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Are LED light bulbs worth it?

I’ve been buying modern forms of light bulbs for almost 15 years now. So when someone asks me, “Are LED light bulbs worth it?” or “Do LED lights really save you money?” I can answer the question. I was more accepting of CFL bulbs than most, but I had some reservations about them. On the other hand, I really like LED bulbs.

LED light bulbs have saved me a lot of money over the years, and they have quite a few advantages besides the money they save you every month on your electric bill. I thought LED light bulbs were worth it five years ago, and I really think so now.

Advantages of LED light bulbs

are LED light bulbs worth it?

LED light bulbs, like the one in the front, have several advantages over traditional bulbs, including a longer lifespan and lower cost. If you shop carefully, the up-front cost isn’t much more either.

LED light bulbs have several advantages. They turn on nearly instantly, and at full brightness. LED light bulbs give off a lot of light for the amount of electricity they consume. They last a relatively long time. LED light bulbs are difficult to break, since the globe is a flexible plastic, not glass. And they don’t contain any controversial chemicals. There’s no mercury in LED bulbs to get worked up about. They also don’t emit any ultraviolet light.

You can get LED bulbs in a variety of color temperatures. The most popular are soft white, warm white, and daylight. Daylight bulbs can help you cope with seasonal affective disorder. I don’t like them, but if I had SAD, I’d like them a lot. Temperature can vary by manufacturer, so when you try out a new bulb, I recommend getting just one. If you don’t like it, put it in the laundry room or the garage. If you like it, buy more.

I guess there’s one other advantage too. LED bulbs tend to give some warning before they burn out. Rather than fail completely, they tend to work intermittently. They can get obnoxious once they start getting too intermittent, but the odds are against you walking into a room, turning on the light, and hearing the tell-tale pop followed by no light at all. A failing LED will usually give enough light that you can find your way to another switch.

And then, of course, there’s the improved efficiency. The improved efficiency has an interesting side effect too: It can cut your air conditioner usage.

I was slower to adopt LED light bulbs than some, because once LED bulbs became something I could buy at regular retail stores, I already had efficient lighting. But over time I phased them in. I have one seldom used enclosed fixture left with a CFL in it. Changing the fixture is impractical and we don’t use it enough to be worth bothering. As I recall, it was the last one to get a CFL, too.

Disadvantages of LED bulbs

Are LED light bulbs worth it? Not as much if you need new fixtures.

Open light fixtures like this one are suitable for LED bulbs as they give them room to breathe.

LED bulbs don’t have a lot of disadvantages, but they have some. They don’t like enclosed fixtures much, because they need ventilation for cooling. So I ended up replacing some light fixtures with open fixtures.

So in that regard, the LED bulbs cost more since I also needed to replace some fixtures. Then again, the money I saved by switching to LED bulbs paid for the fixtures. It didn’t hurt that my wife was tired of the light fixtures we had, so she was agreeable to me replacing them. Between the two of us, we were able to find fixtures she liked that would work fine with the LED light bulbs I wanted to buy.

Replacing fixtures isn’t always a bad thing, though. In bathrooms, it can be cheaper to replace lighting bars with vanity fixtures and put cheap regular LED bulbs in them rather than continuing to buy expensive, short-life-expectancy globes. And bulbs may last longer in newer fixtures anyway. More on that in a bit.

You also shouldn’t use an LED bulb in a garage door opener. Well, not if you want the remote to work, anyway.

The other disadvantage of LED bulbs is the light is very directional. Newer bulbs compensate for that by changing the arrangement of the individual LEDs inside. But LED bulbs do tend to cast a narrower light than other types of lighting do.

OK, there is one more disadvantage. The cost. In most cases, LED bulbs cost more than other types of bulbs. Sometimes it’s a lot. The sticker shock of high wattage equivalent LEDs is often what drives people to ask are LED light bulbs worth it. I bought plenty of $15 LED bulbs in my day, but it’s a tough sell.

