Living with LEDs & CFLs

LED technologyBy Steve Bredernitz

As a green builder interested in technology and saving money, my home is a laboratory.  I have high efficiency appliances, lots of insulation, and a solar array.  One of my latest experiments is with light bulbs.

In case you haven’t heard, the government is phasing out incandescent light bulbs.  In fact 100- and 75-watt incandescent light bulbs are no longer even being manufactured.  So what should we use instead?

As a builder, I know that incandescent bulbs are more of a heater than a light source.  (Have you ever tried to touch a 75-watt light bulb when it is on?  You would burn your hand!)  Personally, I’ve been using compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs since they hit the market.  And more recently I’ve tried some light-emitting diodes (LEDs) bulbs, both of which are higher efficiency alternatives to incandescents.

I know what many of you are saying – “But the light from these is not the same!” My wife took the position that light from CFL bulbs was not adequate for applying makeup or preparing food therefore, ruling out their use in the master bathroom or the kitchen.  I would agree that the first versions of CFL bulbs were a little disappointing.  They were dimmer than their incandescent equivalents and took several minutes of being on to achieve their full brightness.  But the new versions of CFL’s are much better.  They get bright faster and provide a better quality light.

All that said, there are still factors that should impact your choice of bulbs, depending on how and where you plan on using them in your home.  These include things like the bulb’s light output (lumens), whether you want or need a bulb that is dimmable or has three way (low-medium-high) capability, the desired hue, and the type of fixture (table lamps, recessed fixture, and candelabra bulbs).  My best advice is to visit your local lighting store and get familiar with these products.  Then pick a few fixtures and give them a try.

What Light Bulb to Use – And Where

Based on my experience, CFL bulbs work great in indoor and outdoor light fixtures that are likely to stay on for several hours at a time.  They do not perform well in light fixtures that you are likely to switch on and off many times during the day.

I have five exterior lights on a sensor that turns the lights on at night and off during the day.  These lights have been performing well for over six years, every night, in the cold (including subzero temperatures of southeastern Michigan) and in the heat.  In all that time, only one bulb has failed.  Furthermore, these CFL bulbs consume roughly 60 watts (12 watts per bulb) and each bulb produces equivalent light to a standard 60-watt light bulb — 240-watt savings!

I have not had success with CFL bulbs in our laundry room light fixture and the light on the garage door opener.  These areas are the main entry point for my family of four so these lights go on and off many times per day.  In these light fixtures, my experience has shown CFL bulbs will only last about one year before failing, about the same as a standard light bulb.

Recently, as an experiment, I replaced CFL bulbs in the laundry room with new LED bulbs. I want to see if the LED bulbs will endure the frequent on/off cycling than the CFLs did.   The owner of a local electrical supply store echoed my observations that CFLs do not seem to like rapid and numerous starts & stops.  So far, the LED bulbs are working perfectly in the laundry room light fixture and my family has not noticed the change.

LED Technology in the Kitchen

This past summer was very warm for SE Michigan, causing my wife to complain that the master bathroom was too hot when the light was on. Since I knew she was opposed to CFL bulbs in this location, I replaced the four 60-watt incandescent light bulbs with four LED bulbs.  These new light bulbs draw a total of 40 watts (a 200 watt savings).  Changing to LED bulbs reduced excessive heat and she was still able to apply her makeup in suitable lighting.

We have been using LED bulbs designed for six inch recessed light fixtures in our kitchen for almost three years.  These are great lights and are so bright I actually decided to install a dimmer. A typical six-inch recessed light fixture bulb is a 65-watt light bulb.  By replacing these incandescent kitchen light bulbs with LED bulbs, I reduced the 325 watts to 52.5 watts (a 272.5 watt savings).  I also reduced the amount of heat in the kitchen because LED bulbs produce significantly less heat than a standard incandescent bulb.  That matters because if your home is like mine your kitchen lights are on most of the time!


Since LED bulbs are still new to the market, they are the most expensive bulbs, about $10 per standard bulb in my experience.  LEDs for 6- inch recessed light fixtures cost around $60 to $80 per bulb and include the trim.  But before you faint, keep in mind these bulbs are designed to last about 20 years on average use.  For about the same price as the standard LED bulb, you can purchase a package of three 60-watt equivalent spiral CFL bulbs and a lot of 60 watt incandescent bulbs. For me, the difference is how often I need to change the bulb and how much energy I will save over the life of the bulb.

Numerous studies have shown homes that use Energy Star qualified light bulbs (CFL and LED) use much less energy than homes with standard bulbs and these bulbs last about 6 times longer. The new CFL and LED bulbs also burn cooler than incandescent bulbs, using 75 percent less energy, which translates to as much as $60 dollars in savings over the life of each light bulb.

