CF Versus LED

by Rich Finzer

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As we seek new and innovative ways to cut energy costs, many folks are turning to compact fluorescent lights (CF) as an alternative to traditional incandescent bulbs. And, to a point, this is a good idea. A CF uses about 1/4 the electricity required to power an equivalent tungsten filament bulb and they last about five times longer. That's great, but there are several problems associated with CFs, namely that they contain mercury, are extremely fragile, perform poorly in cold locations, and are nearly impossible to recycle. A smarter choice is the LED.

LEDs (light emitting diodes) are really not "bulbs" at all. Rather they are semiconductors that glow when electricity passes through them. Best of all, LEDs consume roughly 1/4 the electricity needed to fire up a CF. And unlike a CF, an LED doesn't require a warm-up period before reaching full illumination. When you switch one on, it produces 100% of its rated output from the get go. Additionally, LEDs are resistant to breakage, generate no heat, contain no mercury, and have a lifespan as high as 60,000 hours. That's about five to six times the lifespan of a typical CF! Newer LED styles are even available with standard (Edison) bases, which will fit conventional light sockets. Unfortunately, most retailers presently stock very few LEDs. But, if you Google(tm) on "LED lights" you'll generate dozens of hits from sites selling them over the web.

All CF bulbs generate some heat, which impacts your air conditioning costs. During the hot summer months, you'll spend additional money cooling down your home that you've warmed up with the heat from your CF bulbs. Some might argue that the heat signature of a CF is significantly lower than incandescent lights and they'd be correct. However, LEDs generate no heat whatsoever, and it's pretty hard to generate less heat than no heat.

Additionally, unlike most CFs, LED lights are available in a rainbow of colors ranging from pure cool white to pink and even purple. Newer designs can even mimic the yellow-white light generated by an incandescent bulb.

If you drop a CF bulb, most likely it will shatter on impact, scattering shards of mercury coated glass all over the place. Cleaning up this mess can be problematic. Safety experts warn that you should not even attempt sweeping up the pieces, as this may expose you to the mercury. Instead, they recommend picking up the bits with sticky tape. Sounds like fun, doesn't it? Conversely, if you drop an LED most likely it won't break, but even if it does, the fragments are benign.

Recycling LEDs is easier, too. They can be accepted at virtually every landfill. On the other hand, CF bulbs can only be recycled at a handful of locations across the entire country. The shipping costs to get them there will easily exceed the cost of the CF. And, because LEDs last five to six times longer than CFs, using them instead will reduce your landfill waste by up to 80%.

If there is a downside to LEDs, it is that their light is directional. But, for any ceiling fixture or installed under cabinets to illuminate the counter below, they can't be beat. Finally, there is some evidence that the ultraviolet free light of an LED doesn't attract night flying insects making them a great choice for the post light in your front yard.

LEDs cost more initially than CFs, but they last longer and can be installed where CF bulbs are either inappropriate or will be inconvenient to replace (like in a recessed fixture in a room with a vaulted ceiling). With a lifespan of 60,000 hours, an LED may never wear out during your lifetime. Remember that 60,000 hours equates to leaving the LED on continuously for nearly 7 years. Nobody is going to do that in his/her home. But that's not why an LED outshines the competition.

Face it, because of escalating fuel costs and pending environmental regulations, the cost of electricity will continue to rise for at least the foreseeable future. LEDs use roughly 1/4 the power needed to light up a CF. That's where the real savings lie. Once LED production ramps up, the economies of scale will drive their prices down much as it did with CFs. As an example, I purchased my first CF bulbs in 1991 at a cost of $14 each. These days that same CF bulb sells for just $3 to $4.

The LED is the wave of the future. They're environmentally benign, stingy in power consumption, durable, and safe, meaning that the light at the end of the tunnel is not fluorescent.

Take the Next Step:

  • You can find a large selection of LED light bulbs at Amazon.
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