A hard plastic encasing that would prevent any sort of explosion scenarios (outside of anything short of taking a sledgehammer to it).

LED vs CFL costs

By all measures, the SlimStyle and its main LED competition are superior to any of their incandescent, halogen, and CFL predecessors.

Update 1: A lot has changed in the few months since I first published this article, and now LED bulbs have reached “foolish not to upgrade” prices with the new A19 Philips bulb at Home Depot.

Update 2: the cost of new A19 bulbs are now just under $2 per bulb at normal price on Amazon, which leads to me now believing that every light bulb bought should now be LED. We’ve reached the point where every cost analysis favors LED in a relatively short time frame, if not immediately.

Why buy LED bulbs? For starters, there’s the whole “we’re destroying the planet” thing. According to Energy Star, “If every American home replaced just one incandescent or CFL light bulb with a certified LED, it would save enough energy to light 3 million homes for a year, resulting in savings of about $680 million in annual energy costs and prevent 9 billion pounds of greenhouse gas emissions per year, equivalent to those from about 800,000 cars.” That’s a huge environmental impact.

What if you hate the environment and you only want only to watch out for el numero uno? What are the cost savings and ROI of switching to an LED? Let’s assume 6 hours per day of use over the 25,000 lifespan for LEDs, 2,500 for CFLs, and 1,000 for incandescents. And a $0.12 kWh electricity cost.

Versus incandescent, the SlimStyle (or similar LEDs) would result in:

  • $167.53 in total savings
  • a 4.2 month payback
  • a ridiculous 3,271% ROI (good luck ever achieving that anywhere else)

Versus the CFL, the SlimStyle (or similar LEDs) would result in:

  • $16.53 in total savings
  • A 50 month payback
  • an ROI of 270%

And this is just the start. As LED prices decline (they will) with more competition and adoption and energy prices increase (they will), the numbers will become even more favorable.

Now, until you see the discounted LEDs, it’s probably in your best financial interests to hold on to CFLs in seldom used lights. But for heavy use LEDs, the economics are finally there. And in short time, with LED lifespans, there will rarely be a scenario where CFLs come out ahead on purchase/energy pricing.

This LED mass market crossover point has arrived. RIP CFLs.

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