Incandescent, Compact Fluorescent or LED?

Thomas Edison shows off a big-ass light bulb.

Thomas Edison shows off a big-ass light bulb.

What kind of light bulb to buy, as it turns out, is not easy question to answer. Energy consultant and off grid expert Dan Fink has an informative story in this month’s issue of Home Power Magazine, “Choosing the Right Light” that takes a look at the bewildering array of choices and what bulbs might be best in terms of cost, energy conservation and aesthetics.

Some takeaways:

  • The current way of comparing bulbs–lumens per watt–does not take into account how the eye responds to color. Incandescent bulbs give off a wide spectrum of light. Fluorescents and, to a lesser extent, LEDs do not give off as wide a spectrum of light which can make a room lit with them seem dimmer. In some situations incandescents can be a better choice.
  • LEDs are good for task lighting due to the directional quality of LED light. They are not so good for lighting an entire room.
  • Many compact florescents (CFL) will have short lifespans if you put them in sealed, enclosed or recessed lighting fixtures. You also have to check the label and perhaps even call the manufacturer to figure out if a CFL will work in a horizontal, base-up or base-down fixture.
  • CFLs perform poorly if turned on and off without at least 15 to 30 minutes to warm up.
  • CFLs contain mercury and other toxins and must be disposed of responsibly.
  • Stick to major brands. Avoid non-UL-listed cheap import bulbs.

A trip to the light bulb aisle at the hardware store is likely to stay confusing for some time. Manufactures are coming out with many new bulbs including more efficient incandescents as well as game changing LEDs and CFLs. And, according the article, the government may consider other factors such as color frequency in its light bulb ratings. Fink quotes Mark Rea, a lighting expert at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, “It’s still the wild, wild West out there with residential lighting and consumers still have to choose by trial and error.”

Leave a comment


  1. “Such ratings are based on industry standard test methods that often do not reflect how the products are actually used in the home. Consumers need to try different lamps themselves, and find what works best for them.”

    This is a sore spot for me as I try to find the proper lamp for my use. Salesmen only know how to spout the propaganda about “equivalency.” I know what works, and it is mostly incandescent all the way for me.

    I will have to buy my favorite bulbs on the black market which will surely exist if people are as sensitive to light as I.

    The CFLs I have used were not enclosed, but had a very short life.

    Fluorescent bulbs can cause reading and learning problems in children and adults. As a teacher, I have researched this extensively and do listen to students after they follow my advice on lighting and after I have changed lighting in classrooms. Check it out.

    • I would strongly suggest new LED bulbs. They now output the same “color” light as incandesents, and do not have any of the problems associated with CFLs.

      They also last significantly longer and use an amazingly small amount of electricity.

    • “The CFLs I have used were not enclosed, but had a very short life.”

      Ditto! And it is Immensely irritating! My lamps/fixtures aren’t old or enclosed etc. but we routinely have CFL conk out well before the ‘hour’ listing on the package.

      Is it Really so much more efficient to use 4 CFL (expensive, quality brand ones) in place of 1 humble incandescent? NOPE. So, we are Ye Olde Skool and use incandescents in our reading lamps (and lights that are frequently switched on/off), because of this issue, plus the quality of light is better for our (aging) eyes.

  2. And then there is the problem of different brands sometimes designing their fixtures to only use a specific brand of lamp. Our light over the shower went out a couple months back, and getting to the lamp required taking the entire fixture (which includes a fan) down from the ceiling. We took out the fluorescent lamp, brought it to Home Depot. They’d never seen a base like it (pins on the diagonal) brought it to OSH, Ace, a local lighting store…no one. Finally drove 45 minutes to the nearest Lowes and it turns out its a proprietary design. Grr.

    With the switch to CFL over incandescent it is a pain to remember to turn on the lights about 15 minutes before I really want to see what I’m doing. I’m waiting for the next big advancement that will give us the flexibility of the old incandescent but with the energy savings of CFL or LED. I know there’s an engineer out there somewhere who can figure it out!

  3. CFL’s still have the ‘flicker’ and find my eye/brain retaining that annoying thing as I’m turning everything off before bed. am slowly moving to LED’s for some lamps. There is now a halogen available in a regular light bulb. Does not last as long as either the CFL or LED, but gives a good light output at my desk and other lamps. Not as hot as the old halogens and less power draw too. So it is the cool running LED bulb for the lamp that illuminates my nighttime reading and knitting (very close), halogen for my desk, bedside lamp, and to replace other general illumination that right now is CFL’s.

  4. For me, choosing a lightbulb is about as simple as it could be: high quality LED.

    Most of the criticisms of LEDs only apply to the first generation bulbs, or cheap knockoffs. Bulbs like the Phillips L-Prize winning line ( address all of the common complaints, and it came out years ago. The bulb is dim-able, has a “warm” color, and is well diffused. Oh, and it will last for 25 years.

    I use these bulbs, and they are indistinguishable from incandescents.

  5. I buy LEDs from EarthLED–every Earth Day they have a blowout sale. For the past several years I have organized my friends for a bulk buy to save on shipping.

    I prioritized frequent short use, like for stairs, halls and bathrooms. This sort of use kills CFLs early, making them eco-losers. I also put LEDs into the kid’s room, as the light is frequently left on.

    Then after that I started working on other rooms; daylight bulbs in the kitchen so food looks normal, warmer colours in living room and bedrooms. I find the 60 watt equivalents to be more than adequate by the time I fill all the sockets. I also spent more on a couple of dimmable bulbs for the dining and living areas.

    So, it took me about four years, but the only incandescents in our house are in the fridge and stove.

