Light bulbs are old tech. In 1879 Thomas A. Edison first publicly demonstrated the incandescent light bulb stating that ”We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles.” The idea spread, and was improved upon but settled out into a stable industry fairly quick with things like the Edison medium standard light socket sticking with us to this day.

But times do change, and with the government mandating a phase out of commonly used incandescent bulbs its time for a little soul searching. The compact fluorescent bulb is the reigning king of the hill, but there are big drawbacks to this bulb including: containing mercury (and thus being hard to properly dispose of), not being dimmable, and being slow to warm up.

Enter the LED. The first practical visible spectrum LED dates back to 1962 developed by Nick Holonyak, Jr. Since the 60′s LED technology has been growing at an exponential rate, and because of this they are quickly becoming a real competitor in the field of low power lighting. How do they stack up to the competition though? For this test I picked up a couple of Cree Warm White LED 9.5 Watt (60 Watt equivalent) bulbs, and a Phillips LED 13 Watt soft white flood.

Cost

LED bulbs have dropped dramatically since their first introduction to the market, and this precipitous drop has resulted in a huge spread of price points in this field. One of the trail blazers in this field C. Crane offered its bulbs just a few short years ago in the $90-$100 per bulb range. The bulbs I purchaced were a fair bit cheaper than that, 12.97 for the Cree bulbs, and 19.97 for the Phillips spot bulb. (These were both purchased at Home Depot) So this rapid drop is good, but it still comes out to be quite expensive compared to CFL bulbs which at the same retailer are 2.97 for a 4 pack of 60 Watt equivalent bulbs, or about 75¢ each. Comparing that to the Cree bulb, well CFL seems to be the winner in economy, even when you take into account bulb life which ends up at about 52¢ per year of expected life on the Cree LED, vs only 8¢ per year of expected life on a CFL. Energy cost wise the LED does win, but not quite by a huge margin, the estimated energy cost of the Cree LED bulb being $1.14 per year, and the CFL being about $1.69 per year.

Features

It might seem odd to compare bulbs on features, but there are a few key ones that get my goat.

  • Dimmable Both of the kinds of bulbs I purchased can be used on a regular dimmer switch. This is not specifically true of all LED bulbs, and there are dimmable CFL bulbs, but dimmable LED bulbs seem to be the norm in their category, where dimmable CFL bulbs seem to be a speciality item.
  • Instant on While CFL bulbs have made big strides in this area, it seems to be a crapshoot how long a bulb you buy takes to warm up. This isn’t a huge deal of course, but it is nice to have instant on in a situation where it is a room that you are constantly in and out of, or in a situation where you are using task lighting.
  • No Heavy Metals Normal CFLs have lead and mercury in them, the LED bulbs do not. This is a big deal when you go to replace them, many CFLs now go to a landfill which is less than desirable, and even where facilities do exist extracting the Pb and Hg take energy.
  • Quieter CFL’s have a quiet buzz to them. It’s not that loud and only can really be heard when your head is close to the bulb in a quiet room. LED’s though seem to be quieter, letting out only a very quiet high pitched noise that I had to put my ear about 6 inches away from the bulb to hear.

Downsides & Things to Watch for

There are a few limits to LED bulbs that are also worth considering:

  • Availability & Selection While LED bulbs are getting distributed wider and wider they are not available everywhere yet and where they are, they may not be available in the size or base your looking for. As examples, I know that if I went to the market down the street I would only have incandescents and CFLs to choose from, and I have yet to find a LED 3 way bulb anywhere.
  • Light output Right now the sweet spot for LED bulbs is moving from 40 Watt to 60 Watt equivalent bulbs, this is a good thing and just a few short years ago many of the bulbs were less powerful than that. Most of the options for bulbs above 60 Watt equivalent seem to be spot bulbs.
  • Rapid Evolution Right now we seem to be at an inflection point in the market. Government regulations are spurring on the energy efficient lighting market, and while things are much better then they used to be, I might expect to see brighter (literally and figuratively) things out of LED in the near future, costs will go down, and options will open up.

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