Trash those incandescent bulbs today!

When it comes to lighting, I’m no early adopter.  For the last 20 years, I’ve annoyed my energy efficiency friends by arguing that those curlicue compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs) were overhyped. The light quality is still inferior; they still warm to full brightness too slowly; and the claims of 10-year life are vastly overstated.

And then when they burn out (after a year or two) we are supposed to wrap them in a cloth and drive them to the local hazardous waste disposal site, because they contain mercury.  Sure they use less electricity, but they don’t offer the value to get most people to switch.

leds1So I hope I have the cred to convince you that now is the time to trash (almost) all of the incandescent bulbs that are still lighting your house and replace them with light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs. If you are like me, you probably hesitate to throw away a perfectly good working bulb, but you should. Really.  Don’t fall victim to the sunk cost fallacy.  Both your wallet and the environment will thank you.

A standard LED bulb now costs only about $3, less if you buy in bulk or live in an area where they are subsidized by the local utility.  And the LED uses 8.5 watts to produce the same amount of light as a 60-watt incandescent.  The Department of Energy generally calculates costs based on assuming a light bulb is used 3 hours per day, but let’s be super conservative and assume it’s only used one hour a day. And let’s assume you pay the average residential retail rate for electricity in the U.S., 12.73 cents per kilowatt-hour. If that’s the case, then in the first year you would save $2.39, 80% of the purchase cost.

leds2That’s in the first year. These bulbs are touted to last for more than 20 years (at which point it is just fine to throw them in the regular trash). The spreadsheet I keep of every light bulb in my house (yes, I really do, which is how I know that my old CFLs  lasted 1-2 years on average) shows that none of the LED bulbs I’ve installed, going back to 2009, has yet failed.   As long as the LED lasts even a bit over a year, screwing it in today and throwing away the working incandescent bulb will still save you money.  (If you want to do your own calculation with different assumptions, here is a spreadsheet to figure out the savings and payback period.)

And the numbers will be better than that if you have the light bulb on more than one hour per day.  But if you know you use a particular bulb very infrequently — the one in the cellar that you only turn on for a few minutes every week or two — you might skip that one and focus on the bulbs that get regular use.  In fact, you could save all the incandescents that you removed from the other fixtures in your house to replace that one in the cellar every few years for the next century or two.  (Though you may have a better use for storage space than that.)


The basement incandescent that is hardly ever used can stay

On the other hand, if you live in a high cost area such as California, where the electricity you save could very well cost 30 cents per kilowatt-hour or more, you either throw away nearly all the incandescent bulbs today or you are throwing away real money every day.

But you aren’t just saving money with LEDs, you’re also saving energy and the planet.  Sure, some energy does go into making an LED, but that is a small fraction of the $3 cost. Compare that to the $2.39 (or more) savings each year, which is all energy.  The math for saving energy is even more compelling than it is for saving money.[1]

So if this is such a no-brainer, why are you still reading this article instead of replacing your incandescent bulbs?

LED bulbs have gotten less expensive, but a year from now they will be even cheaper, so by delaying I will save even more money.”   LEDs are indeed going to get cheaper, but not fast enough to justify waiting. You will save so much in the first year after you replace an incandescent that unless LEDs are going to be virtually free a year from now (they aren’t), you’d still be better off doing it today rather than waiting.

I really like the light quality from the traditional incandescent bulbs. I don’t like LEDs as much.”  With the old CFLs, the difference was so obvious that even your hipster nephew who always wears sunglasses could tell the difference. Distinguishing LED from incandescent lighting is much more difficult, and the difference is much less likely to bother you. Still, if you are a photophile (the lighting equivalent of the audiophile who can’t stand listening to an MP3 file because it has less complexity than the larger digital file on a CD) then ignore everything I’ve said. You should get out there and scoop up all the incandescent bulbs the rest of us will be throwing away.

“My parents taught me `waste not, want not’.  I just can’t throw away a working lightbulb.”  OK, if it will make you feel better, put them all in a box and store them away until you meet the photophile from the previous paragraph.  But seriously,  that view misses the big point: by not wasting the visible and tangible incandescent bulb, you are instead wasting electricity, which may be invisible, but still uses more of the world’s scarce resources than the bulb.

“It’s a hassle to replace a lightbulb.  I know it costs more money, but I’m putting it off until it burns out and I have to replace it.”  Fair enough.  But waiting a year until it burns out is going to cost you a few dollars in additional electricity while saving you just the interest you earn over a year by delaying the purchase of the LED bulb, which at today’s interest rates is practically nothing.  Replacing all of the incandescents in your house is likely to save you $50 per year or more.  Of course, nearly all of us procrastinate on some task that would save us that kind of money.  Still, next time you have the ladder out to replace one bulb take the opportunity to do them all.  And then you won’t have to do it again for many years.

While you are at it, should you also throw away all those curlicue CFLs?  Not unless the light is really bugging you. They save almost as much money as an LED, until they burn out that is (and you have to deal with disposing of them).  Just don’t buy any more. Actually, that’s not really a concern: LEDs have taken over the market so completely that many stores no longer sell CFLs.

Decades after CFLs were supposed to displace the incandescent bulb, LEDs have finally done it!

I’m still tweeting interesting energy news articles, research, and stats @BorensteinS


[1] Yes, I am implicitly assuming that you and the LED bulb manufacturer pay the same price for electricity. That’s not right — industrial customers pay about 45% less on average — but energy is such a small part of the cost of manufacturing LED bulbs that even doubling it won’t come close to matching the energy savings in your home.

