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Save Big Money By Switching From Fluorescent and CFL to LED Light Bulbs

Updated on November 18, 2015

LED Bulb in Lamp

The LED light provides a warm light to the room.
The LED light provides a warm light to the room.

Save Money with LED Light Bulbs

Most people know that LED light bulbs cost less to run than incandescent bulbs or even compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs. The hard part is ponying up the money to buy it in the first place without knowing how long it will take to get your money back in savings. Having worked in commercial buildings and having been part of a project team building a high rise, you have to consider all of the costs involved with a piece of equipment. In this article, I have considered air conditioning cooling costs associated with running a light bulb, along with the cost of buying a bulb and running the bulb itself. As it turns out, cooling costs are the dominant factor and make the payoff for LEDs a month or less for incandescent lights and three months or less than CFLs (assumes you need to run an air conditioner for at least three months a year and that the bulb is on for 8 hours a day). Everyone doesn't know that.

If you never run an air conditioner (or rarely), the payoff takes longer but always happens (still assuming 8 hours of operation a day). This surprised me since the cost of CFLs have come down but the cost of LEDs have come down too, for the lower wattage bulbs especially.

If you rarely use certain lights in your house, then the payoff takes much longer. So for now, just put your least energy efficient bulbs that you already have in those lights so that you can put LEDs in your most used lights.

LED Bulb in Chandelier (Not Turned On)

There in an LED bulb in the base of the chandelier and an LED candelabra bulb in the background (both turned off).
There in an LED bulb in the base of the chandelier and an LED candelabra bulb in the background (both turned off).

LED Light Bulbs Pay for Themselves in 3 Months

Way. You can actually stop reading now if you want because the rest of the article (besides a bit on factors other than cost) is just backing up my bottom line. In the data table below, you can just adjust the numbers to fit your situation - or see if one of the graphs help out. All of the calculations are linear so if you want to find out how long it would take to payoff for running the light four hours a day (half of the 8 hours I used), then just multiply the payback time by two.

I actually found the payoff times hard to believe at first but it started making sense after I looked through all the data and thought about it. You must be like me a bit too because you are still reading (or just curious?). If after reading all of this, you are still not convinced, then I would recommend that you buy one 60W LED light bulb (has the fastest payback I examined) and start experimenting. You should be able to find one for about 8 bucks.

Since the fast payback time is not easy to believe at first, consider this. Or, if you are a numbers person then skip to the tables. Have you ever put your hand next to an incandescent bulb (who hasn't)? You could warm your hand up quite easily, right? Putting your hand next to a CFL light, not so much heat - but some. Now, next to an LED light - not much at all. And that's the biggest difference, the efficiency with turning electricity into light. A lot less of the electricity is lost to heat. So, with LED bulbs, you can get more light and less heat for less power than incandescent or CFL bulbs. Can you say "Win - Win - Win"?

A 60W Equivalent LED Light Bulb

Philips 452978 60-Watt Equivalent SlimStyle A19 LED Light Bulb Soft White, Dimmable
Philips 452978 60-Watt Equivalent SlimStyle A19 LED Light Bulb Soft White, Dimmable

It's cheaper to buy in bulk but here's one to start you out.


See How LED Light Bulbs Are the Frugal Choice

I will have more commentary below but let's get to the data now. If you want the bottom line, go to the bolded columns. These columns show the number of months to recoup your initial investment for an LED bulb vs. either incandescent (abbreviated incand) or vs. CFL. The important part (break-even time) is bolded so you can find that quickly. If you never break-even, then there is no data in that column. It takes longer to break-even with LEDs but even CFLs break-even against incandescent lights very quickly. In the table following this table, I will show costs for a 10 year period which will convince you further.

Remember that it is assumed that the light is on 8 hours a day and that air conditioning is needed for 6 months a year. I am in Houston Texas so we run the A/C at least half of the days of the year. If you don't run it that much, you can increase the payoff time proportionately (as mentioned above).

So you're like, "wow, this is the short version"? Yes, I still wanted to have enough data in there so you can believe it. Also, I felt it was important to show the break-even times without considering A/C costs (in case you don't use A/C or don't want to consider it for some reason). The long version shows more data and intermediate steps if you want to try to re-do the math yourself.

Save When Buying in Bulk

Cree 60W Equivalent Soft White (2700K) A19 LED Light Bulb (4-Pack)
Cree 60W Equivalent Soft White (2700K) A19 LED Light Bulb (4-Pack)

If you are ready to add LED light bulbs to your home or business, it's cheaper to buy in bulk.


Reasons to Switch from CFL and Incandescent Bulbs to LED

Besides cost, there are other factors to consider when switching to LED light bulbs.

