Published on February 19th, 2015 | by Peter Young

The True Cost Of Light Bulbs: LED vs CFL vs Incandescent

The real cost of lightbulbs

Thomas Edison (the man who invented the modern incandescent light bulb as we know it) once said “We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles”. While I appreciate the philanthropic nature of his comment, something tells me he never would have predicted just how much it costs to power the light bulbs that illuminate our homes more than a century later. According to the US Energy Information Administration the national average per kWh is only $.10, and while that may not seem like much, I assure you that energy costs can add up quick. To help illustrate this point, let’s take a look at the true cost of light bulbs.

The true cost of light bulbs: LED vs. CFL vs. Incandescent

To begin, take a look at the following chart which breaks down the real costs associated with the three most common types of light bulbs over a seven year period (LEDs, CFLs and Incandescents). Note that this chart was compiled by Scott Cooney, an Adjunct Professor in the MBA program at the University of Hawaii and founder of the home efficiency service Pono Home, based on Hawaii’s rates of 34.5c per kWh, and the assumption of 3 hours per day the bulbs are on (average American use stat from

True cost of LED CFL incandescents Hawaii rates


So let’s break down just what this chart is telling us. The breakeven point (the point at which the total long term cost of the more efficient bulb becomes less than that of the less efficient bulb) happens in year one for both CFLs and LEDs as opposed to incandescents. In year 2, the LED surpasses the CFL in long term savings. So if you have a 2 year or longer time horizon, the LED is not only the more eco-friendly option, it’s the most cost-effective, despite the higher upfront cost. LED bulbs have the added benefit of NOT containing mercury, which CFLs do.

As you can see the upfront costs for all three types of light bulbs are as follows (going from lowest to highest):

  1. Incandescent ($.94)
  2. CFL ($1.60)
  3. LED ($4.99) *

*(Note that since we created this chart the first time around, the price of LEDs dropped about 30% lower than this, prompting us to revisit this and create a new one)

No wonder so many people opt for incandescents or CFLs instead of LEDs, the price is drastically lower (initially). However, what most people don’t consider at the time of purchase are the long term ramifications of purchasing the cheaper bulb. For example, incandescents and CFLs (lasting 1,200hrs and 8,000hrs respectively) simply won’t last as long as their LED counterparts (which can last as long as 50,000hrs). Meaning, you’ll have to repurchase the “cheaper” light bulb several times before you replace the LED even once! Now if you factor in the cost to actually operate the various types of light bulbs, you’ll see that LEDs will start to pull way ahead of the competition. Here are the real costs of purchasing, using (and replacing) all three types of light bulbs over a ten year period (from lowest to highest):

  1. LED – $31.43
  2. CFL – $52.31
  3. Incandescent – $236.07

“But I don’t live in Hawaii where electricity comes from diesel fuel, and therefore, my rates are a lot lower”, I hear you saying. Definitely understand. So we cooked up the chart in another way, with the average rate Americans pay (12 cents per kilowatt hour) to see what would happen.

True cost of LED CFL incandescents

As you can see with the yellow cells, the LED still beats the incandescent even in the first year, and while it takes a little longer to beat the CFL (year 5), over a ten year period, it beats all competition handily (and still has 40,000 hours of life left).

So what should all these numbers really mean to you? It’s quite simple actually, LEDs (in the long run) are the cheapest and most energy efficient means by which you can illuminate your home (sorry Mr. Edison, but light bulb technology has come a long way since 1879).


Photo courtesy of the flickr creative commons (lightbulbs)

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About the Author

graduated from Pacific Lutheran University (PLU) with a degree in journalism and has made sustainability and eco-conscious living mainstays of both his professional and personal life. It was during his time at PLU that he began his journey with sustainability and it's what has led him to writing for Green Living Ideas. He currently resides in Honolulu and works for Pono Home, an energy efficiency company focused on reducing carbon emissions and promoting a healthier, greener lifestyle.

