Energy-Saving Light Bulb Guide: CFL vs. LED vs. Incandescent

Though the initial costs are higher, new types of light bulbs are not only better for the environment, but should save you money in the long run.

Light Bulbs

Buying a light bulb used to be easy. You headed to the store, chose bulbs with your desired wattage, handed over a few bucks, and were on your way. Today, navigating the light bulb section is much harder, thanks to new energy-efficient types of light bulbs like CFLs and LEDs that come with a much higher price tag, as well as a staggering array of options.

To help with your decisions, we looked at the basic terms and light bulb types affiliated with this new generation of options, and compared them to the ones consumers are traditionally used to. Although the initial costs are higher, new forms of light bulbs are not only better for the environment, but they'll also save you money in the long run — if you choose correctly for your needs.

Know These Terms: Watts and Lumens

Simply speaking, watts are the amount of electricity a bulb uses to produce light. The less wattage, the less energy used. Traditionally, they were the deciding factor for purchase, and you had four choices – 40, 60, 75, or 100. (More on those numbers later.)

Today, it's all about the lumens, which measure the amount of light emitted from a bulb. More lumens equal brighter light. To replace standard wattage light bulbs based on lumens, use the following general rules:

  • 40 watts: Look for at least 450 lumens
  • 60 watts: Look for at least 800 lumens
  • 75 watts: Look for at least 1,100 lumens
  • 100 watts: Look for at least 1,600 lumens

Types of Light Bulbs

Incandescent Light Bulbs: The Cheapest Option

If you're a fan of the standard 40, 60, 75, and/or 100-watt bulb, you might want to stock up. As part of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, they were phased out in favor of more energy-efficient models. While you can still find them in some stores — or buy them by the case on eBay — they're no longer being produced.

The new incandescents are more energy-efficient, but still pale in comparison to the life span of CFLs and LEDs. A typical bulb will last for about 1,000 hours. Still, if you're looking for the lowest price tag on light bulbs, incandescent bulbs are your best bet at around $1 to $2 each.

CFL Bulbs: Mid-level Pricing, Moderate Energy Savings

Compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs have been around for a while, and they're best known for their spiral design. They typically last for about 10,000 hours, and use much less energy than incandescents – about 75% less. Cost-wise, they'll cost you more than incandescent bulbs, as they start at around $4 each. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, you'll recoup that cost in energy savings within nine months.

CFLs don't brighten as quickly as incandescent or LED bulbs, so they aren't great choices for entryways, or any place where you need immediate light. They also don't work well in the cold, so for outdoor use in cold climates, incandescents or LEDs would be a better bet. And CFLs also contain small amounts of mercury, so you shouldn't throw them in the trash. Both Home Depot and Lowe's offer CFL recycling programs.

LED Light Bulbs: Most Expensive, Highest Energy Savings

Light emitting diode (LED) bulbs use even less energy than CFLs, and they last longer: up to 50,000 hours. Unlike CFLs, they brighten instantly, even in cold temperatures. Using LEDs can help you save up to 80% in energy costs per year.

LEDs come with a heftier price tag than CFLs or incandescents – they start at around $10 each. If you have a light fixture you barely use, you might want to opt for a CFL or incandescent instead, as you may not recoup the cost in energy savings.

Light Bulb Features: Choosing the Right Bulb for Your Needs

Energy-efficient light bulbs come in different sizes, shapes, and colors, and it can be difficult to determine which will work best in your fixtures. When all else fails, bring your old light bulb to the store and ask for help, but get acquainted with these features first.

Lighting Facts Label

All new light bulbs are now required to have this, which lists lumens, watts, lifespan, light appearance, and yearly savings. This label makes it easy to compare different models and see which type meets your needs and which will save you the most money.

Dimmers and 3-way Fixtures

Standard CFLs often don't work in dimmers, and some LEDs don't, either. All three types, in fact, offer bulbs specifically for those purposes, so look for that designation on the package. Also look for designations for outdoor lighting.


If you want lighting that resembles the warm color of standard incandescent bulbs, look for something on the "warm" end of the lighting facts label, or about 2,500 Kelvin. The higher you go, the more white the light will be. 5,000K and up mimics natural daylight.

Shapes and Sizes

Each package has a letter and number code on it. The letter is the shape, and will stand for standard (A), globe (G), bullet (B), candle (C), flare (F), reflector (R), sign (S), or tubular (T). The size numbers reflect the diameter of the bulb at its widest point.


ENERGY STAR is a labeling program by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy that identifies energy-efficient products and buildings. In order for products to receive the ENERGY STAR label, they must meet an established set of criteria for efficiency. And if you buy ENERGY STAR-certified light bulbs, you may be able to receive special offers and rebates. Simply enter your zip code on the website and select the type of light bulbs you want to buy (as well as any other ENERGY STAR products you're interested in).

The Bottom Line: Consider Savings Now & Savings Later

If you're looking for instant savings, energy-efficient incandescents are the way to go. If you're looking long-term cost benefits, CFLs and LEDs will save you more money in the long run.

What types of light bulbs are you using in your home? Have you noticed any savings from energy-efficient models? Let us know in the comments below.

