Here’s When LED Lighting Isn’t a Bright Idea

While LEDs last decades and sip electricity, replace the wrong bulbs and you could be dead before you break even.

The power bills for my South Florida home average more than $300 a month year-round. So, as you might imagine, I’m all about saving energy.

A few years ago I spent close to $5,000 to replace an old central air system. I’ve installed extra insulation, a programmable thermostat, dimmer switches and energy-efficient appliances. You name it, I’ve done it.

So when one of my buddies opened a business specializing in LEDs, I lit up. My home is now awash in low-energy lighting. The dark side: My bank account is lighter by more than $400.

Worth it? Well, let’s say I wish I knew then what I know now.

Watch the video we recently shot, then meet me on the other side for more. 

Don’t do what I did

Before I replaced my lighting with LEDs, I knew what you probably know: They use a fraction of the electricity of incandescent bulbs, last a lot longer and generate less heat. How can you go wrong?

Here’s how: not prioritizing. 

The bulbs I replaced were the ones I could point to and say, “Look! I just put in LED lighting!” In other words, I put LEDs where you can see the exposed bulbs — in the recessed ceiling fixtures in my kitchen, along with similar fixtures in the living room and master bedroom. All together, eight bulbs in the kitchen ($15 each), six in the living room ($20 each), and four in the bedroom (two at $20, two at $15). Total cost? $310. 

The bulbs I didn’t replace were the main light in the middle of my kitchen ceiling, the light in the laundry/pet room, and the light below the ceiling fan in the master bedroom. Those bulbs don’t show. They’re within glass fixtures.

As you saw in the video above, the more a bulb is used, the more LEDs make sense. The bulbs I should have changed were the ones I didn’t — the primary lights in the kitchen, the laundry room and the master bedroom. These are the lights that are on most often. The ones I changed aren’t on nearly as much. They’re basically accent lights.

To rub a little salt in the wound, I also learned after the fact that LEDs require different dimmer switches than those I was using. I had to replace six, at a cost of $22 each.

Computing break-even on LEDs

Shortly after installing my new LEDs and dimmers, I read an article called “Are LED and CFL Bulbs Worth the Money? Don’t Be Left in the Dark” from Simple Family Finance. In this post, author Chris Tecmire did what I should have done — computed exactly how much LEDs save and how long it takes for those savings to offset the cost of the more expensive bulbs.

To do his comparison, he first computed the cost in both electricity and bulbs for 25,000 hours’ worth of incandescent, compact fluorescent and LED light.

His assumptions:

  • Electricity cost — 13.5 cents per KwH (you can get the price you pay from your electric bill). 
  • Incandescent — Cost is 50 cents a bulb, life 800 hours.
  • Compact fluorescent — Cost is $2 a bulb, life 4,000 hours.
  • LED — Cost is $20 a bulb, life 25,000 hours.

His results for the total cost for 25,000 hours of electricity, including the bulbs:

  • Incandescent — $218.50.
  • Compact fluorescent — $64.63.
  • LED — $53.75.

Conclusion? LEDs cost 40 times more than incandescent, but since they use about 75 percent less electricity, they win in the long run.

But, as my accounting professor used to say, in the long run we’re all dead.

If you use a light five hours a day — as I do for the ones I didn’t replace — 25,000 hours translates to 5,000 days or about 14 years. But if you use the light only 30 minutes a day (like the ones I did replace), 25,000 hours becomes 50,000 days or 137 years.

Let’s rearrange Chris’ math to reveal the break-even cost: 

  • At 30 minutes a day, an incandescent bulb uses $1.48 in electricity annually. The LED bulb uses only 25 cents’ worth. So the LED saves $1.23 per year. Since it costs $20, it will take 16 years to recoup the cost in electricity savings.
  • At five hours a day, the incandescent uses $15.42 in electricity annually. The LED bulb uses only $2.42 worth. So the LED saves $13 per year in electricity, meaning you’ll break even in less than two years.

The bottom line

Granted, there’s more to LEDs than breaking even. All of us presumably want to reduce our carbon footprint and be a pal to Mother Earth. But if you’re focusing on cost, the conclusion is inescapable: If you’re going with LEDs, forget aesthetics. Replace the incandescents you use the most.

Unless, of course, your goal is lowering the power bills for your heirs.

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  • Joy Foy

    Quick fix, be a “bulb swapper” and swap places with the used-most fixtures and the least-used fixtures.