52 Responses to The True Cost Of Light Bulbs: LED vs CFL vs Incandescent

  1. bryan flake says:

    That is a significant difference of upfront costs for bulbs. However, the savings on the back end of the purchase are what matter. To think I used to think that just turning off the light would save me money. I would almost rather pay a bit more initially in order to save more and more as time goes by.

  2. rsexton says:

    Its more about how bright it is and how the light looks and how they work.
    Slow to be a good brightness.
    Not as reliable.
    Light looks terrible.
    Don’t always fit well in the space provided.
    Not very bright.

    These have been my experiences trying to use CFL and LED. I don’t really like waiting a few minutes for it to be the brightness i want. And i have had to return a bunch of LED’s which also had a strange light quality and also i like about 90 watts or so of brightness and they usually aren’t and some spaces like over a sink are a certain form factor where these are a bit differently shaped and didn’t want to fit very well if at all.

    New houses have more possibilities as they are made with the space usually. Also the cost for the sufficient brightness has been prohibitive.

    They are getting better but it’s kind of slowly doing so. I was very disappointed when 3 out of 6 ’50 year LED bulbs’ went bad not to mention the strange look of the light in one of the cases where i tried to make use of them.

    • Scott Cooney says:

      That’s a really unfortunate view that really doesn’t line up with any bulbs I’ve used in the last 2 years. My company (Pono Home) does home energy efficiency and we install LED and CFL bulbs. They come in all shapes, all sizes, all color spectrums, dimmable, rapid-lighting…I think you may be talking about bulbs that are 5 years old perhaps. Today’s technology is simply awesome. It’s a drop in replacement for incandescent bulbs with no problems, just savings.

      • rsexton says:

        Current stuff at lowes and home depot. The major source for consumers buying these. From what I could tell my experience was not unique. I an hoping for better brightness, warmth spectrum wise, form factor , light dispersion and p rice.

        • Offgridman says:

          If you are getting them at home Depot or Lowes spend the extra dollar or two per bulb for brand name rather than off brand or store brand and you will see a big difference with the issues you are having (get Cree, Phillips, or GE)
          Have been using the Phillips soft white, 360° radiance, standard form bulbs for almost a year now and am very pleased with the light quality, lack of noise, and energy savings. They are available in everything from 25-120 watt equivalent and are dimmable.
          I have been using LED lights for about seven years now to control energy use because of being offgrid, and totally agree that some of the early offerings were just unacceptable. But they have come a long way, and you should give some of the newer ones from the good companies a try.

          • rsexton says:

            In a brand new home we bought it is an energy star certified home. The bulbs are CFL and it seems it is slower to become bright when upside down as in mounted in the ceiling as CFL bulbs. I sure hope they get better as instantly bright lights are more cheerful.

          • Offgridman says:

            Yes due to the inherent issue of any fluorescent bulb including CFL’s the delay time of the gas heating up for full brightness will always be there, though there have been some improvements through the years.
            This is not the case with LED’s though, even the inexpensive ones give their full output from the start.
            You had said that your issue was with the quality of light though, and having them be bright enough. This has been resolved with the newer LED bulbs from the brand name companies, that will also give you the energy savings and long life. In case you should get one that doesn’t last as long as they are supposed to, save one of the packages and call the company, I have had no problem getting them to ship a replacement the one time there was an issue.

          • Scott Cooney says:

            Definitely agree–unfortunately there are a lot of cheap LED bulbs flooding the market from China. They’re bound to be less quality than the ones by brand names like CREE, which is one of the pioneers of LED lighting technologies–they’ve been doing it for decades and they’re an awesome company.

          • Liberalssuck says:

            I have been switching out my CFLs (those are terrible for the environment — and though I’m not a global warming follower, I care very much for the environment, as do most true conservatives) and buying the FEIT brand and find them to be outstanding. Do not like the GE brand at all. Those are basically the only ones I’ve tried.