I teach remodeling and home improvement classes at the local community college.  Replacing incandescent bulbs with either CFLs or LEDs is among the top energy saving strategies I advocate to my students.  This, along with adding attic insulation, caulking up cracks and holes to minimize heat loss and heat gain, and installing low-flow showerheads offers the best return on a homeowner’s money.


9 Responses »

  1. A very good summary on CFL and LEDs.
    However there is one important bit missing. CFLs contain varying amounts of mercury and phosphor than can end up in your house when they break or end up in the soil when disposed incorrectly after failure.
    There have been reported cases of mercury poisoning in connection with burst CFL bulbs!
    Furthermore, I have not yet found a CFL that would light up instantly with the full light output. I agree they have gotten better but still not good enough.
    I am now using LEDs because they last longer with fluctuating power supply, have better light output, better colour rendering, have almost the same price as CFLs, no danger of poisoning, are instant on and: are DIMMABLE, saving even more power.

    Plus here in NZ there is no take back or recycling system in place for CFLs. Most end up in landfill.

  2. Thank you Steve, my husband and I have been on a journey to reduce our electricity usage to eventually go off-grid or create our own electricity. Unfortunately, I purchased 12volt LED by mistake. Is there anyway I can use them in a standard house fixture without them blowing – as the first one did?
    who lives in a passive solar house in Prince Edward Island, Canada

  3. Steve,
    Thank you for this summary. My husband and I have been trying to use CFLs in as many places as we can. The one on our back porch, which is outside, and mounted in a fixture that has it positioned sideways, just doesn’t work well. It comes on very dim and flickers. We have gone back to incandescent in that fixture.

    Also, in my kitchen, I have recessed “eyeball” fixtures that focus the light onto my work areas. They require Halogen bulbs. Those bulbs only last a few months, and cost about $10.00 each. Every time one burns out, my husband says, “there goes another ten bucks!. Can I get replace the bulbs with LEDs, or do I need to replace the fixtures as well?

    • Patsy, I agree, halogen bulbs are not very friendly. To answer your question, I would need to know the type of light fixture you have in your home. Sometimes, these eyeball lights are simply recessed fixtures with unique trim. If you remove the eyeball trim, standard trim could be installed. Another thought, take the halogen bulb to your local light store and see if there any LED bulbs that can be used in their place. You could also use the internet to find information on the light fixtures and bulbs.

  4. Excellent sharing Steve. In India, where I am from, goverment is proactively promoting CFL and LED bulbs as part of the national action plan on climate change. In general, CFLs are fast replacing incandescent bulbs.

    I have been using CFL for more than 6 years now. I have to agree that the quality and output of CFL have improved over time with all major bulb manufacturers making one. But still the prohibitive factors are price and low relative light output. I have seen that if the rooms are not big – like kitchen and bathrooms — CFLs can be used for continuous lighting as well as ‘on and off’ too. I have found that the quality of bulbs have improved to the extent that it now doesn’t take too long to get to full brightness.

    I have not yet moved on to LED due to the price factor, but I make a point not to go back to the more power guzzling previous versions of bulbs.

    I agree with the views shared by others that disposal of CFL is an issue of concern.

    Coming back to utility, the major challenge has been replacing the comfortable and highly effective fluorescent tubes (called simply as ‘tube-light’ in India with CFLs. Any thoughts on this?

  5. Great article that exposed the similar “discussion” in our SE MI house concerning they don’t put out the same kind (color) of light. I went to our local big chain HW store and popped for 6 – $15each 40w replacement candelabra LEDs but mama was not happy with the “cold” color so back to the old.

    I was wondering, is there any product you may know of that can color/tint the bulb’s glass color to a “warmer” yellow-brown to match the old incandescent bulbs? Then maybe I will try it again. Was going to attempt experimenting with some yellow/brown colored permanent markers but before I do I thought I would open the discussion to this idea.

    BTW, LEDs work great in the aquarium, the fish (minnows actually) and plants (lake weeds) seem to be doing fine for the past 2 years.

  6. I, also, use my home as a laboratory. I went the incandescent to CFL to LED route, but I did a bit more. I replaced ALL my bulbs with LEDs (the initial cost was a bit much, but there were coupons and the priced is coming down). I have been perfectly happy with the LEDs in all areas. Even the CFLs in my basement can lights produced a significant amount of heat, so I justified the replacement there as a potential saftely improvement. I also replaced all of halogen lights (there are LED replacement bulbs for that) as well. I threw out all my incandescent bulbs. While I hated to be wasteful, I figured it was better than having someone using them! All of our Habitat homes use CFLs because the price point isn’t quite there yet. However, I am keeping a close eye on the cost and will use them as soon as we can prove the cost is worth the return.

  7. Great discussion everyone. I’m happy to see others also use their piece of heaven to pay with technology. Spring has finally arrived here in Michigan, everyone is enjoying the warm weather and sunshine. Happy spring!

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