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Jessica Hulett
Contributing Writer

Jessica Hulett is a freelance writer, editor and obsessive seeker of online promo codes. She's been writing professionally for more than 15 years, and was most recently the managing editor of coupon and lifestyle site
DealNews may be compensated by companies mentioned in this article. Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).


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I bought five LED "ping pong" bulbs for my dining room chandelier, put them in, and within 24 hours, unscrewed them, boxed them back up, and returned them. The actual quality of light was just awful. Hard to describe -- likely related more to the wavelength than the color temperature, but it was diabolical. Granted, these were pretty cheap bulbs, so maybe the pricier ones don't have this problem.
I prefer incandescent for the price WHEN I can find them. And now it seems a pack of $4 (used to $2 a box) are now closer to $5 or $6 for a pack of 4. So the companies seem to force us to buy the bulbs we don't want. CFLs are too bright. I have blonde pigment... and those of us that have it need to bond together! CFLs are BLINDING. How can you enjoy a fixture if you can't SEE it. Yeah, LEDs are extremely bright too. With the past winter, a more natural heat from incandescent bulbs would have been nice too... I've noticed when you get a pack of CFLs and it shows 1000 hours? It means the total for all the lights in the package. And ours never last a year. We have incandescent bulbs in closests and patios that have been changed out twice in 15 years. Put that in yout pipe and smoke it. Still think it's all a ruse to get us to buy the high end bulbs that were not selling 12+ years ago for the sake of the 'feel good' movement. The time to help the grid is 11-3 not 7-9 at night.
something else to keep in mind (besides cost) when purchasing light bulbs.

Regarding CFL lightbulbs:

"That means that if you sit under that bulb for 8 hours, you're going to get a thousand times more than you can really tolerate," she says.

Indeed, Rafailovich says her study reveals that the response of healthy skin cells to UV rays emitted from CFLs "is consistent with damage from ultraviolet radiation." As with excessive sun exposure, that could make the cells more susceptible to mutation and even cancer. By contrast, under incandescent light of the same intensity, the skin cells sustained no damage."

quote source:

primary research article:
LEDs are the wave of the future. However, until there is a substantial price drop they are not worth the investment. If you install LEDs you must also have whole house surge protection. I have twice lost LEDs due to nearby lightening strikes.
As for linear fluorescent lamps, check with your trash hauler; if the bulbs have green tips, an "eco" designation, say "reduced mercury" or "TCLP compliant", they can be put into regular trash in most places because they contain very little mercury. Lamps which don't comply must be disposed of properly; check with your town, city or county to see if they have a program in place to take special waste like used fluorescent bulbs.
I'm a commercial lighting designer, so I can answer some of these questions and add a few more facts.

LED bulbs make great sense for lights left on for long periods each day; they typically last upwards of 25,000 hours and just fade as they get older. Since LEDs don't emit UV, they don't attract biting insects at night, so they're great for outdoor fixtures (no need for ugly yellow "bug light" bulbs!)

A clarification - 2700 to 2900 kelvin is equivalent to standard incandescent, while roughly 3800 kelvin will look like halogen.

The newer the dimmer, the better your odds the combination of bulb and dimmer will work well. Lutron dimmers (available at big box stores) come in a special compact fluorescent and LED version if you're adding a new dimmer to your home. They have a table lamp version, too.

Home Depot sells Cree and Philips brand LED bulbs in many variations, including a 100W equivalent I have tried both and they look very good installed in light fixtures.
Been sorely disappointed with my CFL's I got from Home Depot over the years...many lasting far far less than what good old incandescent lasted and well under the suggest 10,000 hours! Thankfully they were covered under warranty. CFL's need to go away in general and now a days if people are looking to save some electricity cost, step up to LED's and forget about CFL's!!!
CFL issues:
1) It costs to recycle - you drive to a Lowe's or H.D. Wipes out savings. All chains should take them back if they sell them. Try returning the 48" fluorescents to H.D. or Lowes. They stopped taking them. No place to recycle them and in many cities, illegal to discard.
2) They don't last anywhere near as long as claimed. Ever since I started using CFLs when they were as expensive as LEDs are now, I would write the date I put it into service on the side of the bulb. I find manufacturers invent numbers.
3) Mfgr warranty is a fraud. Nobody is crazy enough to keep receipts all that time and how would one prove that the bulb you buy today, put into service next year, and dies three years later are the same bulb. By that time you pay shipping it back, it cost more than they currently prices. This will affect LEDs. You pay $15 now and if they last 4 years instead of 10, you'll have no receipt any more and you'll pay $4 to ship a bulb then selling for $3.
Replacing CFLs w/LEDs, particularly where lights are switched on/off frequently and for short periods of time. As we don't leave any lights on for extended periods I am not expecting, nor have I seen, appreciable change in electricity usage (unlike when I upgraded our water heater and washer/dryer = instant 20% gas/electric & 30% water usage reduction). However, if we who believe in the need to conserve resources don't switch, nobody will.
Do they sell the equivalent of 100 watt led bulbs?
There is more to light quality than just the color temperature (listed in Kelvin), there is also the spectrum of colors emitted.
Incandescent bulbs give the most natural spectrum, despite being warmer than daylight. CFL have a relatively poor spectrum. And those fine bright yellowish sodium street lights outside have an awful spectrum, but they are excellent in terms of efficiency and long life.