About a year ago I decided to conduct an experiment: replace the bulbs in all of my lights with LED ones to see if LED light bulbs are worth the money. This was honestly a very unscientific experiment because I didn't have a lot of prior data to work with, and our house is a new construction with a bunch of “energy efficient” upgrades. All of my friends with houses kept telling me to make the switch, and even the builder mentioned that we would want to change our bulbs over as well.
But after using them throughout the house for a year and a half now? Yeah… I think they’re worth it.
Here’s the thing, LED light bulbs aren’t cheap. It’s a pretty big investment to replace all of your old school bulbs, so you might not be as ready as we were. It’s probably best if I backtracked a bit and gave you an explanation of why I decided to try them out in the first place.
We chose to try LED bulbs because of the cost-saving promise, and because all the bulbs that came with our home were builder-grade lightbulbs. We have about 20 recessed can lights in our house, and after about three weeks of living in our home, many of the ones that the builder put in had burned out. I also noticed that they were really hot, which seemed like it would be a problem for our cooling bill (we live in Houston where it's already stupid hot in the summer, so it's not like we were starting off in a great place in the cooling department anyway).
So, I decided to bust out a ladder, went to Home Depot to get a bunch of lights, and changed every single lightbulb in the house over to LED.
I will say this… regardless of cost, LED bulbs look way better than those weird twisty-tubed CFL ones, and I will talk about those farther down.
What are LED light bulbs?
LED stands for light-emitting diode, and they are the most sustainable form of a light bulb on the market right now. They’re also more durable than the CFL (Compact Fluorescent Lamp) ones and can offer lighting similar to that warm glow you probably love about incandescent bulbs.
The light source in an LED bulb is tiny, like a speck of pepper small, and they use a mix of red, green, and blue colors to emit a white light – science, I may not understand it, but I trust it.
They work best as directional light, meaning they are efficient at lighting the area they are pointed at. They’re also very low heat compared to incandescent and CFL bulbs, both of which release around 80-90% of their energy as heat.
The cost of LED light bulbs
If you’re trying to figure out whether or not LED light bulbs are worth the money, you will need to weigh up the upfront cost versus the lifetime cost, which comes from how energy efficient they are.
The upfront cost of LED light bulbs
Okay, LEDs are more expensive, but the cost of them has been going down significantly, like down by 85% in recent years. I’m going to guess that’s because the market has needed to stay competitive, technology gains, etc.
While this is definitely a good thing, if you want to replace all of the bulbs in your house, it’s going to feel expensive at first.
I did a quick search on Amazon to find some prices and found this best selling regular LED bulb that runs $0.95 per bulb to a smart one (can control from wifi, change colors, etc.) that reaches $60 per bulb.
I was surprised to find those regular LED ones at that price because I paid significantly more for mine, around eight times as much. I guess that’s why it’s a bestseller?
Now, of course, bestseller doesn’t always mean best, because when you search “best LED light bulbs,” you get an entirely different list, including top LED brands like Cree and Philips.
The two things that make a good LED bulb are going to be the dimmability and CRI (color rendering index), which is the ability to act as close to a natural light source as possible.
This list gives you what they call the best LED light bulbs on the market, and they average $5 per bulb.
Because you should have the best bulb possible, $5 is the per LED bulb cost I’m going to use going forward in this article.
The lifetime cost of LED bulbs
Okay, this is why LEDs are really cool.
The first thing you need to realize about the lifetime cost of LEDs is that they are VERY energy efficient, as in 80% more efficient than incandescent bulbs. So, a 10 watt LED bulb is equivalent to a 60-watt incandescent bulb.
One LED light bulb will last 25,000 hours (there are some that last even longer), compared to the 1,200 hours one incandescent bulb will last. That means you’ll need 21 incandescent bulbs to get to 25,000 hours.
If an incandescent bulb costs $1, you’ll need to spend $21 to get as many hours of light as you’ll get from one $5 LED. This immediately equals a savings of $16 with LED bulbs.
But, lighting your home is more than the cost of your bulbs. You are paying the per kilowatt cost to power those bulbs, and this is where LED lights shine. See what I did there?
