LED vs CFL vs Incandescent vs Fluorescent: Which Shines Cleanest?

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The future looks dim for incandescent light bulbs, the world-changing invention introduced by Thomas Edison in 1879. Part of the blame goes to LED bulbs, also known as light-emitting diode light bulbs.

However, the cost can sometimes deter buyers, so they turn to CFL bulbs, also known as compact fluorescent lamp bulbs. CFL bulbs also save consumers money and energy but not as much as LED bulbs over the long term. You may be saying, “But LED bulbs are more expensive than CFL bulbs.” That is true, but have you taken into consideration the lifespan and cost of energy?

We’ll go over all the features of incandescent vs CFL vs LED light bulbs so you can make the most eco-friendly choice for your home and budget.

Article Overview

LED vs CFL vs Incandescent vs Fluorescent: What’s The Difference?

When I went to the store, I used to buy the cheapest light bulb possible. That’s not the case anymore, though. I discovered a couple years ago that the type of bulbs I purchase make a huge difference. Find out the difference between incandescent vs fluorescent vs LED vs CFL.

LED Bulbs

LED, or light-emitting diode, is a two-lead semiconductor light source. These types of bulbs are Solid State Lighting (SSL), organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) and light-emitting polymers (LEPs). LED lights are often more efficient, durable and longer lasting than other types of light bulbs. This is why we recommend you make the transition to LED bulbs throughout your home (check out our favorite LED bulb below).

CFL Bulbs

CFL bulbs are made of glass tubes filled with gas and a small amount of mercury. The amount is so small that an old-fashioned glass thermometer holds 100 times as much mercury as one CFL bulb. Light is emitted when mercury molecules in a CFL bulb become excited by electricity running between two electrodes at its base. The mercury emits an invisible ultraviolet light that becomes visible when it hits the white coating inside the CFL bulb.

Incandescent Bulbs

Incandescent bulbs work by conducting an electric current along a filament made of a long, thin piece of tungsten metal. The filament must be heated to temperatures of about 2,300 °C to glow and emit a white-hot light. But the process transforms only 5-10% of the electricity used into visible light. The rest is transformed into heat, which can eventually increase the temperature of a room.

Fluorescent Bulbs

A fluorescent bulb is a low-pressure mercury-vapor gas discharge bulb that uses fluorescent to produce visible light. Mercury vapor is produced when an electric current makes contact with the gas, which produces short-wave ultraviolet light which then causes a coating on the inside of the bulb to light. A fluorescent bulb is more efficient than an incandescent bulb but is less efficient than a LED bulb. For the sake of this article, we have combined fluorescent bulbs with CFL bulbs.

4 Things To Look For In A Bulb

There are four primary components we suggest taking into consideration while choosing a light bulb. Below we go into detail about what to consider for each category and which bulb is the best. Hint, LED is king.

Energy Efficiency | Lifespan | Environmental Impact | Heat Production | Other Factors

Energy Efficiency

In order of most efficient to least efficient, it goes LED, CFL then incandescent. LED use about 90% less energy than incandescent and CFL use about 75% less energy than incandescent. We would recommend using CFL or LED over incandescent bulbs to reduce your energy usage.


On average, incandescent light bulbs last 1,100 hours, CFL last 8,000 hours and LED last 15,000+ hours. That means for 15,000 hours of usage you would need 14 incandescent bulbs, 2 CFL bulbs and only 1 LED bulb. Not only can you save costs by spending a little more upfront on a LED bulb, but you’d also be reducing your waste.

Environmental Impact

Did you know the United States could eliminate greenhouse gas emissions equal to 800,000 cars if each household in the country replaced just one incandescent bulb with a CFL bulb? PLUS, CFL bulbs aren’t even as environmentally friendly as LED bulbs. Imagine the amount of greenhouse gas emissions we could eliminate if everyone switched to LED!

Similar to every other comparison we’ve made thus far, LED is superior. LED light bulbs use less energy, produce fewer toxins, are made from non-toxic materials and are recyclable. They are considered to be earth-friendly, which makes us happy!

