What are LEDs?

Home lighting has come along way since the invention of the incandescent light bulb.

LEDs, or light-emitting diodes, are on the cutting edge of home lighting technology. They offer the full spectrum of intensities and colors as existing incandescent or fluorescent bulbs, yet LEDs last much longer and consume far less energy. Unlike fluorescent bulbs, LEDs contain no mercury, making them both family and eco-friendly.

LEDs have existed for more than 50 years, but early versions were mainly reserved for commercial applications, such as retail signs, traffic lights and toys. In part, this was because they couldn't replicate the warm color of incandescent lights, or ice-like qualities of fluorescent lights. Early versions of LED light bulbs were so expensive that most consumers found them impractical for household use.

Today, LEDs are much more affordable (but still more expensive than other light bulbs), and are gaining in popularity due to improvements in technology, and the phase out of old-school incandescent light bulbs.

LED vs. Incandescent vs. CFL

According to EnergyStar, LEDs are defined as "semiconductor devices that produce visible light when an electrical current is passed through them." They rely on solid-state electroluminescence to produce light, which means they convert electricity into light through the excitation of electrons. LEDs contain no filament or mercury, and produce very little heat.

Incandescent light bulbs

Incandescent light bulbs, meanwhile, produce light by using thermal radiation to heat a metal filament, which explains why they feel hot to the touch. However, Energy Star estimates incandescent bulbs waste up to 90 percent of their energy through heat, making them highly inefficient and subject to frequent replacement.

CFL light bulbs

CFLs were designed specifically to replace incandescent bulbs. They contain two essential components: a curved lighting tube and compact electronic ballast. CFLs last about 10 times as long as incandescent light bulbs.

According to Energy Star, “an electric current is driven through a tube containing argon and a small amount of mercury vapor. This generates invisible ultraviolet light that excites a fluorescent coating (called phosphor) on the inside of the tube, which then emits visible light.”

Incandescent light bulb phase-out

The passage of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA) sparked the phase-out of high-wattage incandescent bulbs. Under EISA guidelines, manufacturers stopped producing 100-watt incandescent bulbs in 2012, followed by 75-watt bulbs in 2013 and 40- and 60-watt bulbs in 2014.

While the EISA covers most types of residential lighting, there are some incandescent bulbs that are exempt from the law:

Light bulbs exempt from the EISA:

• Specialty lights, such as those in appliances

• 3-way bulbs

• Candelabras

• Shatter-resistant bulbs

• Colored bulbs, such as party lights

• Bug lights

LED exterior light

LEDs use less energy and last much longer than incandescent or CFL light bulbs. (Photo by Brandon Smith)

Energy savings

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) says LEDs last 35 to 50 times longer and use 75 percent less energy than incandescent bulbs.

The DOE estimates widespread use of LEDs by 2027 could reduce energy consumption by 348 terawatt-hours, which is “the equivalent annual electrical output of 44 large electric power plants, and a total savings of more than $30 billion at today's electricity prices.”

For the average homeowner, switching to LEDs means lower utility bills, as well as less money and time spent replacing light bulbs.

According to the DOE, a single LED bulb can last up to 50,000 hours, while CFLs last around 10,000 hours and the incandescent bulb lasts 1,000 hours, meaning a homeowner potentially needs to buy 50 incandescent or 5 CFL bulbs to match the LED’s lifespan.

FOR MORE: Check out this infographic comparing LEDs to other light bulbs

It’s also important to consider energy conversion. According to Eartheasy, LEDs need 300 to 500 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity to produce 50,000 hours of light, while compact fluorescents need 700 kWh. Incandescent bulbs once again top the charts at 3,000 kWh.

LED holiday lights

It's possible to connect 25 strings of LED holiday lights without blowing a fuse. (Photo by Brandon Smith)

Return on investment

Original LEDs were far more expensive than incandescent or CFL bulbs, however prices continue to drop as technology improves. The price of some LEDs decreased by more than 50 percent in the last few years, so it’s likely LED prices will continue to fall.  