  6. This is my green-living downfall. I just can’t stand the quality of CFLs (you can ALWAYS tell the difference–even the “warm” ones–and it’s horrible). I’m so far not a huge fan of LEDs because they read very “flat” to me. I’m not sure how to explain it, but you know how the Christmas light version of them looks weird outside because of their ice-cold quality? Again, you can always tell the difference with those. The pure whiteness is ok for a work light (just ok, not something I actually like), but there’s a deadening quality to it. Sorry, but incandescents just bring everything to life–and we already chose our paint colors around daylight and incandescents. This is one thing I’m just willing to live with the guilt on until there really is a light that looks ok. I’d give the L-Prize one a try, though.

    • We use the CFLs happily in our house – perhaps it’s a comment on the poor quality of our eyesight that they don’t bother us.

      However, I am with you on the Christmas lights. The strings of holiday LEDs look (to me, anyway) like something you’d see on the outside of a bar and grill, not exactly the jolly holiday theme I’m aiming for. I’m not sure if it’s the paint used on the bulbs or the light from the bulbs, but they are just too harsh.

    • In many cases incandescents may be the green choice, particularly the new efficient ones.

  7. The only incandescent I would use is in my oven and fridge. The “New, efficient” incandescent bulbs use 30% less energy, whereas an LED uses 90% less. And I can get them on sale for six bucks.

    Pleasant and attractive lighting is very important to me.I have been totally happy with the colour of the LED light, much happier than with CFLs. My bulbs should last for years and years, saving me money every day.

    • I’ve been meaning to try some of the new LED bulbs. And I agree that the quality of light is better than CFLs.

  8. I agree with Beth. I must be particularly sensitive to the spectrum qualities of CFLs and LEDs. I dislike them both for general room lighting and may be one of those people who hoards incandescents if/when they officially are taken off the US market. For those who are inclined, there are YOUTUBE videos I seen discussing the ‘dirty electricity’ produced by CFLs. I do have CFLs outside my house to illuminate porches, but not inside.

    • There are many children who are labeled as learning disabled who actually cannot learn under any kind of fluorescent light. People are actually more stressed under CFL lamps.

      The only outdoor floodlights are CFLs available now, according to every hardware/home improvement store in town. So, I gave in because they stay on most of the day and all night. They warm up so slowly that I am going to hurt myself trying to go out in the dark after I turn on the outdoor lights.

    • Hey PP–I always enjoy your comments and hope you are doing well. The issue with children is an interesting one that I did not know about. Will have to look into this. And I am certainly stressed under fluorescent light.

  9. We’ve been slowing replacing every light in our house with LEDs and we love them! They are cheap to run, use little energy, don’t heat up, give great light, and will last for so many years that we plan on taking them with us when we move. They are not cheap to buy here, but they pay for themselves pretty quickly in terms of energy savings and the fact that we don’t have to replace them.

  10. What about all round conservation? Use less, turn off all lights not used? I’m sure there are lots of light that don’t need to be turn on as much as they are.

    • I had a little fantasy about a double switch and double light…

      We have a couple of LED night lights in our house. At night, they are more than bright enough to navigate familiar hallways and to use the bathroom.

      So what if light switches controlled two lights–a bright bulb, and a very dim bulb? If you were walking up the hallway, you could just use the dim bulb, but when you are trying to find something in the hallway closet, you use the bright bulb.

      Though, you could also just use LED night lights….

  11. Pingback: 2013 in Review Part II | Root Simple

  12. We went back to the old light bulbs as they just perform so much better than the CFLs. I was also concerned about the manufacturing impact and noticed that most people I know do not dispose of the CFLs properly. Not so much of a green choice when you factor that in… Companies like Philips aren’t developing things like this to help us, it’s all about the bottom line for them.

    We’re in the habit of turning off lights that we don’t need so there was little change on our electrical bill. However, there was a huge price difference between incandescents and CFLs – especially when the CFLs are short lived.

    • Marianne, the reason your CFLs don’t last is because you are in the habit of turning off your lights…

      Switching CFLs on and off shortens their life a tiny bit. Apparently the break-even is 15 minutes. So, using CFLsin areas where they get lots of fast switching–stairs, hallways, bathrooms–shortens their life considerably.

      I use LEDs in the halls and highest use areas, like the kids room and kitchen. CFLs go in the office and living room, and incandescents are in the fridge and stove.

  13. We have a very large home. 8 bedrooms plus a home office, as much as I teach and train lights are left on. Some have been converted to motion sensors. With the exception of the porch light and the fridge light we’ve converted to LED bulbs the last year or three. Our electricity bill dropped 40 dollars a month. In less than a year I’ve paid for my investment in LED bulbs.

    If the lifespan of the bulb is accurate on the information given, and I suspect it is based upon the LED on the computer outlasting the computer, the cost of an LED bulb is the same or less than CFL bulbs based upon dividing the cost over the expected lifespan of the bulb.

  14. Here in india we use tubelight most extensively in rooms,cfl in smaller places like kitchen and bathroom, and incandescent in reading lamps and porch light,led is used in dc devices like torch or emergency lights,led lights are good for small spces like about 20 sq ft,cfl for 50 sq ft,and T12 tubelight for 150 sq ft.

  15. Halogen bulbs don’t save energy at all. Not only do they get hot and are a fire hazard, what with the energy lost in the transformers and the higher production cost and energy consumption they really only used about a fifth less than the old filament-based bulbs. But LEDs live much, much longer, they’re real energy savers and by now also resemble the old incandescent light bulb spectrum. They will also still come down in price and savings will then be enormous…

Comments are closed.