What’s the Difference Between LEDs and CFLs?

If you’ve shopped for light bulbs over the last year or two, you’ve probably noticed a significant change in the kinds of light bulbs you have to choose from. Incandescent residential light bulbs have been phased out of manufacturing in the United States, and two of their new, energy efficient replacements are Light Emitting Diode (LED) bulbs and Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFLs).

What’s the difference between LEDs and CFLs? And how do you know which ones to buy for your home? Your Missouri Electric Cooperatives want to help you answer these questions. To do that, we need to talk about what LED and CFL light bulbs are, what they have in common, and what distinguishes one from the other.

What are LED Light Bulbs?

LED stands for Light Emitting Diode. LEDs are semiconductors that produce visible light when electrical current is passed through them. LEDs come in a variety of colors, they stay cool even when they’ve been on for a long time, and they can be very, very small. 

What are CFL Light Bulbs?

CFLs, or Compact Fluorescent Bulbs, use argon and mercury gases to produce ultraviolet light, which is not immediately visible to your eyes. The UV light in CFLs becomes visible when it comes into contact with a phosphor coating on the inside of the light bulb. 

What Do LED and CFL Light Bulbs Have in Common?

Both LED and CFL bulbs are much more energy efficient than traditional incandescent bulbs were, they’re both more expensive to buy, and they both have longer life spans that incandescent bulbs did.

Energy.gov says that LEDs and CFLs can last as much as twenty-five times longer than incandescent bulbs did. The site goes on to explain that both bulbs, “typically use 25%-80% less energy than traditional incandescents, saving you money.”

While energy efficient light bulbs will save your family money in the long run, they’ll actually cost you more in the short term. Prices have dropped significantly in recent years, but LEDs will still cost at least about $2.50 per bulb and CFLs will cost about $1.50 each, or more. 

How are LED and CFL Light Bulbs Different?

LEDs and CFLs are both more efficient and cost-effective to own than their incandescent predecessors were, but LEDs and CFLs have some important differences. The distinctions between LEDs and CFLs fall roughly into four categories: life span, cost of operation, directionality, and safe disposal.

Life Span

LEDs last two to four times as long as CFLs do, and they’re also more efficient. A traditional incandescent bulb burned for around 1,000 hours, but an LED bulb can burn for 25,000 hours using 75%-80% less energy. CFLs have a life span of around 10,000 hours, using around 75% as much energy as traditional bulbs (source). So while both LEDs and CFLs have longer life spans than incandescent bulbs did, LEDs last much longer than CFLs do. 

Cost of Operation

The second major distinction between LEDs and CFLs is their cost of use. The relative efficiency of LEDs and CFLs is reflected in your annual cost of operating the bulb: A traditional incandescent 60 Watt bulb, for example, cost approximately $4.80 per year to use (based on two hours per day of use at $0.11 per Kilowatt hour).

By contrast, an LED light costs only about $1 year to operate, and a comparable CFL costs about $1.20 (source). LEDs might cost more to buy, but their relatively long life span and low cost of use makes them a solid consumer value over time.


A third important difference between LEDs and CFLs is one that many homeowners — especially those who are purchasing energy efficient bulbs for the first time — may be unaware is even a variable in purchasing home lighting.

Traditional incandescent light bulbs emitted light in all directions, producing a relatively even sphere of light. CFLs are like incandescent bulbs in their non-directionality. LEDs, on the other hand, produce directional light, rather than the softer, more even light you might be used to from incandescent bulbs.

As you’ll discover in more detail in the next section of this post, there’s a time and a place for the directional light produced by LEDs and for the non-directional light emitted by CFLs. 

Which Bulbs Should I Use, Where?

Now that we’ve talked about the differences in life span, cost of use, and directionality, let’s talk about where you might want to use each type of energy efficient lighting in your home.

LED lights are ideal for areas of your home where you’d like your lighting to be directional. Examples include in recessed or canned lighting, above your kitchen sink, or in a desk light. They’re also great, in a commercial sense, as industrial and outdoor lighting.

One of the advantages of LED lights is that they don’t get hot when they’re turned on. Because they stay cool, they’re also ideal for holiday lighting. They’re much less likely to cause heat-related holiday fires than incandescent bulbs were, and their efficiency allows you to string as many as 25 strands of lights together from a single outlet without overloading it! Their long life span means that you can expect to use a high-quality strand of holiday lights for as many as forty — yes, forty! — seasons.

One final advantage of LEDs is that they withstand being turned on and off frequently better than CFLs do. For that reason, LEDs are superior to CFLs for areas like pantries, bathrooms, and closets, where lights may be turned on and off several times each day.

CFLs, on the other hand, excel in areas of your home where lights will remain on for extended periods of time and in areas where you’d like light to be less focused and more ambient. Specifically, CFLs will work best as accent lighting in table lamps and standing lamps.

Here’s where it gets tricky, though: While CFLs work best in areas of your home where lights will be left on for longer periods of time, they aren’t actually ideal for all overhead light fixtures. That’s because CFLs are ideally suited for use in light fixtures where the bulb is mounted vertically. Many overhead light fixtures have horizontally-mounted light bulbs.

One final piece of food for thought on LEDs and CFLs in your home is this: CFLs aren’t dimmable. If you have a dimmer switch on a light fixture in your home, it’s best to stick with LEDs.


Now that we’ve talked about the differences and unique benefits of LEDs and CFLs, let’s talk about how these new energy efficient bulbs die and what to do when they do.

While traditional incandescent bulbs simply burned out, LEDs and CFLs have a more dramatic flare near their end of life. LEDs usually begin to fade before they actually burn out. In many cases, your LED will need to be replaced before it goes out completely, because it will become too dim to be usable.

When LED light bulbs die, they can be thrown into the trash. The wires and cords on LED holiday light strands can be recycled, so watch for holiday light collection sites and recycling drives in your community during the holiday season.

When CFLs die, they often produce an audible popping sound that’s followed by a distinctive odor. Both the sound and the smell of a burned-out CFL are perfectly normal.

Unlike LEDs, CFLs contain mercury, which is toxic to the environment. If you throw a CFL in the trash and the glass breaks, the mercury will escape, causing unnecessary pollution. Your Missouri Electric Cooperatives recommend recycling your CFLs. You can visit search.Earth911.com to search for CFL recycling in your area.

Read More: How and Where Can I Recycle CFLs? 

Efficient, Environmentally-Friendly Power

Your Missouri Electric Cooperatives work hard to make sure that families, farms, and business across rural Missouri have access to reliable, affordable power. We hope that by helping you understand how LEDs and CFLs can improve your home energy efficiency that we’re helping make your electricity more affordable, too.

You can learn more about Missouri’s Electric Cooperatives, and how we work to provide safe, efficient energy to rural Missouri by following us on Facebook ,
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