        • Phil reimondo says:

          I’ve replaced all 28 t8 4’ fluorescent tubes with syllvania led tubes. Awesome light seems brighter. Looking forward to close to 60 percent energy savings

      • Troy Heagy says:

        I’m an electrical engineer. I have used multiple CFLs over the last 20 years, and noticed two things: The bulbs that “flicker” as they turnon typically reach full brightness immediately, but the bulbs which are “instant on” start dim and then gradually heat-up to full brightness (in freezing outdoors weather they never reach full brightness). It reminds me of starting a car, where the engine is cold and then gradually heats up.
        If you claim to have never seen this phenomenon of CFLs starting dim and then gradually reaching full brightness, you are probably being dishonest (because you have a financial incentive to sell CFLs as part of your business). Especially with comments like “simply awesome” and “no problems”. EVERY technology has flaws and as an engineer it is my job to design around those flaws.
        If I try and pretend the flaws do not exist, then I am being dishonest in my profession

    • Annie says:

      CFL are horrible, either dingy ir glaring, they make everyone look drained and hideous, they distort colours…they’re awful. And it’s really annoying waiting for the damned things to come on. Forget it,

  3. dbr2 says:

    I switched to CFL’s over a decade ago and have been gradually replacing them with LED’s as they burn out – I have bought a couple of LED’s that I didn’t like that much and used them in less critical fixtures, but I have overall been very happy with the quality.

    I am, however, a little confused about the cost analysis – who pays 34 c/kwh? – I think I am paying about 8…

    • Scott Cooney says:

      Where we live (the author of this article and I), the cost is 34.5 c / kWh. The other islands of Hawaii pay even more, upwards of 50c. Crazy, right? But that’s what happens when 90% of our electricity comes from industrial generators burning diesel fuel.

      • dbr2 says:

        OK thanks, that make sense. I was surprised that the relatively small difference in efficiency between LED’s and CFL’s could have such a big impact. I am glad I don’t pay 34.5 c/kwh, but I suppose it’s possible Hawaii has some offsetting benefits!

        For the national average case of 10c/kwh I think the main message is not incandescent – I mostly started upgrading to LED’s out of curiosity and have used them in places where I wanted slightly different light quality including the warm-up time. On a purely economic basis, I suspect the optimum solution may be to use CFL’s for another 2-3 years and buy the cheaper and more efficient LED’s available then.

      • Joël Pichette says:

        Why doesn’t the government nationalize the electric utility like everywhere else in the world?

        By doing that, they could harmonize the price with the rest of the country… by subsidizing it for two islands and asking eveyone to pay the same price in the whole country.

  4. TedKidd says:


    This rough draft is good, but further work is needed.

    1. You mention $.10 kWh energy cost, then use $.34 in your spreadsheet. This needs to line up and it should be done honestly, WITHOUT a finger pressing down on the scale to make your argument look better. If the national average is $.10, you should probably use that.

    2. No mention of hourly use. Are you assuming 2 hours a day, 8, 24? This important fundamental metric MUST be placed up front and be transparent.

    It’s a good policy to have high integrity in your published arguments. They live a long time and you probably don’t want to look like a shill. Make these corrections and you’ll have a better product.

    • Scott Cooney says:

      Definitely good suggestions, though no need to be a douche to our writer, ok? He used a chart I created for a course I teach on sustainable economics, based on our local energy rates (we’ve added that to the article above), and based on what our public utility says is the average time on per day for a 60 watt bulb (or equivalent).

      I appreciate your feedback, though, and you’re right. I guess the bottom line is that we’re trying to educate people to the fact that there’s more to the cost of things than simply the cost of the thing. Some people may think about the energy costs it’ll amass over the years, but probably won’t do spreadsheets themselves, so this visual was meant to help them see the big picture. And then lastly, most people wouldn’t even think twice about the replacement cost, which we’ve also added here, to demonstrate that a bulb you only have to buy once every 50K hours of use has a decided advantage over ones you’ll have to replace 50x within that time period.

      • TedKidd says:

        Truth sometimes can hurt the fragile ego. It’s the better and quicker path to quality thinking and quality work though.

        I’m happy to spend time sharing my perspective in a more circuitous and opaque manner, if I’m paid.

        Ultimately this approach is more direct, less costly to your writer (free and fast), and probably more useful.

