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Incandescent, CFSs, and LED Light Bulbs: Know the Difference

It can be hard to stay abreast of all the latest changes in lighting technology, especially when it comes to making decisions about what to install in your home. What’s the most cost-effective option? What’s the most energy-efficient? What are the options as far as aesthetics? These are all great questions, and we’ll explore them with three major light bulbs available today: incandescent, compact fluorescent (CFL), and LEDs.

Let’s Start with Energy-Efficiency

At this point, it’s common knowledge that of these three major bulb types, incandescents are the least efficient, and waste up to 90 percent of their energy as heat. CFLs, however, use 70 percent less energy than incandescents. Modern LEDs do have an energy efficiency bump above CFLs, but not nearly as significant as the jump from incandescents to CFLs.

While the breakdown in the efficiency of these three bulbs is important, another key point of consideration is the environmental and safety concerns different bulbs carry. For example, CFLs contain a small amount of mercury, which warrants specific cleanup procedures. This is not the case with either incandescent bulbs or LEDs.

Cost Breakdown: Upfront Price vs. Lifetime Cost

Today, the prices of these three categories of bulbs are much more similar than ever before. Just a few years ago, CFLs could cost four times as much as incandescent bulbs, and LEDs could go as high as $100 a bulb.

Fortunately, all this has changed, making energy-efficient lighting more accessible for everyone. Today, LEDs can cost less than $10 and last up to 50,000 hours. That makes LEDs the most expensive bulbs upfront, but they offer the lowest overall lifetime cost.

When it Comes to Aesthetics, Personal Preferences Reign

When CFLs first hit consumer shelves, they were a hard sell for some customers. Even though CFLs last years, the ambiance of incandescents kept them around. Some people minimize the cold, clinical vibe of CFLs with warm-colored lampshades and covers, but for others, the aesthetics of incandescent bulbs are hard to part with.

LEDs, on the other hand, are an entirely different story when it comes to aesthetics. In fact, if you don’t like the color of your light, you have countless other options from which to choose – although too much experimentation can add up financially. Measured on the Kelvin scale, LEDs come in a wide variety from “warm white” to “cool white” to “natural” and everything in between based on the Kelvin rating so you can find the perfect aesthetic. 

With the energy efficiency of CFLs and LEDs, incandescent bulbs are all but obsolete in today’s market. Choosing between the former two, however, can still be a challenge. There are so many options for LED lighting, some of which require rewiring. Over time, however, that rewiring could easily pay for itself in the cost of bulbs and energy savings. No matter which category you choose, always pick ENERGY STAR labeled bulbs to ensure that you’re getting the most efficient and environmentally-friendly lighting product possible.


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