No doubt, LEDs are just more energy efficient – a 10 watt LED bulb does the same work as a 60-watt incandescent bulb. This is saving money and reducing your carbon footprint.
At an average of $0.12 per kWh, it will cost $30 to power an LED bulb for 25,000 hours.
Using that same per kilowatt average, it will cost $180 to power incandescent bulbs for the same length of time.
If we add the cost of the bulbs to the total energy cost, here’s what it looks like:
- LED bulbs: $35
- Incandescent bulbs: $201
Overall cost winner: LED bulbs!
Before you switch to LED bulbs, here are some more things to know:
It’s a no brainer that LEDs cost less overall, but you still might not want to switch all of your bulbs out for LED ones just yet.
The more a bulb is used, the more an LED makes sense
In my house, we have about 70 light bulbs, and while that’s probably not the average, I’m going to stick with that number. It would cost around $350 to buy all new LEDs for our house if we went with the $5 ones. Considering I still have years left with my LEDs, I’m not planning on replacing them anytime soon, but I think you get the point.
$350 is a significant cost investment, and you might not see that return immediately.
To lower your initial investment, you can replace the bulbs you use the most with LED ones. For us, this would be the lights in my office, our bedroom, living room, kitchen, and entryway light. That’s about 15 bulbs right there, or $75.
If you have lights you don’t use as often, you could consider just waiting to replace those when they need replacing anyway.
Think about how long you’ll be at your house
If you’re about to move, then switching to LEDs now might not be the best idea. It would probably be a jerk move to pull all of those bulbs out and leave the new owners literally in the dark.
I guess you could replace them all with incandescent ones, but that’s another cost, and it would just be one more thing to do when moving.
Know the kind of light you want
Overall, the light bulb industry has gotten much better at realizing you want different types of lighting for different rooms and light sources. LEDs are no different.
When shopping for LED bulbs, you’ll want to pay attention to words like “soft white” or “warm white.” Most home improvement stores even have light bulb displays so you can understand the type of light they emit. If you choose the wrong light, your house could end up looking like what I'd imagine the inside of a tanning bed looks like. All of the lights in our house are warm white, and we feel that they look pretty similar to the old-school lightbulbs and make the house look pretty nice on the inside.
Before you buy a ton of LED bulbs in bulk, you may want to buy a couple to test out the type of light and see if you like it before committing to replacing all of the bulbs in your house with one kind.
There is still some inconsistency in brands
When I showed you the ones I found on Amazon compared with that list of “best LED bulbs on the market,” there was an obvious cost discrepancy. When I was researching this blog post, I actually came across this article by the Wall Street Journal that had a quote calling the LED market “the wild west.”
I literally LOL'd when I read that, and then I realized it was written in 2014, which is practically decades ago in technology terms.
What they were getting at is that the specifications on LED bulbs are wildly different from one company to another, and that affects the cost.
I feel confident in the fact that overall the market is probably falling in line with some standards, but you should still do your research before relighting your entire home in LEDs.
LED versus CFL
I don’t want to dive into this too much because I think LEDs are better overall, but CFL bulbs got really popular in past years, so they deserve a mention.
CFL stands for compact fluorescent light… or weird twisty light bulbs.
CFLs are more energy efficient than incandescents (still less than LEDs though), but they have some drawbacks. They take a minute to warm up for one and they are also less durable That’s a problem because they contain small amounts of mercury, so if they break, they should be cleaned up very carefully.
The other drawback, which I already mentioned, is that they emit nearly as much heat as an incandescent bulb.
Here's where you may be able to find cheaper bulbs…
Sounds a little weird, but I've been able to find so many cheap lights from Dollar General that are actually good quality and much cheaper than you can find at Lowes or Home Depot (or whichever home improvement store you like to use). They're kinda tucked away in the back in the stores around me, but it's worth going there to take a look and see if you can find some super-cheap bulbs from the dollar stores in your area.
My final verdict
Okay, I know I already told you that LEDs are going to save you money. And, I’m still really happy with our decision to switch to LED bulbs – haven’t needed to replace one yet and I’m seeing big savings in our energy bill.
LEDs are going to cost you more initially, but in the long run, you’ll not only save money but also reduce your carbon footprint. Putting those together means a big win for LEDs overall.