    • ThatGuy says:

      My thoughts were similar to your own. I also like your use of the phrase/metaphor ‘finger pressing down on the scale’.

      Another comment I had was that the pricing for CFL’s seems a little off, but it may just be an ‘average’ or they may cost more in HI. The CFL bulbs I have purchased over the last few years have averaged ~$0.25/bulb for 60W-equivalent bulbs. Granted, these are almost certainly subsidized by the power company, so hard to say what the true cost is. As I think about this more, I guess that is less of an issue, though I still agree that some more transparency on the metric used would be helpful, and using national averages would make the information more relevant to a larger audience.

    • Scott Cooney says:

      Hi Ted,
      I revamped the article with new calculations. I realized I had not marked on the sheet the assumptions about hours per day. lists it as 3 hours per day, and I’ve seen as high as 6. I went with 3 to err on the side of caution. Then I did it with 12 cents / kWh, which is now the national average. Check it out and let me know if we got it 100% right this time.

      • TedKidd says:

        Hi Scott, accuracy is a practice, not a destination. You’ll never get it 100% right.

        For example, now you need to adjust the LED cost. I’m buying 3 for under $10 at home depot…

        I think the argument is much more balanced, nobody can accuse you of skewing the numbers to make your point.

        The tool could be useful for folks who really want to understand how it impacts THEIR situation, as they might want to enter their own cost of energy, daily use, bulb costs…

        I created a simple/very simplistic calculator for understanding energy efficiency opportunity in homes in the northeast. It allows people to enter a couple numbers and see how efficient or inefficient their homes are:

  5. Joe Roy says:

    I made the switch to LEDs a while ago because I like the light they
    disperse AND because it’s the more efficient and cost-effective choice!

  6. dont want disqus account says:

    The price seems to have dropped a lot more. I typically get bumbs in 600-800 lumen range and a couple months ago a local Walmart had sale on warm white LED bulbs for about $5 each (advertised to last 7 years).

  7. Matt says:

    The ‘true cost’ is more than just monetary value and savings over time. You never even once considered health benefits or dangers of the various bulbs.

  8. jobb says:

    I’m done replacing my CFL’s with LED lights though it’s quite pricey. I’ve been using LED lights for almost 2 years and it’s a relief that it’s saving me from high-cost electric bills.

  9. TuMadre says:

    I finally swapped out every last bulb in my house with LEDs, now that I’ve been able to find most of the 40-60w equivalents for about 5 bucks per bulb, although, ironically, I’ve been replacing the most used lights with bulbs that cost double to triple the cost. I’ve got a light over the kitchen sink, and in a bedroom lamp, that is always on at night (me and the wife keep third shift hours). Uses about 3W of energy per bulb. Living room, where we are at most of the time, has a 6w bulb and a 16w bulb (for when we want things brighter).

    I never thought I would actually try to replace the CFL bulbs, but you really can’t deny the difference in the quality of the light color.

  10. Annie says:

    i dislike fluorescent light because it hurts my eyes and makes everything and everyone look hideous. I believe that studies have shown that it can damage your eyes, and to me the small amount of money that a lightbulb costs is a small amount indeed to pay to avoid any risk to my eyes.

    An ad for the ghastly fluoros said that it would save $800 a year if one changed to these. I think not. That would mean that I would be paying about $200 a year if I did.

  11. Candice Hiley says:

    Great article this very true. I would say that the better alternative to LED bulbs are the purpose built LED desk and task lamps. You are getting tremendous gains in brightness and reduced energy costs because the whole lamp is purpose built as opposed to a retrofit.

    Also the cost for LED lamps have come way down. We still have great designer lamps from Steelcase and Knoll that are priced $400 +, but we also have high end lamps from Lumiy priced at $50. Two years ago, everything was CFL and now I see a Lumiy lamp everywhere because the performance-cost for these make them amazing value for money.

  12. Heath Damien Huffman says:

    With the Black Friday LED deals going on I came here looking to see if swapping out “good” CFL for LED was an economically sound idea, and it looks like it’s not….yet. I will certainly replace dead CFL with LED, but won’t throw away good ones. Thank you for the article.