How to save money on LED light bulbs

If you’re paying more than $2 per LED light bulb, you may be shopping at the wrong store.
LED light bulbs can be expensive, but it’s not hard to save money on them. Name-brand bulbs tend to be the most expensive. Usually most stores will have one brand that’s less expensive than the others, and it may not be the same brand at the same rating of bulb. It’s not necessarily always the same brand either. A year ago the cheapest bulbs at the Home Depot near me were GE. Today they’re Ecosmart. Two years ago the cheapest bulb there was a Philips.

And bulbs are different prices at different stores. At grocery stores, they tend to cost more than they do at hardware or home improvement stores. Discount-store pricing can good too, and warehouse club pricing can be very good, as long as you’re willing to buy in club-sized quantities.

But unless you’re buying 100-watt replacements, you absolutely don’t have to spend $10-$20 per bulb. I buy 60-watt replacements, which use about 10 watts of power, and routinely pay less than $2 each for them. I recently bought a 4-pack for $6. At that price, there’s no question whether LED light bulbs are worth it. They cost 50 cents more than other types of lighting while using 1/6 as much power in the case of incandescents, or 1/2 as much in the case of CFL, and lasting longer.

Prices can vary by geographical location, not just by store. Some utility companies subsidize the price of bulbs, either to lessen the load on their plants or as part of their agreement with the state government. But sometimes I can still find $2 bulbs even without the subsidy.

The 60-watt sweet spot

Oddly, 60-watt equivalent bulbs usually cost less than 40-watt equivalents. Maybe it’s an economies of scale issue. Generally the 60-watt equivalents are a more useful size, but 40-watt equivalent bulbs that sip a mere 4.5 watts are very nice for hallways or over the kitchen sink.

Two 60-watt equivalents generally give off as much light as a single 100-watt equivalent. The bigger bulb will use less power overall, but the up-front cost of a pair of the smaller bulbs is tempting. In a pinch, you can even get a twin-socket adapter to let you put a pair of the smaller bulbs in the place of a single bulb, assuming you have clearance.

But if you can find a 40-watt equivalent bulb that uses 4.5 watts or less, it will use half as much energy over the course of its life. Even if it costs more, if the 400 lumens it emits is enough for a particular application, it’s worth paying the extra. Unsubsidized, the 400-lumen bulbs tend to sell for around $5.

Caveats with bargain LED light bulbs

LED light bulbs don't break like other bulbs

An LED light bulb contains a bunch of individual LEDs inside. The plastic globe isn’t necessary for them to function. LEDs make breaks a thing of the past.

The cheapest LED light bulbs frequently won’t be dimmable. So if you have any dimmer switches in your house, those bulbs won’t work with them. But there’s an upside to non-dimmable bulbs as well. Frequently non-dimmable bulbs consume half a watt or even a full watt less than their dimmable equivalents. So I’d rather buy the non-dimmable bulbs for things like lamps and kitchen lighting. They save me money both in use and up front.

The other caveat with the cheapest bulb on the shelf is life expectancy. Look at the life expectancy in hours on the package. The $2 GE bulbs I bought a year or so ago have a life expectancy 35% higher than the $2 Ecosmart bulbs I bought most recently. But sometimes the $2 bulb lasts half as long as the others on the shelf. Of course if the competing bulb costs $6 and the energy usage is comparable, the $2 bulb is still a bargain.

To normalize life expectancy, take the hours per day they state on the package (often three), multiply that by 365, then multiply that by the number of years they say on the package. Then you know how many hours the bulb will probably last. If the price and efficiency are close, compare the life expectancy to help you decide which bulb is the better buy.

OK, I’ll add one more thing. Super cheap LED bulbs emit a really poor quality cold, harsh light. There probably aren’t many of those really old, nasty cheap LEDs hanging around. But those cold white LED bulbs are no bargain. That type of LED light bulb isn’t worth it. If you see “cool white” on the package, put it back on the shelf.

How long do LED light bulbs last?

