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CFL vs LED Light Bulb

CFL light bulbs have long been the standard for high-efficiency lighting, but are LED light bulbs even better?

By Jared Norman

| Jul 3, 2013

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CFL vs LED Infographic

Incandescent bulbs have traditionally been the most common type of lighting. They are pretty cheap to buy, but they have a short operating life and a low efficiency that makes them expensive to use and harmful on the environment. With continued debates about global warming and the ongoing world-wide financial crisis, businesses and home-owners alike are looking for more ways to protect the environment and save money. In fact, the average household spends around 10% of its energy budget just on lighting. Switching to energy-efficient light bulbs, like CFL and LED light bulbs, is one of the fastest and easiest ways to save money on your energy bills. And the less energy you use, the smaller you’re carbon footprint will be.

That leads to the question, what energy-efficient bulb should you use? The two kinds of light bulbs that can give you the most savings are compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) and light emitting diodes (LEDs). Learn more about incandescent bulbs.

CFLs

CFLs are smaller, curly versions of the flickering, long tube fluorescent lights you’ve seen in stores, office buildings, and horror movies. They use argon and mercury vapor housed within spiral shaped tubes instead of a filament. An integrated ballast, which produces an electric current, excites the gas and produces light. Thanks to this innovative shape, they have become quite versatile; they can be dimmed and even used in three-way lamps. They also last a lot longer than incandescent bulbs and are fairly affordable.

Drawbacks to CFLs

All that awesomeness comes with some serious drawbacks though. First, they deliver best results when left on for 15 minutes. Older bulbs especially can be extremely dim for the first few minutes until they get warmed up, which can be very annoying at 3 in the morning when you are trying to find the bathroom or get a drink of water.

That also means that the more you turn these lights on and off, the less reliable they become and the shorter their lifespan will be. Because these bulbs produce so much heat and are so fragile, they are also horribly inefficient in enclosed fixtures and in garage door openers.

Mercury

And while CFLs help reduce air pollution, they introduce another environmental concern. That’s because CFL bulbs contain mercury. What’s the big deal about mercury? Well, the problem is that it’s a neurotoxin (a substance that damages nerve cells), in even small doses it can cause brain damage and seizures, and in large enough doses it can even cause death.

Whew…that sounds rather scary. Let’s put that into perspective, though. You are in no danger of ingesting mercury by using CFLs. The only danger you may have is if you break a bulb, and even then the danger is quite low.

It does mean that it is vital to recycle these bulbs. They are considered hazardous household items (like paint, batteries, and thermostats), and therefore shouldn’t be simply thrown away. Learn more about how CFL bulbs work.

LEDs

LEDs in Alarm Clocks

CFLs have been in the spotlight (no pun intended) for a long time because, until recently LEDs haven’t been very bright and have been very expensive. Newer LED’s have been changing that. LEDs are light sources that are illuminated by electrons moving though a semiconductor. Because of their low power usage and low heat output they have been used in a variety of different products for a long time now. Almost all of your electronics use LEDs, from the buttons in your remote control, to the lights on your alarm clock. Newer high-power LEDs can be used to light your home.

While still more expensive than other bulbs, the benefits are quickly beginning to outweigh the price tag. New LEDs are now just as bright, if not brighter than incandescents or CFLs, and come in all sorts of different light qualities. You can even buy dimmable LED bulbs. Learn more about how LED light bulbs work.

CFLs vs LEDs

CFLs release about 80% of their energy in the form of heat (about 30 BTUs/hour). That’s a lot of wasted energy. LED’s product very little heat (about 3.4 BTUs/hour), meaning they use less energy. Since they are so much cooler and more durable, they are perfect for Christmas lights. They also don't contain any toxic materials.

Since they are completely electronic, you can quickly turn the light on and off without decreasing the lifespan of the bulb. And that lifespan will be much longer than incandescent or CFL. An average incandescent bulb will only last about 1,200 hours. CFLs can do much better than that, lasting around 8,000 hours. But a LED will last around 45,000-50,000 hours. That’s over 6 times longer than CFLs!

While the initial cost of buying LED’s is higher than other bulbs, they are becoming very affordable. Because LED bulbs are so much more efficient, and contain no toxic materials, it won’t be long until these bulbs replace other bulbs as the standard means of lighting homes and businesses alike. The US Department of Energy has already invested with industry partners to research and promote LED lighting across America. They have stated that the efficacy of LED light sources has already surpassed all other forms of lighting and they continue to improve.

If you are still skeptical about LEDs, try one out for yourself and you’ll see the difference. Not only will you be helping keep our air and landfills a little bit cleaner, you will also begin to see more and more savings in the long run.

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