Lightbulbs. They used to be practically synonymous with simplicity. Lights bulbs were just light bulbs. There is now much more involved when trying to decide what type to buy. Innovation has brought us all kinds of new bulbs. From lightbulbs designed to react to sound waves (yep) to those intended to fight off deadly bacteria (seriously, this is a real thing) the use for what used to be a simple source of light continues to evolve. But when you simply need a new bulb for your bedside table, how do you know that you are making the right decision? Which kinds are designed to be better for the environment and to help us cut back on our electric bills?

Incandescent, Halogen, and Compact Fluorescent (CFL) bulbs all require a unique amount of energy. But it’s Light Emitte Diode (LED) bulbs that we really think you should be paying attention to. Let’s break down the facts.

What are LED bulbs?

LED stands for Light Emitting Diode and technically LED lights are not bulbs. They’re tiny semiconductors (diodes) wrapped in plastic to protect the elements and focus the light. According to Dictionary.com, a diode is “a semiconductor device with two terminals, typically allowing the flow of current in one direction only.” The current comes into an anode (+) and flows out of a cathode (-). LEDs don’t even have wire filaments, like a lightbulb does.

How is LED different from incandescent?

When we talk about a “regular lightbulb” we mean an incandescent bulb; the type that’s been around since Thomas Edison patented his invention in 1879. These bulbs have filaments that glow, producing both heat and light when energy flows through them. LED’s, on the other hand, have electrons that flow to create photons – light we can see. Photons generate almost no heat.

Do LEDs save energy?

Although the incandescents had a good run, we suspect they’ll soon be obsolete. The simple fact is that YES: LEDs use much less energy. Diode light is much more efficient, power-wise, than filament light.

LED bulbs use over 75% less energy than incandescent lighting. At low power levels the difference is larger. Bright LED flood lamps use only 11 to 12 watts while creating a light output comparable to a 50-watt incandescent.

Are there other options?

Yes, to make things more complicated, we now have CFL lighting, too. CFL stands for Compact Fluorescent bulbs. According to Energy Star: “In a CFL, an electric current is driven through a tube containing argon and a small amount of mercury vapor. This generates invisible ultraviolent light that excites a fluorescent coating (called phosphor) on the inside of the tube, which then emits visible light.”

You may know CFLs as the bulbs that are dim at first and take a while to warm up to full brightness. Once the electricity starts moving inside them, however, these bulbs use about 70% less energy than incandescent bulbs.

Do light bulbs vary in quality, as well as cost?

Originally, many people preferred CFLs over LEDs because they throw a broader beam of light, making them better in floor lamps. LED technology is improving, however, and LEDs are now emitting broader, warmer light, and coming down in price as well.

When comparing brightness, we have to talk about “lumens.” A lumen is a measurement of light. If LEDs, CFLs and incandescents all have the same lumens, they have equal brightness. The difference will be found in the amount of energy it takes to generate that level of brightness. In the energy category, both LEDs and CFLs win.

Labeling had changed to keep up with lighting technology, and now you’ll see lumens listed on a lightbulb’s package, for comparison. Find the lumen output you’re looking for (the bigger the brighter) and choose the bulb with the lowest wattage.

Note that LED bulbs are not available in high wattages. If you want to replace your incandescent or halogen lamps with LED, you may need additional LEDs. Don’t fret, though – even when using extra “bulbs,” you’ll still be saving a lot of energy.

Another advantage of LEDs is the “hassle factor.” LEDs last a lot longer than a regular bulb – which means you save the hassle of searching for the drawer you stashed the lightbulbs in. Manufacturers say an LED lasts for approximately 10 years – or 100,000 hours of continuous use.

Can I save money with LEDs?

Most people now understand that LEDs save energy, but since LEDs are more expensive than regular bulbs, they still may be hesitant to buy them. Believe us – it’s worth it. Here are some comparisons:

According to a chart published by Viribright, when you factor in both the cost of the bulb and the cost of electricity, the numbers for a 60-watt incandescent bulb, or its equivalent in LED and CFL, used over the course of 20 years, are very different:

  • Incandescent’s cost over 20 years: $211
  • CFL’s cost over 20 years: $54
  • LED’s cost over 20 years: $34

Even though LEDs cost more to buy than regular bulbs, they’re much cheaper to use – and cheaper than CFLs, too.

While you’re saving money, you’ll also be saving the environment. Over those 20 years, the incandescent used $160 worth of electricity. The CFL used $52 worth and the LED only $30 worth.
Viribright makes LEDs, so we checked another source to confirm. The results were nearly the same in Eartheasy’s chart: the incandescent cost was $171, the CFL cost $40 and the LED cost only $26, over the course of 25,000 hours, or approximately 20 years. Everyone’s numbers will vary slightly, based on the cost of electricity in their community, and the cost of the bulbs (try Walmart!)

Check out all of Eartheasy’s charts, which include a lumen-watt conversion table, and a lightbulb feature comparison, along with the cost comparison.

Then start replacing your household lamps with LED! They DO make a difference.