  • Nancy

    I’m 60 years old, so I may not have enough time left to break even on my LED bulbs. But as you say, I made the change primarily to reduce my cost to the planet. I am also interested in reducing monthly expenses for the time when my income is lower, so I switched out some bulbs for LEDs now while I can afford it in order to have the lowest possible utility bills going forward. I’m pleased to say that even without a detailed analysis I did put the LEDs in the fixtures that are turned on the most (home office, main bathroom, kitchen, living room reading lamp). That seemed sensible. I put CFLs in all the others. But thanks to this article, I won’t change out the few recessed lights l have left with LEDs because they are in little used areas. I may do CFLs though.

  • Yngve Johnsson

    I thought that incandesent light was no longer allowed to be produced, (at leadt 100w and 75w right now). So eventually we have to get LED or CFL’s whether we like it or not. Switching out as Nancy says below is probably a good idea in the meantime.

  • Donni Baloe

    Shame on you…you didn’t do your homework Stacy! On the surface it was nice coverage but you left out th most important attribute regarding cost: HEAT. How much does it cost in aircodioning bills to reduce the heat generated by 6 or 7, 60 watt bulbs in your house? I can tell you from personal experience changing your bulbs over to LEDs will save you hundreds per year in air conditioning costs and if you don’t believe me then I challenge you to a contest. I have information to help you get started so I want you to contact me by email where I can send you some literature on. The consumer deserves the right info and the planet deserves a hand with cooling down so contact me and I’ll get you started on the right track. BTW I do not work for an LED company or retailer. I am a disabled vet who wants to be able to touch my lighting fixtures without getting 2 hd degree burns from time to time. Science is my thing, let me help you out here.

  • LB

    I replaced all my incandescents with CFLs. I did this several years, and several moves, ago and my CFLs are still burning — I take them with me every time I move. So I have very little reason to want the expensive LED bulbs. Until and unless the cost is drastically lowered, I will continue using CFLs. They save energy, too!

  • Gary H

    I would have liked to see a comparison with the CFL’s as at 2 vs 20 dollars per bulb the difference is vastly better

  • Tom

    Is this buddy still a friend? If his business specialized in LEDs, he should have given you advice on which to change to make your money talk and about the timers. I have a mix of CFLs and incandescent and we practice conservation and savings by being super diligent in turning off lights when not needed. Also I have a hard time justifying replacing bulbs before they die.

  • Nancy

    Thank you, Dallas. I’ll keep that price point in mind when I shop.

    • Dallas Gombash

      I can tell you where but im not sure if im allowed to on these comments (too lazy to hunt for the rules)

    • Dallas Gombash

      it still might be better to use led for main area lighting, there are led lights for those long florescent tube light things.
      some leds are less efficient than cfl. most leds last much longer than cfl and about the same efficiency, but there are some more efficient 1s

  • Yngve Johnsson

    Why is it everyone seem to say the old bulbs produce heat and that’s bad, Yes they certainly do but if that is so, they must be ok in the winter ,( if you live in a place where you need heat in the winter). Wouldn’t that balance out then? Just sayin.

    • jazz mania

      considering over 80% of the energy used in an incandescent bulb is heat (think red hot glowing piece of wire) you could use bulbs for heat. Given 2000 watts of bulbs you would see 1800 watts of heat ( equiv to a small electric room heater )

      Personally I’d think i’d rather have 1800 watts less unwanted heat to cool off on 95 degree days and just use a small heater when it’s cool.

      Being that the author is in Florida, I don’t think using traditional lightbulbs for heat would ever achieve any balance for him.

  • jazz mania

    I hope you don’t fall off a ladder while changing your bulbs and break a hip and your wallet…

    This article is mostly a rehash of figures that have been around for a while, blended with a disdain for the future… I’d rate it as some poor misleading opinion and not journalism (whatever that is?).

  • Kevin Connors

    2 big concerns: life expectancy and wattage used. Life expectancy ratings are established as when do half a test group no longer light up. Can be a day (easy since under warrantee) or could be years later than the rating. I have a CFL that is still lighting after 15 years that the matching bulbs used in the same fixture burned out long ago. I’ve found with the led’s I’ve bought that they haven’t lasted as long as most CFL’s. In flashlights they often don’t outlast the standard bulb. I’ve been putting dates of install on my bulbs with a sharpie for the last few years just for curiosity sake. I know I have a bag full of dead CFL’s for recycling but haven’t replaced any with dates. On the wattage used, if you are only saving a single watt over the CFL with the same light output than not much point on taking the risk that the LED will last longer. LED’s are silicone based and will be dirt cheap when they are ramped up. I remember CFL cost $15 when they first came out and the only reason I tried them is the local utility subsidized most of it. Now they are down to less than $2 if bought in multi packs at a warehouse club. Main advantage for LED is instantly full bright and no disposal worries. No glass to break or mercury. On heat, it’s not as much of a waste in the winter to have incandescents posing a burn and fire hazard but if you aren’t using electric resistance heat (think toaster elements) your primary heat source is probably much more efficient. I live in FL too so no contest, my heat pump is much more efficient.