The best way to determine the return on investment of switching to LEDs is to look at the price per bulb, combined with energy costs and rate of bulb replacement. Light bulb and energy prices vary across the country, but consider the example below to see the ROI on switching to LED lighting.

LED light bulb cost

The average 60-watt incandescent light bulb costs around $1.25, while a CFL costs $3.95 and a 60-watt equivalent LED costs $15. As stated above, a single LED bulb can last 50,000 hours, so a consumer potentially needs to purchase 50 incandescent or 5 CFL bulbs to last 50,000 hours.

Total bulb cost for 50,000 hours:

• Incandescent = $62.50

• CFL = $19.75

• LED = $15

Electricity cost comparison @ $.10 per kWh

• Incandescent = 3,000 kWh = $300

• CFL = 700 kWh = $70

• LED = 300 kWh = $30

Electricity cost + bulb cost

• Incandescent = 362.50

• CFL = $89.75

• LED = $45

Lumens and color temperature

Lumens

The way manufacturers label LEDs can seem a bit more confusing than with other light bulbs. Incandescent bulbs are sold by the watt, which is a unit of the amount of power required to operate the bulb. So it’s pretty straightforward: A 100-watt bulb consumes more energy than a 60-watt bulb.

LEDs need far fewer watts to produce the same amount of light as other bulbs, so it’s better to consider lumens when shopping for LEDs. Lumens are a measurement of the amount of visible light as perceived by the eye.

LEDs have a higher ratio of lumens to watts. For example, a 60-watt incandescent light bulb can produce 800 lumens of light. A 60-watt equivalent LED can produce 800 lumens of light using only 10 watts, or less.

Color temperature

Color temperature is also important because it affects how light appears, and it can really affect the mood of the space you’re lighting. Early LEDs struggled to match the color temperatures of their incandescent and fluorescent counterparts, but modern LEDs can now compete.

Color temperature is measured in degrees Kelvin. Warmer colors like orange, yellow and red appear lower on the temperature scale, while cooler colors like blue and white appear higher on the scale. LEDs can't actually produce white light. To achieve this color, a phosphor coating is added to the bulb.

To create a warm, cozy glow indoors, consider a lower color temperature. A candle has a color temperature of 1,900 K, and the incandescent light bulb has a color temperature around 2,700 K.

To light up an outdoor space like a sports stadium, go with a LED bulb with a color temperature of 5,000 K or higher.

LED color temperature kelvin scale

Indoor LEDs

Once reserved for accent and under-cabinet lighting, LEDs are now popular for all types on interior lighting. Early LEDs were more directional by nature, so they weren’t the best choice for whole-room lighting. LEDs now come in varying degrees of beam spread. Wide lenses can produce up to 360 degrees of light, whereas more focused options include 60 degrees or even 10 degrees.

Because LEDs are often small and typically don’t have bulky globe coverings, it’s easier to employ them in creative ways not possible with incandescent lights.

Creative ways to use LEDs indoors:

Under-cabinet lighting: The flexible nature of LEDs makes them a great choice for under-cabinet lighting. Sold in light bars or strips of flexible tubing, under-cabinet lighting adds style and function to any kitchen or bathroom.

Floating shelves: What’s cooler than floating shelves? Floating shelves with built-in LED lights, of course. Several manufacturers sell LED-equipped glass shelves that can add a much-needed color pop. Many homeowners install these shelves in home bars to illuminate glass bottles.

LED-lit glass countertop: Bring a glass countertop or kitchen island to life with color-changing LEDs. Options include countertops with tiny LED lights embedded inside, LED overlays that attach to countertop surfaces or LED strips for lighting borders.

RELATED: LED Lighting was a Top Remodeling Trend in 2014

LED toe-kick lighting: Similar to under-cabinet lighting, LED toe-kick lights come in flexible strips that attach to the bottom of a cabinet. Take it up a notch and connect the toe-kick lighting to a dimmer switch.

custom cabinet with built-in LED lighting

Angie’s List member Cynthia S. of Austin, Indiana, had a custom cabinet made with built-in LED lighting.

