Are LED Lightbulbs Better than Compact Fluorescents?

A Q&A with EarthTalk, republished with permission

Q. What’s the story with LED light bulbs that are reputed to be even more energy-efficient than compact fluorescents?

-- Toby Eskridge, Little Rock, AR

A. Perhaps the ultimate “alternative to the alternative,” the LED (light-emitting diode) light bulb may well dethrone the compact fluorescent (CFL) as king of the energy efficient lighting choices. But it has a way to go yet in terms of both affordability and brightness.

LED light bulbs have been used widely for decades in other applications — forming the numbers on digital clocks, lighting up watches and cell phones and, when used in clusters, illuminating traffic lights and forming the images on large outdoor television screens. Until recently, LED lighting has been impractical to use for most other everyday applications because it is built around costly semiconductor technology. But the price of semiconductor materials has dropped in recent years, opening the door for some exciting changes in energy-efficient, green friendly lighting options.

According to, LED bulbs are lit solely by the movement of electrons. Unlike incandescents, they have no filament that will burn out; and unlike CFLs, they contain no mercury or other toxic substances. Proponents say LEDs can last some 60 times longer than incandescents and 10 times longer than CFL bulbs. And unlike incandescents, which generate a lot of waste heat, LEDs don’t get especially hot and use a much higher percentage of electricity for directly generating light.

But as with early CFLs, LED bulbs are not known for their brightness. According to a January 2008 article in Science Daily, “Because of their structure and material, much of the light in standard LEDs becomes trapped, reducing the brightness of the light and making them unsuitable as the main lighting source in the home.”

LED makers get around this problem by clustering many small LED bulbs together in a single casing to concentrate the light emitted. While some LED “bulbs” still don’t generate light much brighter than a 35-watt incandescent — much too little light for reading or other focused tasks — if LEDs are going to replace incandescents and CFLs, manufacturers have to make them brighter.

Some manufacturers are now lighting the way with bulbs that use multiple LEDs in a single casing to generate more light. But the price tag may be tough to swallow. Other bulb makers are working on similar designs for high-powered LED bulbs, hoping that an increase in availability will help spur demand, which will in turn lower prices across the board. Until then, consumers can find LED bulbs suitable for secondary and mood lighting purposes in many hardware and big-box stores. C. Crane’s 1.3-watt LED bulb, for example, generates as much light as a 15-watt incandescent bulb.

Check your local hardware store for other options, as well as online vendors such as Best Home LED Lighting, Gaiam, Bulbster, and We Love LEDs.

GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at:, or e-mail: Read past columns at:

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neosapiens's picture
User offline. Last seen 7 years 38 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 03/25/2008 has high-powered LED lights where each individual LED draws 1 watt and produces 80 to 120 lumens. A 5-watt LED light (with 5 high-powered LEDs) replaces a 60 watt incandescent. That's quite a lot better than the efficiency of a fluorescent light, but it's about 10x as costly. I bought a bunch because I have a solari PV system and I want to cut electric use to the bone.

angelachristen's picture
User offline. Last seen 5 years 27 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 01/14/2011

We have saved a lot of money, and reduced our environmental impact by switching to CFL's with one major exception: they can't take the humidity in the bathroom. After having to replace the bathroom light 3 times, and having 3 CFL's that are considered hazardous waste and can't be thrown away, I switched back to incandescent in the bathroom. Just so you know they are those round vanity light ones.

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