About Severin Borenstein

Severin Borenstein is E.T. Grether Professor of Business Administration and Public Policy at the Haas School of Business. He has published extensively on the oil and gasoline industries, electricity markets and pricing greenhouse gases. His current research projects include the economics of renewable energy, economic policies for reducing greenhouse gases, and alternative models of retail electricity pricing. In 2012-13, he served on the Emissions Market Assessment Committee that advised the California Air Resources Board on the operation of California’s Cap and Trade market for greenhouse gases. Currently, he chairs the California Energy Commission's Petroleum Market Advisory Committee and is a member of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District's Advisory Council.
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19 Responses to Trash those incandescent bulbs today!

  1. Darwin Hall says:

    The phrase missing in your post is “technology forcing policy”.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Okay, so I moved into a new house a few months ago and the builder put in ALL CFL’s (which I strongly dislike for the reasons you mentioned). How fast do I swap those out for LED’s (I’ve already replaced half of them)

    • Zumbruk says:

      The cost of replacing the bulbs is negligible comapred to the costs associated with a new house, so just throw the CFLs away and have bulbs you like.

  3. Eric Brink says:

    Hi Severin – I enjoyed the article and our household made the switch several months ago. However, I do take some exception to the word Trash. That infers that one would through them straight to rubbish, rather than taking advantage of bulb material recycle options. Waste Management’s program is one example.

  4. Jerome says:

    Excellent post. As a past employee of the California Energy Watch program, a correction and comment.

    Correction: please don’t throw LEDs into the trash. Instead treat them as e-waste. While the efficacy and engineering of LED light bulbs is improving, they will likely continue to have a significant amount of aluminium and a notable amount of heavy metals in their integrated PCBs. Even with this extra effort, however, they are still significantly easier to handle and dispose of than fluorescents.

    Comment: photophiles aside, there are many scenarios where the color rendering index (CRI) and color temperature of the light bulb is very important. Beauty salons and museums are two examples. The options are limited and prices still high for high CRI LED bulbs at daylight color temperatures (~5000K). California’s effort to phase incandescents off the shelf is something I agree with. But until the market catches up there will continue to be a lot of justified incandescent hoarders out there.

  5. Max Sherman says:

    This is good advice for troglodytes…i.e. those happy with 800 lumens. Those who are the other kind of photophile and wish to see MORE often prefer bulbs with twice that amount of light–like 100W incandescents and up. While such LEDs exist they are more expensive and most importantly don’t always fit.

    I completely agree with your assessment of CFLs and I eagerly await the LED industry getting brighter.

  6. Pingback: Can this light bulb go off – Colder Air

  7. Pingback: Trash those incandescent bulbs today! • The Berkeley Blog

  8. Mark Woolley says:

    I’m surprised that your CFLs are not lasting very long – I bought basic Ikea CFLs when I moved flats 9 years ago, and then some more when I bought a house 7 years ago – they are only now slowly dying. Maybe the quality of the CFL sold in Germany are higher than the ones you managed to buy?

    • mcubedecon says:

      Sev’s experience is common in California. It’s an example of how we wasted hundreds of millions on the investor-owned utilities’ energy efficiency programs.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Our dining area ceiling fixture has an incandescent 150 W bulb. We really can’t do with less light since we use the table for reading and paper work. We can’t find LED bulbs up to the job. Any suggestions?

  10. Jeff Perloff says:

    I’d love to do what you recommend, but…
    My problem is that it’s difficult to get bright LEDs. I like lots of light in my home. I have 3-way lamps with 50-200-250 bulbs. Other bulbs are 100 or 150. To replace these, I’d need to buy new fixtures with multiple LED bulbs. Moreover, I’ve found that most LEDs that are suppose to be as bright as incandescent bulbs aren’t. In short, I haven’t found a lot of places in my home where I can use LEDs. Thus, I’m waiting for new, brighter bulbs.

  11. Fun post! I don’t keep a spreadsheet. But I have been writing the install dates on the bases of all the LEDs bulbs that I have installed in our kitchen, which are “on” practically half the day. Started installing 3+ year ago. All still going strong. Sounds like I should replace the last few incandescent bulbs ASAP!

  12. James F. Cook says:

    Great post, Professor Borenstein! I am glad the LEDs have finally done it. Here’s another scenario for you: we are renting for 8 months, should I replace the lightbulbs in the rental? We are renovating our house and will definitely put LEDs in there.

  13. QF says:

    Great article! I’m working in LED industry for many years. Now it is the time to replace all the incandescent light bulbs and CFLs. LEDs are not only efficient, but also flexible in terms of colors. You basically can make any color you want. There should be no worry on what light LED cannot make. There are many companies now can makeLED with very high quality light.

  14. diana says:

    I am one of those photophiles. Not only would I never switch to a CFL, I harbor a special place in my heart (and in my house) for clear-glass SATCO bulbs. I am on a first-name basis with a local lamp store to which I bring ancient flea-market lamp finds for them to rewire, and almost on a first-name basis with a certain designer shade shop for matching shades in silk, linen or paper.

    I swore off LEDs as a matter of course.

    Then I was persuaded to try Philips’ HUE lighting system. They are not cheap but the colors are fantastic and they are the only bulb that has persuaded me to swap out my beloved SATCO. Each bulb is actually a collection of LEDs on its own computer, and each bulb daisy-chains itself to a preceding bulb that ultimately chains itself to a HUE router that you plug into your home WIFI. You control it with your iphone and you can set any bulb to match any color on any photograph you upload (in addition to standard scenes and color palettes supplied with the app). You can get third party apps to turn your bulbs the color of candlelight, or get them to change color in tune with your music, etc., but if you are just into adjusting the brightness and color of each of your lamps, HUE is for you.

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