  13. Pete Laberge says:

    I use CFL’s in a couple of heat sheltered, hard to get at, vibration isolated lamps, where long life was important. They are way more expensive than Incandescent, but cheaper than LED. The light quality did not matter for that use.

    I use a couple of LED’s, that I was able to buy cheap due to an introductory coupon. The light quality was not bad. The cost was, due to the coupon, affordable. I have no idea yet what the lifetime duration or cost will be, and both are hard to measure, in real world use.

    My main annoyance with CFL and LED bulbs is:
    — Non standard shape and construction, means they cannot be used in many places. They simply do not fit.
    — Crappy quality. The slightest bump, vibration, or knock, and they break into a zillion hard to pick up, pieces.
    — COST.
    — Light Quality, altho that is getting much better,
    — So the story is that they turn less energy into more light, and less heat. But they all come with a warning NOT to use them in recessed or enclosed fixtures DUE TO HEAT. Hello????
    — Have you evver tried to unscrew one after many hours of use? They seem to “swell” and a hard to unscrew. And they get quite hot. So much for turning all that hydro into light, not heat. COUGH!

    So while on mere math, one bulb may appear cheaper than another, or better in some way…. In the REAL world, your mileage may vary. Use the appropriate bulb, in the appropriate place.

    For outdoor use, esp in a cold climate, use incandescent. Even for indoor use. In Northern Ontario, it is cold from Sept, to May. So that heat they give off? MAY be useful to you. May even keep you from having to fire up a furnace or a rad. And as for the summer? What heat? In summer, you have decent light, from roughly 7:45 am, up until 10 pm. So the bulb, regardless on what kind, will be used much less then. But that is only for PART of May, and June-Aug, and PART of Sept. Still. Many fewer hours. And the time when you need the heat? MUCH longer time period.

    See, all these things are based on places like Calif or Hawaii. But the world, Horatio, is bigger and more varied than your imagination.

    Up in Boden, Sweden, Where you have the Arctic darkness, and cold, you might want incandescents here and there precisely for heat, and for the “warmer” color of the light. And in some uses, the CFL’s simply will not work well, or last long. The LED’s will likely work. But experience proves they are definitely not a “rough service use” bulb.

    Again, use the right bulb, in the right place, just as you would ANY other product.

    • Troy Heagy says:

      “It’s all relative” – Albert Einstein. Yes CFLs and LEDs are relatively more efficient than incandescent bulbs, however they still only convert ~10% of the energy into light. The rest is thrown-away as heat. (The most efficient bulb is a sodium lamp at 20%, but it’s yellow in color. Only good for streetlights.)
      If you live in a cold zone, you’re still better off to use the FURNACE for heat rather than lightbulbs. The furnace converts energy to heat much more efficiently than any of the lightbulbs do, since the furnace is designed to heat the floor where the occupants live, where lightbulbs mainly heat the ceiling (waste heat).
      My CFLs are all round. They have spiral tubes inside, but are surrounded by a round bulb, and they fit into the same lamp as the incandescents. Also if they happen to break, the spiral pieces are contained inside the round bulb which is a tough plastic

      • Pete Laberge says:

        Oh, the furnace is used, when needed.
        But the point is that:
        Sometimes, you do not need the furnace, in a small room, where you are working, you only need a little light, and a little heat. Moreover, any heat the bulbs DO give off by way of making light…. Is still useful. In the winter you need both heat and light. IN the summer you likely do not need the light. So not heat “waste”.

        And the whole room need to be heated, floor, middle and ceiling space. And most of my lights are desk lamps. (I only have a couple of ceiling lamps, and they are rarely used. Two are big “room” fluorescent ones.) As well, many ceiling lights have fans to blown warm air down.

        The bulbs are not so tough. I have an LED in a desk lamp. I leave it on all the time, partly because a small knock smashed the plastic, and I thought the thing would die, so may as well get what I could out of it. Besides, where it is, it is very strategic as it lights up a whole room, and some light does another room.

