Will LEDs Replace Phased-Out Incandescent Bulbs?

Compact fluorescents or LEDs offer 'likeability and affordability."

The standard light bulb may no longer be the right image of a good idea since incandescents will be phased out by next year.

The replacement - for the item, if not the image - is one of two choices: compact fluorescents or LEDs. Both alternatives bring issues of likeability and affordability when compared to each other and to their old-style comfy cousin.

Light bulb ban

The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 calls for roughly 25 percent greater efficiency for light bulbs, requiring a phased-in ban on manufacturing and importing incandescent bulbs. Starting in 2012, 100-watt incandescent bulbs were replaced by 72-watt bulb equivalents, followed this year with 75-watt traditional bulbs being replaced by 53-watt bulb equivalents, and in 2014 with 60-watt and 40-watt ones being replaced by 43-watt and 29-watt equivalents, respectively.

A great source of local information about all types of lighting, Peter Ray of AG Electrical Supply in Bellmore has witnessed changes in the industry over several decades. Traditional incandescent bulbs are fast being replaced by equivalent high-efficiency choices.  LEDs have come into their own in just the past year in particular, Ray said. 

Bulb basics

Incandescents. Not much about the traditional incandescent bulb has changed since Thomas Edison developed the first commercially practical one using a carbon filament. Modern ones use a tungsten filament surrounded by various inert gases. The filament heats the gases to a mega 4,000 degrees F. Think about that. The bulb releases 90 percent of its energy as heat. Since lighting is supposed to be its job, is it any wonder an incandescent is inefficient?

Since, until recently, incandescents were the only kid on the block, their purchase prices have been very low. They are, however, inefficient in another way — they burn out quickly. Still, the light they emit tends to be warm and with a yellow hue, characteristics to which we’ve all become accustomed, a benchmark for other forms of light.

CFLs. It was just a few years ago that these spiral-style, compact fluorescent light bulbs began to become commonplace. Instead of a heated filament, an electric current runs through a tube filled with argon and a bit of mercury vapor inside a CFL. This creates invisible light that reacts with a phosphor coating to emit visible light. 

Early CFLs took a while for that reaction to take place, a warm up time we weren’t used to. Newer CFLs have improved considerably on that score, as well as overcoming other issues.  Initial inconsistent light quality has improved considerably, as has their design or “look.” More recent models are also dimmable. Finally, overall, the idea that initial higher cost is offset by longer life is better understood as well.

LEDs.The most recent most-improved players on the market, light-emitting-diode lamps are composed of two conjoined sections of a semiconductor material which is energized, as the result of which electrons move across the diode and emit photons, i.e., light.  

These bulbs have pretty much everything going for them today — cool to the touch, long life spans, energy efficiency, reliability, and pleasingly warm light (gone are the days of blueish tones). Continued drawbacks, however, are comparative dimness, or lack of power, and their initial expense.

Savings & Costs

If only the retail price of the three different types of light bulbs available in local stores, such as Costello's Ace Hardware or the Home Depot, is the guide, then any incandescents not yet phased out would win every time. However, long-term energy value is key -- bulb life and energy usage.

An average 60-watt incandescent that costs about .75 cents and having a lifespan averaging 1,500 hours translates into an energy cost of about $6.60 per hour. A comparable CFL costs about $6.60 to beginning with, but its bulb life averages 7,000 hours, meaning an energy cost of $1.50 per hour. An equivalent LED starts off at about $27.00, but lasts an extraordinary 37,500 hours for an energy value of about .90 cents an hour.

If every American home replaced just one incandescent light bulb with an energy efficient one, the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that enough energy would be saved “to light 3 million homes for a year, save about $600 million in annual energy costs, and prevent 9 billion pounds of greenhouse gas emissions per year, equivalent to those from about 800,000 cars.”  Further, the DOE estimates that rapid adoption of LED lighting in particular by 2027 could deliver savings of about $265 billion, avoid 40 new power plants, and reduce lighting electricity demand by 33 percent in 2027.

In the changing light bulb marketplace, it’s important to do your homework as improvements of all types continue and price points are still in flux. A simple way to figure out which bulbs are best for various uses is to read the Lighting Facts label on every package. This shows not only shows value — energy used and estimated yearly energy cost — it also provides information about appearance, including brightness in lumens and appearance ranging from warm to cool.

For additional information about light bulbs, visit http://www.energystar.gov.

Dan from Arizona March 21, 2013 at 06:14 AM
I haven't done the math but I suspect those are "per year" costs--not "per hour" costs.
Bill L. March 21, 2013 at 08:59 AM
Though LED's seem to be good bulbs CFL's are terrible. We outfitted our shop with them in 2011 and within one year most had burned out or were crackling so badly we replaced them. They also contain mercury which we all know has been proven to cause cancer. So let's all add more mercury to the groundwater. Yes, we are supposed to recycle them but in all honesty what percentage truly get recycled? LED's for now are costly so we simply purchased a ten year supply of incandescent bulbs because the "energy conservation" cost we will not achieve will be absorbed. The energy cost estimate from the Dept of Energy is folly. As usual.
Charles Taylor March 21, 2013 at 02:20 PM
Yes, a more likely error, given the magnitude.
Nancy Hiler March 21, 2013 at 03:28 PM
Thanks for comments. Whole point is that based on phase-out of our beloved incandescents, the CFLs and the LEDs on the market are changing everyday, improving every day, as far as the way they function for most of us as well as how pleasing they are in various settings, but no doubt both are much more energy efficient. For true cost valuation, the Lighting Facts labels should be helpful for comparison. The numbers used are per hour per year, averages based on Dept. of Energy and consumer comparison surveys, but the fact is an LED will cost less per hour than an CFL and a CFL less than an incandescent. Also, there ARE many other issues with CFLs, including mercury vapors, and LEDS, including imports etc., that cannot be covered in a brief article. The idea is that the phase-out of incandescents is coming by law, whether or not any of us agree with it, and there are more choices on the market beyond the very poor quality CFLs that we first saw a few years ago. Hope this is helpful, and thanks again!!
Ron March 21, 2013 at 07:28 PM
So does that mean the Feds will be raiding my home because I stock piled 100w and 3-Way bulbs?


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