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.


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 (CFL’s). CFL’s, 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 CFL’s 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 “CFL’s 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 CFL’s contained and produced combined (at 1.6 mg). Check and mate.

Today’s CFL’s 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 CFL’s proved to be an exercise in cutting off one’s nose to spite face.

Still, CFL’s have their downsides:

  • If you have the good (bad) habit of turning lights off when you left a room and on when you entered, CFL’s don’t last much longer than incandescents.
  • Any level of mercury is too much.
  • CFL’s 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 bulbs run on just 5W, versus a halogen’s 45-50W. The switch produced similar energy savings as the move from incandescents to CFL’s. 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 Philips SlimStyle LED. SlimStyle benefits include:

  • LED vs CFL costsJust 10.5W to produce the same light as a 60W incandescent.
  • An amazing 25,000 lifespan (25X that of incandescents and lets generously say 10X that of CFL’s).
  • Absolutely beautiful light.
  • Dimmable (dimmable CFL’s 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).

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 the new Philips A19 bulb is now just over $1 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.

However, price has always been the barrier to LED mass market domination. But that is quickly changing. Philips lowered the price of the SlimStyle to $8.97. And recent Energy Star certification has led to prices as low as $1.97 in some states, with state and utility subsidies. I picked one up at Home Depot for $5.97.

So why buy one? 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? Lets assume 6 hours per day of use over the 25,000 lifespan for LED’s, 2,500 for CFL’s, and 1,000 for incandescents. And a $0.12 kWh electricity cost.

Versus incandescent, the SlimStyle (CREE #’s are close enough) 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 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 LED’s, it’s probably in your best financial interests to hold on to CFL’s in seldom used lights. But for heavy use LED’s, the economics are finally there. And in short time, with LED lifespans, there will rarely be a scenario where CFL’s come out ahead on purchase/energy pricing.

This LED mass market crossover point has arrived. RIP CFL’s.

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