  1. Incandescent Bulbs Provide Heat and I Want That. True but if you heat with natural gas, then it's more efficient to heat with natural gas than electricity.
  2. I like the Light from of an Incandescent Bulb. LED bulbs have come along way and a color temperature of 2700 Kelvin is pretty close to an incandescent bulb. The LED light is pretty "soft" and can be aided with your light shade or globe if necessary. Most people will think the LED bulb is less harsh than a CFL as well.
  3. LED Lights Are Durable. Sometimes a filament in an incandescent bulb can break from vibration but this is less likely with a quality LED bulb.
  4. CFL Lights Contain Toxic Mercury. LED (and incandescent) bulbs do not contain mercury.
  5. LED Lights Turn On Instantly. This is especially noticeable with the smaller CFL bulbs like for a chandelier - they take quite a while to brighten up.
  6. On-Off Cycling. LED lights do not suffer from turning it on and off a lot - CFLs and Incandescents can. It always seems like a light burns out at the wrong time...
  7. LEDs Have Long Life. Typical lifespans of LED lights are 25,000 hours or more. Incandescents can have lifespans as short as 750 or 1,000 hours. CFLs are typically in the 8,000 to 10,000 hour range. Have a light bulb in a hard to reach spot?
  8. LEDs Are Not Sensitive to Low Temperatures. CFLs may have trouble below 10 degrees Fahrenheit or over 120 degrees. Incandescents have trouble at lower temperatures sometimes.
  9. LED Bulbs Are Dimmable. CFL bulbs are more expensive if dimmable.

Use LED Bulbs in Your Fish Tanks Too!

The LED light is in the upper left hand corner and you can see the reflection in the water.  There are five tiny fish in there but not all wanted to be photographed.  There are more than five snails :).
The LED light is in the upper left hand corner and you can see the reflection in the water. There are five tiny fish in there but not all wanted to be photographed. There are more than five snails :).

See How Fast You Can Save Money with LED Light Bulbs in Cold Climates

The following is a graph that shows how many months it takes to recoup the investment of an LED bulb vs. an incandescent bulb. No A/C costs to remove the heat introduced by the bulbs were considered. If A/C costs are considered the payback is much faster. Still, you can see it's a no-brainer to use an LED light instead of incandescent, even if the light isn't used that much and even if you don't run an air conditioner ever. An hour a day takes a while to get your investment back for the 75W and 100W bulbs so you might want to wait for the price to come down and use your spare CFLs there in the meantime.

Save Money Quickly with LED Bulbs in Warm Climates

Now for a graph that shows how long it takes to get your hard earned money back if you replace a CFL bulb with an LED bulb in a climate in which you use air conditioning. Remember that the base case is 6 months of A/C a year - adjust the results proportionately depending on how many months you run the A/C.

Even just using a light bulb for an hour a day yields a pretty fast payback. If you have a lot of light in the bathroom, consider how unpleasant a hot bathroom is on a hot day. This might be a good place to switch out to LEDs even if the lights aren't on that much. Remember too, if you keep turning on and off CFLs, it will shorten their lives and they don't do as well in a humid environment like the bathroom.

Payoff is pretty quick, isn't it?
Payoff is pretty quick, isn't it?

Save Money by Changing from CFL to LED, Even In a Cool Climate

I don't have a graph but you can see from the table that the payback times are pretty long (at least five years) even when using an LED bulb instead of a CFL bulb for eight hours a day. So, your choice to change out depends more strongly on the other factors I listed above. I haven't talked about a financial term called Net Present Value but if you have good places to put your money (like paying down high interest credit cards), then you might want to consider waiting to replace CFLs (all other things being equal) until:

  1. The price of LEDs comes down (can CFLs go much lower in price?). Remember that 60W is the sweet spot right now and 40W are pretty good too.
  2. You don't have good ways to save a lot of money or make a lot of money with extra money you have. Businesses always look at this factor when considering investments - where is the best place to put money right now.
  3. The price of energy goes up. I used 12 cents a kilowatt hour so if that goes up a lot, your savings increase proportionately.

How You Save Money By Switching From CFL or Incandescent to LED Bulbs

Remember the key factors used in the base analysis:

  1. Light is on for 8 hours a day
  2. Air Conditioning is required 6 months a year
  3. Price of electricity is 12 cents per kilowatt

The table below has other information that gives insight into the analysis. I picked bulbs that got good reviews on Amazon (4 stars and above). There may be cheaper or more efficient/less efficient bulbs out there but the results won't change a whole lot unless there is some breakthrough in technology.

Another factor is the efficiency of the air conditioner used. I assumed a newer air conditioner instead of a less efficient old air conditioner so that people who have efficient air conditioners wouldn't be unpleasantly surprised. If your air conditioner is older, then this is better for you.

There were other factors that I ignored. In general, you only want to make an analysis like this complicated enough to represent reality and I think I have done that. If you have a question about something though, feel free to ask. I mostly ignored Net Present Value except when break-even times were longer. I ignored heat contribution of incandescent bulbs in cold climates. I think most people in cold climates do not use electricity to heat their houses so it's better to run your furnace. As an experiment, I left a 60W incandescent bulb on in my small bathroom for 3 hours and the temperature rose 2.5 degrees. So, I realize that you can get a lot of heat from these bulbs but there are more efficient ways to generate heat.

Your mileage may vary.


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