Fluorescent lighting uses mercury which can be dangerous to our environment. While researching for this article, we found a rather scary statistic: if one 13-watt CFL and one 60-watt incandescent (which are considered equivalents) are lit for 8,000 hours, the incandescent uses four times the energy and four times the mercury!1

Cost Savings of LED or CFL Bulb

There are three key elements we took into consideration while determining which light bulbs were the most cost effective: price per bulb, electricity used and lifespan. The table below sums up our findings with one clear winner.
Watts Used10.5W15W60W
Watt Equivalent60W60W60W
Cost Per Bulb (Average)$5.00$3.00$1.00
Lifespan in Hours15,0008,0001,100
Bulbs Needed for 15,000 Hours1214
Total Price of Bulbs for 13.5 Years$5.00$6.00$14.00
Electricity Used (15,000 hours at $0.10/kWh)*$15.75$22.50$90.00
TOTAL Cost Over 13.5 Years (Estimated)$20.75$28.50$104.00

*In 2018, the average price of electricity in the U.S. was 10.58¢/kWh. We used this calculation to determine the cost.

Heat Production

The amount of heat produced by a light bulb is often overlooked but should be at the top of your concerns while purchasing a light bulb. Not only can they be fire hazards but they can also increase your cooling costs. According to an article we found, tests show that a 100-watt incandescent light burns at 335.4°F, a CFL burns at 179.2°F and a LED burns at 87.2°F. Once again, LED is superior in this category.

Other Factors

There are some other elements to consider when choosing your light bulbs as well that we have not discussed. But this short video below does a great job covering these factors, so we strongly recommend you watch it. Find out other differences between CFL vs LED vs incandescent.

Our Favorite LED Light Bulbs: Philips 60-Watt Equivalent

Philips LED Light BulbView on Amazon

If you’re looking for the best deal on LED light bulbs, check out this 16-pack of Philips 60-watt equivalent bulbs. These bulbs are an amazing deal at $21.99 ($1.37 / Count) for 16 bulbs. Typically LED’s average around $5/bulb! Philips is a good brand for LED light bulbs and you can get them in soft white or daylight. They use only 8.5 watts of energy and can save up to $62 over the lifetime of one bulb.

Our Favorite Smart Light Bulbs: Philips Hue LED Bulbs

Philips Hue LED BulbsView on Amazon

We love these light bulbs because they last 15,000 hours and are inexpensive compared to other smart bulbs. Philips Hue has models that can change colors and dim too, so they would be fun to adjust for a holiday party or in a kid’s bedroom. Depending on the model of bulbs you select you may need a Bridge to connect them all. This starter kit that we’ve linked to includes the Bridge.

What Happens If You Break A Light Bulb?

CFL bulbs contain mercury, so it’s important to be careful if you ever break a light bulb. First, have everyone leave the room including pets and air it out for 5-10 minutes by opening a door or window to the outside. Pick up the pieces of the bulb and wipe the area with a wet paper towel. Place all clean-up materials in an outside trash can. Remember to wash your hands with soap and water when you are done. Then check with your local municipality to find out if broken bulbs can be picked up with your other garbage or if they must be taken to a specified recycling center.

We recommend putting down a drop cloth when you change a light bulb in case it were to break, this can make clean-up easier.

How To Dispose Of A Light Bulb

  • LED – Many LED bulbs are recyclable, so check the packaging beforehand and consider recycling.
  • CFLYou should not toss burned-out CFL bulbs in the trash. Many municipalities offer recycling services, as do retailers such as Home Depot, Lowes, Walmart and IKEA, although not necessarily at all locations. Just enter your zip code to find your closest location.
  • Incandescent – These are okay to dispose of in your garbage. While some recycling centers allow these, check before throwing them in.

Light Bulb Wattage Guide

If you're trying to transition over to LED bulbs, it can be confusing which wattage is required. We are gradually doing this as light bulbs burn out in our house and I tend to find myself staring at all the light bulb options in the aisle for 5-10 minutes trying to find a replacement bulb. To make it easier for you, check out this table which shows which wattage you should get if you're used to purchasing a certain wattage bulb. For example, if your dining room lights have 60-watt incandescent bulbs, you can replace them with 12-watt LED bulbs which will save you money on electricity and on replacement bulbs in the long run.

Be Eco-Conscious And Save Money With Your Smart Home

Regardless of CFL vs incandescent vs LED, it is still a waste of energy to have lights on when they are not needed. A cool way to deal with this issue is to add some smart home devices to your life. Imagine if you could turn your lights on and off from your cell phone, no matter how far you are from your home! Here’s our pick for the smartest light bulb on the market.

Sources: [1] MNN

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