Outdoor LEDs

There are endless possibilities for using LEDs outside. The range of color temperatures and lumen output make LEDs perfect for all uses, from home security and landscaping to mood lighting.

For sun-quality brightness, try an LED with a color temperature around 5,000 K, which approximates daylight. To create an inviting patio or hot tub space, pick a light temperature around 2,700 K, which is similar to the warm glow of household incandescent bulbs.

Pro Tip: “Incandescent bulbs tend to give more of a yellowish color light, and if you have a real dark area on the side of your home that you’re trying to light up, the LEDs work great because they’re very bright and can turn that area almost into daylight.” - Wesley Sedain, owner of highly rated Alley Electric in Fremont, California.

LED landscape lighting

Some popular uses include installing LED spotlights to showcase specific areas of the lawn or landscaping, lining walking paths with LEDs, hanging LED rope lights along deck handrails and recessing small LEDs in porch steps or retaining walls.  

Colored LEDs can add life to a backyard pond and water feature, or spruce up a boring pool deck or hot tub. Solar- and battery-powered LED products are also popular landscape lighting options.

Installing LEDs outside can also reduce the risk of fire. Landscapers say incandescent bulbs get so hot they can melt exterior fixtures when covered by mulch or gravel.

LED home security lighting

Lighting pros say LEDs are an excellent choice for security lighting because most lights run continuously from dusk until dawn, so the energy savings quickly add up. Consider installing LEDs in hard-to-reach spots (above the garage) to avoid frequent bulb replacement. Unlike incandescent bulbs, LEDs typically don’t have a glass globe cover, making them harder for burglars to dismantle.

Some popular LED security lighting products include high-lumen floodlights, spotlights and motion-sensor lights.

LED holiday lighting

LEDs have been a popular holiday lighting option for years, and technological advancements continue to make them more efficient. They still cost about twice as much as incandescent lights, so expect to pay more upfront, but less on energy and bulb replacement.

The DOE says a standard incandescent bulb might last five holiday seasons, while an LED can potentially last 20 years or more and consume 75 percent less energy. In addition to the energy savings, the DOE says it’s possible to connect up to 25 strands of LED lights end-to-end without blowing a fuse.

LED holiday lights come in all the same sizes as incandescent bulbs. The most popular types include the strawberry-shaped C6 bulbs, which are perfect for indoor displays, the larger C7 and C9 bulbs, which are often hung along rooflines or in trees and the tube-shaped T series, which are perfect for Christmas trees.

Other types include rope lights, which are encased in flexible plastic tubing for ease of installation and net lighting, which can be tossed over a bush or tree, sparing you from a tangled mess of cords.

LED landscape lighting

Exterior LED lighting really sets the mood in this backyard. (Photo by Brandon Smith)

LED products

LEDs got their start in commercial products, so you probably already have a few in your home. LEDs are found in everything from alarm clocks to refrigerators to toys. Here are some LED products that can cut home energy consumption.

LED flashlights: Available in pocket and full size, LED flashlights pack a lot of punch. Some brands offer 10 times the lumen output as incandescent flashlights. These lights also save money due to infrequent bulb and battery replacement.

LED nightlights: Energy savings should add up fast since most nightlights run continuously throughout the night.

LED holiday lights: Energy Star says it’s possible to connect up to 25 strands of lights without losing quality or blowing a fuse.

LED brake and headlights: Many car manufacturers are moving to LED brake lights and headlights. The brake lights are easier to see in the daytime hours and light up faster than regular bulbs, which makes them a safer option.

LED aquarium lights: LED lights are great for aquariums because they give adequate light, but don't get too hot. This helps keep the aquarium water at an ideal temperature, and the fish happy.

LED televisions: LED televisions offer superior picture quality, yet consume less energy than the competition. The LEDs are very efficient and small, and their size allows for thinner screens. The main drawback is price, so expect to pay more for an LED TV.

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