I generally get 10,000 hours out of my LED bulbs, which for me, works out to about four years.
The promise with LED light bulbs was that they would last 10 years while using 1/10 as much energy as the bulbs they replace. We’re not quite there yet, at least not with the really inexpensive bulbs. I generally expect to get 3-4 years out of a bulb. The packaging often claims 10 years or more, but that’s based on using the light three hours a day. That may be about average at my house, but the median usage sure isn’t anything like three hours. I have some bulbs that only get 30 minutes of use but others that may get 16 on the other extreme.

Generally speaking, bulbs claim a life expectancy of 10,000-15,000 hours. I wrote about that before, and I seem to be getting that most of the time. If your bulbs only last a few months no matter what kind you use, my tips for CFL longevity also apply to LEDs, and my tips on bulbs flickering provide some additional fixes.

How much money can LED bulbs save me?

How much can LED light bulbs save you?

I estimate that LED light bulbs save me $1,500 every four years. That’s a lot of money for zero sacrifice. Are LED light bulbs worth it? How many other zero-sacrifice ways can you think of to save $1,500?

You can use an LED savings calculator to estimate your savings, because it depends on how much light you use.

Doing some back-of-the-envelope math, the Department of Energy estimates we spend 14% of our electric bill on lighting. Working backward from those numbers, I estimate each LED bulb saves me $1.45 a year over compact fluorescent bulbs.  The savings over an incandescent bulb will be higher. Probably closer to $5 per year.

You have to factor in the cost of the bulbs, so let’s do that. An incandescent bulb lasts about four months in my usage patterns and costs a dollar. I generally get 3-4 years out of either a CFL or LED bulb. LEDs tend to be a little more consistent, but the draw with LED over CFL is that LEDs use less energy. So in four years, I can expect to go through 12 incandescent bulbs at a cost of $12. Or I can go through a $1.50 CFL or a $2 LED.

So over the course of a four year life expectancy, an LED bulb saves me $10 in bulb replacement cost and $20 in energy, for a total of $30. I have 50 bulbs in my house. That’s $1,500 I can spend on something else.

So, are LED light bulbs worth it?

You tell me if LED light bulbs are worth it. Is saving $30 per light socket every four years worth it? I can think of any number of things I’d rather spend $1,500 on. Upgrading to LED lighting is a pretty easy way to save that money. It doesn’t take long to change a light bulb, and then I don’t have to change the bulb again for a few years. So I even save some time.

In my case, I spent some of that savings on light fixtures.

Now, if you don’t expect to be in the same place for four years, LED bulbs may not be worth it for you. If you’re planning to move this year, replace burned-out bulbs with the cheapest thing you can find. But at the very least, unless you plan to move very soon, putting LED bulbs in your most frequently used light fixtures can pay off in as little as four months in the best case scenario.

More energy saving ideas

I’ve done a number of other things to help me save energy over the years. Most are pretty inexpensive. I installed thermal blinds and thermal curtains. Then I insulated my hot water pipes. I insulated my electrical outlets and added child safety plates.

My electric usage dropped 19 percent in 2011, so these things work.

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2 thoughts on “Are LED light bulbs worth it?”

  1. I put LEDs in our garage door opener (Sears, several years old) with no ill effects – I don’t think I can blame them for the broken spring that is being replaced tomorrow. The 40 watt equivelents are also nice for multiple bulb fixtures, I have one that really doesn’t need the 300 watts a set of 60 watt equivelents would produce. Here in Salem, OR the local power company/state had me fill out a questionaire about number of fixtures, etc. and sent me a whole box of LEDs and water flow restricters for free – I had already replaced most so now I have plenty of spares or gifts.

  2. 60 watt equivalents are usually the cheapest because they’re the most popular size. 60W incandescent bulbs were often cheaper than 40W ones for the same reason. Another factor is that the 60W equivalents are the most likely ones to get utility subsidies, which are usually invisible or nearly invisible these days. (The only indication I’ve seen recently is a small sign at the store.)

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