LEDs Versus CFLs, It’s No Contest Anymore

961840_white_ledIn 2008, I interviewed Dan Fink, a Northern Colorado off-the-gridder and co-publisher of Otherpower.com, a DIY renewable energy website. The interview was the basis for a case study on efficient lighting – the study published in my book, Green Your Home.

At that time, Dan was using compact fluorescent light bulbs, or CFLs, rather than incandescent bulbs, which have been in use in 95 percent of American homes and businesses for most of the last century. As Dan said at the time, light emitting diodes, or LEDs, were by far the better lighting choice in terms of energy efficiency and environmental impacts, but they had not at that point in time reached competitive status with CFLs in terms of lumens per watt.

That is no longer true. Where once the government (under the joint umbrella of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA) pushed CFLs as the perfect remedy for energy-hog incandescent bulbs, there is a growing body of opinion that the U.S. (and by extension its government) rushed into production before weighing the drawbacks. In fact, the initiative was so intense that former President George W. Bush, in 2007, signed into law a provision that would incrementally phase out incandescents beginning in January of this year. The phaseout is as follows:

  • January 1, 2012 – 100-watt incandescent bulbs
  • January 1, 2013 – 75-watt incandescent bulbs
  • January 1, 2014 – 60 watt incandescent bulbs

Unfortunately, the government – and eager manufacturers – either forgot or ignored the fact that CFLs contain toxic mercury. There is apparently enough of this lethal element in a single CFL to make cleaning up after breakage a venture more suited to the EPA in full protective gear (including a hood, as in the 2009 movie Pandemic) than to a simple homeowner.

Stories about the toxicity of CFLs may be exaggerated, but the fact is they do contain mercury, and mercury is a central nervous system poison, causing brain damage in adults, children and, most notably, in fetuses. LEDs do not. Incandescents are equally non-toxic due to inert gases like Argon and Xenon; in CFLs, this gas is vaporized mercury.

Then, in 2011, and thanks to ceaseless invention and tinkering by American scientists, LEDs passed the lumens-per-watt challenge, offering pure white and soft white light, as well as shades in between. And this year, LED pricing has made an energy-efficient lighting retrofit a possibility for almost every homeowner, especially once cost is compared with LED life span.

The stats don’t lie. Thus, while CFLs continue to be manufactured with toxic mercury, and incandescents are like mini-space heaters – in terms of both performance and energy consumption (generating 90 percent heat but only 5 percent light) – mercury-free LEDs are finally affordable and desirable, providing wide-spectrum light; that is, light at both the red and blue ends of the spectrum. In addition, LEDs maintain their intensity and don’t ‘yellow out’ as they get older, even when dimmed. They also have an extremely long life, lasting more than twice as long as standard CFLs (i.e., more than 100,000 hours), and 20 times longer than incandescent bulbs.

LEDs also light up quickly, achieving full lumen-power in microseconds. Equally as important, they do not fail as abruptly as incandescent bulbs do, but dim gradually over time, announcing the need to replace days and even weeks before the actual occurrence.

Costing less, and markedly less expensive to run, LEDs are the lighting paradigm for the 21st century, delivering wide-spectrum light for humans and houseplants. Because of the quality of light they produce, LEDs have also been used to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. One project on the drawing board, and a James Dyson award winner for innovation, is an LED lighting system which draws on nature to simulate lighting inside a home. The system is even capable of emulating cloud and wind patterns outside and bringing them in via a diagnostic module outside the home.

With LEDs, it’s all good.


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