        Another LED, used intermittently, died after about a year. One CFL, placed in a hard to get at spot, that needs light all the time, is replaced annually also.

        My rear deck and steps have LED’s on strings to light things up when I come home, late at night. They also last about a year.

        So much for their long lives. And they take their time turning on, too. I have some old incandescents, which admittedly get turned on and off a lot, and thus are used intermittently. A couple are several years old.

        NO the whole thing started at first to provide a means, a reason to sell the curly over priced CFL’s. Now that flag was passe don to the LED’s as CFL prices have come down.

        Soon we will be going back to the old style bulbs. Researchers have found out a few things abut them. LIke who they are not so bad, and how they can be made much more efficient, easily. These are ALSO supposed to be very long lived, but we know that will be a lie. Manufacturers NEED you to replace things often. They need profits, and are not charities. and the bigger the lie, the more easily swallowed it is.

  14. bill says:

    I am a type A, so detail matters. Rather than a chart – here is a DIY spreadsheet. All the cells with a yellow background are changeable.
    Cell with formulas are not. There are no macros. Now u don’t have to argue about anything — well, I guess I could have made an error. eh, probably not.
    If u look at year 4, 8, 12, etc u will find an extra period = leap day.
    You can decide if u want the cost amortized over the life of the bulb or per year cost. “yes” = amortize, “no” (or anything else = don’t amortize.
    Now enter anything you want in the other yellow cells and it will show results.
    The red are in the center is controlled by the yellow block above it.
    There is no value testing so if u enter something absurd, u will probably get those results.

    • FreezeCake says:

      type As are not detail oriented.

      • ruggb says:

        OK, u r right again! I must tell my wife. I AM mostly left brained and type B according to Wikipedia. I must understand how thinks work and given the right tools, I can fix most anything; even if it takes me longer to do it.

  15. Anqrew says:

    This is what happens when a non-technical person tries to compare different technologies 🙂
    First of all, 7W LED usually produces (much) less light than a 13W CFL, you should not naively trust “60W equivalent” labels without measurements. Next, the expected lifetime of a LED lamp is a very arguable thing, LED will degrade quickly if the thermal regime is not optimal (for CFL, it is much less of a problem).
    And the most important thing, is that the majority of LED lamps tend to flicker which will hurt your eyes after a while. With CFL, it is difficult to find a flickering one (a luminophor is more inert, and it is more difficult to mess the things up).

    • Scott Cooney says:

      @ Anqrew, I’m not sure where you get your information. You’re right that some LEDs may produce less lumens, but it’s negligible at best. A 7 watt LED produces a similar amount of lumens as a CFL….810 to 900, according to the product catalog at AM Conservation. In addition, LEDs are virtually all dimmable. Most CFLs are not. Most fluorescents flicker whereas LEDs put out a consistent light stream. And last, you can’t just make a claim that life expectancy is “very arguable”, and then provide no support for your claim.

      • Troy Heagy says:

        EE here again….. I think he has valid points. I see 7 watt LEDs outputting 450-800 lumens depending on brand, so the customer needs to be careful about false claims of “60 watt equivalent” from dishonest manufacturers.
        LEDs do flicker when running off an AC source. 60 cycles per second in the cheap brands, and 120 in the more expensive. (Ditto with CFLs.)
        And yes lifespan is variable depending on location of install. Put either a CFL or LED inside an enclosed lamp, or an upside-down lamp that traps heat, and the bulbs will live no longer than a standard incandescent. (I know this from personal experience.) What happens is the heat melts the capacitors, or dries them out, and then they fuse & the bulb dies. This is a repeatable failure mode

  16. Troy Heagy says:

    “our anonymous troll is master of the obvious!”
    When people use words like “troll” or “idiot” or “asshole” then they make themselves look like immature high school children. Don’t drop to the same level as that other guy

  17. Jean-Yves Theriault says:

    What this article does not say, is what is the impact on the environment to manufacture those lights, perhaps that the most important factor, why not telling us?

  18. kracker says:

    No way CFL’s last that long incandescent last much longer than a cfl. LED’s I don’t know yet just started using them

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