CFL vs LED – Lighting’s Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny

by Erik North on January 21, 2012

CFLs vs LEDs - Lighting's Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny

If the title is confusing, google ‘ultimate showdown of ultimate destiny’ and I’ll wait *hums to himself*.

OK, we’re back. Compact Fluorescent Lights (CFLs) have been gaining popularity in the last decade despite some well documented drawbacks. They’ve become synonymous with energy efficiency and saving electricity. So much so that CFLs have experienced a considerable backlash, with folks fixating on those (very real) drawbacks. There has actually been hoarding of incandescent bulbs in advance of some federal lighting efficiency laws.

While all the attention placed on CFLs, a plucky little contender on the lighting scene has gained some deserved attention. LEDs or light emitting diodes have kicked around for decades. It’s only recently that their potential in residential lighting has begun to be tapped. So what are LED lights and how do they compare to CFLs? Why are LEDs seen as the natural next step in efficient home lighting?

CFL vs LED – An Intro

Compact Fluorescent Lights or CFL bulbs are fluorescent lamps designed for use in standard light sockets. The most common glass tubing designs have been twisted about in a design often referred to as a ‘pig tail.’ When electric current is run through, the mercury vapor in the tube becomes excited, emitting visible light.

LED stands for light emitting diode. It is a light source that essentially substitutes a semi-conductor for the standard tungsten filament. They are very small, integrated light sources with the color and brightness determined by the semi-conductor properties. Just about every tiny green, red, yellow, blue pinpoint light you can think of is an LED. Bulb versions are a grouping of many individual LEDs. They don’t operate well at high temps so bulb designs include cooling fins and heat sinks to modulate temperatures.

CFL vs LED – Head to Head

Comparing the two light sources head to head does show (I wanted so bad to write ‘illuminated’ or ‘shed a light’) why CFL bulbs may surpass incandescents but are ripe for a challenge to the efficient lighting throne.

Efficiency: LEDs and CFLs are comparable in efficiency and both provide approximately 4 times as many lumens per watt as incandescents. This can vary with climate and operating conditions as LEDs become less efficient at higher temperatures.

Light Quality: Both LEDs and CFLs suffer in comparison to the amber warm light of incandescents. Improvements have been made (different glazes for CFLs, different light types for LEDs) but this remains a serious weakness for CFLs. Because of their tremendous flexibility, LED bulbs have been produced which are nearly indistinguishable from standard bulbs.

Light Direction: LEDs also produce light in a single point rather than omni-directionally like CFL or incandescent bulbs. Producing a proper ‘bulb’ requires many LEDs as a solid state lamp. This can produce overheating and affect light efficiency.

Turning On: CFLs, depending on the design, can take a significant time to achieve full luminence. There are designs that improve the speed of ‘start up’ but it is intrinsic to fluorescent lighting. LEDs light up more or less instantly, faster even than incandescent though it wouldn’t be noticeable to the human eye.

Price: Oh yeah…price. Incandescent bulbs are maybe $0.50 each. That’s about what folks expect to pay for a light bulb. The economy of scale has brought CFL prices down to around $1.00 per bulb. Not outrageous. LED bulbs run around $15 – $30 per bulb. Yikes. It’s anticipated this will come down (a lot) but right now that’s a deal breaker (I’ve been watching 30 Rock).

Longevity: One of the selling points of CFLs is their extreme long life compared to incandescents. Well, LEDs last even longer. CFLs last around 10,000 hours (remembering these numbers are strictly ballpark) which is 8 or 10 times that of incandescent bulbs. LEDs last 3 to 5 times as long as CFLs. Yowza! Now that price tag doesn’t seem like complete lunacy.

Chemicals: A huge thing with CFLs is that they contain a small amount of mercury. If broken, CFLs need to be carefully disposed of. (Here’s a link to an article on cleaning a broken CFL). LEDs do not have mercury (and as we’ll cover next, don’t break), they may contain elevated levels of lead and arsenic (most often in red LEDs).

Durability: CFLs are quite fragile, breaking just like incandescent bulbs. LEDs can be damaged but are very robust, at least on a light bulb grading scale.

CFL vs LED – Winner by Split Decision

You can see why LEDs are touted as the successor to CFL lights. Concerned about mercury content and other chemicals? LEDs don’t contain mercury and are chemically no worse than incandescent bulbs. Don’t like CFL’s harsh white glare? LED bulbs are being produce which much more closely approach the familiar amber glow of standard bulbs. Don’t like the high price of CFLs? Uhh, well, I’m sure the price of LED bulbs will come down with time. If economy of scale production reigns in the price, LEDs could rapidly take over the efficient lighting market.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Matt January 27, 2012 at 6:24 pm

What about heat generation? Which bulb gets hotter? Whichever bulb stays cooler might help prevent heat loss into an attic and might help prevent ice dams.


Erik North January 27, 2012 at 7:10 pm


Interesting question…both bulbs put out negligible heat on a residential scale, especially compared to incandescent or halogen bulbs. Ice dams usually stem from air transported heat loss which can contain the energy equivalent of hundreds of gallons of oil.


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