A Conservation Scientist’s Advice on “Green” Light Bulbs

February 25, 2014

The range of light bulbs currently found in the author's home. Photo: Craig Leisher/TNC

My takeaway lesson from long-term experiments with light bulbs in my house is this: don’t be an early adopter with new light-bulb technology.

You’ll only suffer.

I have a green job and a semi-green life, so seven years ago I convinced myself and my wife to replace the light bulbs invented by Thomas Edison (a.k.a. incandescent) with the new compact florescent lights (a.k.a. CFLs) that were just hitting the market.

I had two old-style semi-compact fluorescents that had worked for years giving me confidence in the decision. So I spent $200 on CFLs, and our electrical bill dropped by about $20 a month.

With a 10-month payback on the investment, and I was feeling green and smart.

But I soon learned to hate the new CFLs. They take too long to get bright, have an annoying hum, give off a light that reminds me of the elementary school cafeteria, and have mercury vapor inside.

When a CFL breaks, the EPA’s recommended CFL cleanup sounds like a hazmat team is needed to do it right. It’s mercury after all, and the only certain level of safe exposure is zero.

When LED lights first arrived at our local big-box retailer about four years ago, I bought two very expensive LED floodlights to replace several CFLs that I particularly loathed.

I decided not to tell me wife about the change and see if she noticed. She didn’t. Nor did she notice the bigger bill from the retailer. And thus began my new strategy.

During every trip to a big box retailer I would buy an LED bulb to replace a CFL in the house. Of my half-dozen early LED lights, most were from manufacturers I had never heard of, and none worked for more than two years.

Some quit working within a few months and others lost individual diodes one by one over time.

Now LEDs often come with a warning on the package to not put them in enclosed fixtures or damp areas. I did both. Expensive lessons learned.

I now have half LEDs, half CFLs, and a few outlaw bulbs in the house. For me, the sweet spot for a full switch to LEDs would be around $5 a bulb with a multi-year guarantee on the bulb.

Without a guarantee, I’m not convinced that the LED will last long enough to actually save me money.

Finally, if you’re one of the 13% of American with no CFLs or LEDs in your home, it’s doubtful you would have read this piece to begin with, but on the off chance you’re reading, consider this: using a 60-watt incandescent bulb for 3 hours a day, you’ll pay $7.94 a year at the average residential electricity rate for the US (12.09 cents per kwh in November 2013).

A LED with comparable light intensity would cost $1.46 for the year. And don’t even think about CFLs. They belong in a museum right next to eight-track tapes.

But wait for LEDs to come down in price and go up in reliability before you make the switch.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.


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  1. My memory might be failing but it seems to me that all florescent tube lights have mercury in them? The environments we use the tubes (garages, greenhouses) seem more hazardous to me than the CFL in my table lamp.
    I also got the impression from your post that you’re basing your opinion on the “harsher” uses of alternative lighting. I’ve only adopted “ordinary” 7 to 14 watt CFLs for table and ceiling lights in my home and have no complaints about them. Granted it takes a few seconds to reach full brightness but our eyes take a few seconds to adjust to lighting changes anyway, so that doesn’t bother me.
    It was not clear why you think we should “forget about” CFL’s. They are currently the most cost effective solution and I don’t know why you discourage readers from adopting a more energy-conservative alternative light bulb. The final conclusion I got from your post is that you are frustrated with the currently available choices. That’s not a reason to discourage others from reducing our load on the natural resources required to generate electricity.

    1. Tori, thanks for your comment. You’re right that all florescent bulbs have mercury in them.

      My point about not buying CFLs was aimed at the 13% of Americans who still have no CFLs or LEDs in the home. LEDs are dropping rapidly in price (and presumably getting better), and those who have yet to converted to energy-efficient bulbs should skip CFLs and buy LEDs instead.

  2. I’ve been down on CFLs since I learned of the mercury danger and have phased them out of my house. Not hard to do since they never last as long as promised–what a scam.

    I haven’t tried LEDs yet. Do they emit much heat? How does their lifespan compare? Are there any downsides to them?


    1. Jain, fully agree that CFLs seem to never last as long as promised. Perhaps the newer ones are better, but I’m not wasting more money on CFLs to find out.