  • Kent

    The dollars is the least of the benefits. Every LED means the air we breath is a little cleaner, we are all a little healthier and our natural resources last a little longer.

  • Debbie

    Hey, don’t beat yourself up Stacey……You shouldn’t, I’m hoping you have all your fingers and toes…..
    Sometimes the cost is far higher than money (ultimately that can be replaced)………
    Have you seen any Videos or Articles of the DANGERS OF CFL BULBS, OMG…..Sometimes the
    bulbs have been known to explode. Because the bulbs contain harmful Mercury the poor man who
    was around when the bulb exploded lost most of his foot, OUCH….
    Sometimes we need to look at the overall picture. You were good to change your bulbs. I’m surprised
    consumer’s aren’t warned of the Horrific accidents from CFL Bulbs.

  • laughterjones

    Something to take into account, which I think would be difficult $$ wise, is the heat incandescent bulbs create. Which would make your AC run more. Hard to compute that however.

    • Dallas

      Incadescent bulbs are <5% efficient, so for a 100W light bulb: 5W light energy and 95W heat.

      Winter time it would go towards heating your house (parts would go towards heating your attic but that would depend on placement of lights and layout of house)

      Summer time it would raise the amount of A/C needed to cool your house ~30W per light bulb depending on several factors

      Winter time = 95W of electric heat + 5W light
      Summer time= 95W of electric heat + 5W light + 30W of cooling from your A/C

      I guess in the winter if you are using electric heat and your light bulbs are in the right places and Incandescent bulbs were free, it would be the same power consumption.

      In summer time you are using an extra 1/3rd of the power of the light bulb extra from your air conditioner (more or less depending on efficiency of your air conditioner)

      Here in Ohio, the price of Incandescent bulbs are barely lower than CFLs (LEDs are still expensive unfortunately).
      Incadescent For 60watt equivalent(13W) to 60 watt bulbs: $0.88 vs $0.37 each, payback in <48 hours of usage

  • Jason

    I live in a 2 story house in Birmingham, Al. I have 62 light bulbs in my house. I found the Lowe’s brand LED bulbs (5 watts) for about $5.00 each…. That’s $310.00 for every bulb in my house. Just a rough average (crazy guess for math’s sake) let’s say they all run for two hours a day (I have 7 kids) at 12.5 cents/kwh = $28.29 annually. If those were all 60 watt incandescent bulbs that would be 62x60x2x365/1000x.125 = $339.45 (exactly 12 times the amount of the LED’s) So, I’ve essentially cut my electric by by 11/12ths or by 83%. That gives me a recoup time of 1 year. So, yes, the LED’s are definitely worth the cost, if you shop smart and do not run out and buy the most expensive thing thinking it is automatically the best. This is where this article goes wrong. He didn’t think before he did it, he wanted to be cool and say hey, I’m saving the planet…. look at my LED’s and my Prius!!!!! But, those of us that live pay check to pay check know how to stretch the dollar and get the best bang for our buck…. Plus, I no longer generate any heat from the lights (which makes the a/c work a whole lot less) and the absolute best thing ever….. I do NOT yell at the kids to turn off the lights!!!!! It doesn’t matter anymore!!!!!

  • jobb

    Well, LED lights don’t heat up and raise the temperatures than usual CFL. There’s no need to feel any sort of burn when you touch them because they don’t produce harmful energies. And in terms of the welfare of our ozone layer, LED lights release less carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and nuclear waste. Just giving my 2 cents of fact.

  • Y2KJillian

    Now that it’s colder in Washington state, I’ve been feeling unusually chilled at night reading by my favorite lamp.
    After reading these posts, I know why. Last spring Puget Power came out and gave us 22 LED light bulbs for free, and one of them is in my reading lamp. So although the ambient temperature of the room is the same as it was kept last year, the heat from that lamp is now missing. We were glad to have the LEDs over the very hot summer, though–I can always put on another sweater or thicker bathrobe if I’m chilled…but there’s a limit to how many clothes you can take off when
    you’re too hot! Had forgotten about the light bulb conversion. (Yeah, that’s it…it’s not that I’m a year older and colder!)

  • Tim Harb

    You can buy led for under 4 a bulb now

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