      LEDs are in theory far better. An LED should last 20,000 to 30,000 hours or at least 10 times longer than a high-quality incandescent bulb. LEDs produce little heat. This is a good thing unless one is trying to keep a pet chameleon warm with a light… Main downside to LEDs is that the quality is poor for the inexpensive ones. Most of my $10 LEDs have died. My expensive $35 Philips LEDs are doing fine.

  3. Craig–

    Great post. Have you tried Cree LED’s? They are “low” cost (about $13 a bulb at Home Depot), give off great, warm light, and I’ve had no problems with reliability (although the longest one I’ve had is probably just over a year). I think we’re starting to see the cost curve bend on decent LEDs. They also look like a normal light bulb, not futuristic design like some LEDs.

    1. Yes, I do have several Cree’s that are working fine. The bulbs I am waiting for are the new Philips LED that look like lollipops. They’re due to be released 14 March. Search “Philips 433227 10.5-watt Slim Style Dimmable A19 LED Light Bulb” for a look. $10 each!

  4. Thanks for writing this, Craig. I also work for TNC, aspire to greener living and have had disappointing experiences with CFLs. I have been disappointed over the years at how the issues of CFLs have been “glossed over” by those pushing sustainable living. I think we gain credibility for the environmental movement generally when we can acknowledge failures and/or disappointing experiences instead of pretending that they didn’t happen. You really inspire when you acknowledged these disappointments but then highlight how you are continuing to look for better, greener products for your family’s needs.

  5. Re: Philips 433227 10.5-watt Slim Style Dimmable A19 LED Light Bulb

    Although leaves something to be desired for a corporation, I shop there often since I live in a tiny town with few options. They have these available for $9.97 on pre-order. I ordered one, just to see how it does.

    Lifetime of 22.8 years? Lol, who can track a bulb that long? Besides, I’ll be dead then. I guess I’d better put this bulb in my will!

  6. I’m a bit surprised that Nature Conservancy is promoting such a down beat and negative (and I believe unjustified) story about new bulbs. Environmental groups need to be encouraging early adopters as a way to encourage industry to innovate and improve. This story might have been accurate 5 years ago but I think it is way off the mark now. The LED’s I have bought all continue to work wonderfully. I love them and they use a quarter of the electricity of incandescents and are instant on. And, because of cost, I continue to use a mixture of LED and CFL’s and this combination overcomes
    the slow start of the CFL’s.

  7. Tom, early CFLs had multiple problems (read the conclusions on page 10 of the report here:, and I suffer through most of them. My early LEDs had similar quality issues. Some of the newer LEDs I bought are working fine, but I bought three LoA LEDs a year ago and only one still works. Retailers are still selling these LEDs, and they are still a problem. Read the comments here:
    LED manufacturers need to hear that quality matters. Inferior LEDs hurt rather than help the environment in my view.

  8. Would you want to read a review of a meal that discussed its cost and calories, but failed to mention anything about how it tasted?
    I find it completely astonishing and disturbing that not one comment on this issue of energy-saving lighting raises the issue of light quality, the thing which light bulbs do for us, and is ostensibly the most important issue for critical evaluation. Do we see with dollar signs? Do we see with carbon footprint data?
    What about the quality of light emanating from the light bulbs?
    I have yet to experience any LED that is not uncomfortably glaring, overbright and intrusive, not to mention blue. DImmable properties don’t work in hard-wired fixtures. There is no CFL that does not turn my living room or bedroom into a depressing commercial environment.
    I do plenty of things that more than offset the meager reduction in energy caused by a few light bulbs in my house. The visual quality of my personal environment is immensely valuable to me….. serenity and calm being a necessary antidote to an increasingly assaultive cultural environment I know there are many who are utterly indifferent or unobservant about lighting – your wife being case in point. I will, however, happily wait and adopt whenever the quality of light from efficient bulbs improves to the point that they contribute, rather than detract, from my environment.

  9. You can now buy LED bulbs at dollar stores.

    I have a few. I never trusted the CFL’s because of the potential toxic cleanup, but the LEDs seem ok. I like not worrying about hot bulbs or broken glass. Electric is included in my rent so I don’t know how much energy they’re saving.