So I Bought you a $40 Light Bulb Today

One of the easier rules of Mustachianism is that you should shoot for using about 60-75% less power than the average US household (as described in this earlier article about electricity).

By accomplishing this, you’ll end up about $13,000 richer every ten years.

A big part of the savings comes from angrily smashing up any of those ridiculous incandescent light bulbs you have remaining at home, and replacing them with Compact Fluorescent bulbs (CFLs).

But although CFLs are clearly a huge win over incandescents, and they are cheap at under $1 per bulb, they still have some weaknesses:

  • They are not dimmable (unless you pay extra for a special type that approximates dimming)
  • They do not immediately reach full brightness (modern ones are usefully bright within one second, although certain in-ceiling reflector ones take several minutes to warm up).
  • They contain a small amount of mercury, so if you regularly smash them and snort lines of the resulting powder through your nose, you will exceed the federal recommendations for mercury intake (although they are not at all dangerous in normal use)
  • They provide omnidirectional light, which is great for lamps and exterior lighting, but not great for kitchens and track lighting.

The last point is most significant to lighting fanatics like myself. To get really good lighting inside a house or business, you need focused, narrow beams of light which illuminate the highlights of a room, rather than just ceiling-mounted lightbulbs randomly scattering light in every direction.  Think about the feel of an gallery, an expensive clothing store, the Whole Foods produce department, or an Apple computer store. These places use halogen track lights which provide a focused beam of bright white light. Now think about the feel of a Walmart or a Home Depot. Those ones use long fluorescent tubes or sodium lamps with no focus. It’s the direct and high-contrast lighting in the nicer interiors that makes you say, “Ooh, nice”.

“Ooh, nice” is an important goal, and not just for pleasing your own aesthetic senses. It translates directly into profit if you own a business with a space where customers visit, if you’re a landlord hoping to increase demand for your apartments or houses, or even if you’re a homeowner selling your place to move somewhere else, and want the house to sell quickly at a high price.

Check out the next few pictures to compare the effect:

This track light with halogen bulbs in my basement staircase creates accent areas on the painting, walls and shelf to make a more interesting scene

This sample scene in my testing area is lit up with the yellowy light of an incandescent bulb.

Here’s the same scene lit up with a “warm white” CFL bulb. Note the more reddish hue (which I find a bit nicer) and the continued wide light dispersion.

Here’s the scene lit with a brand-new LED bulb (color temperature a slightly cooler 3000K, but still called “warm white”). Contrast and shadows are sharper, scene is classier.

So in my own house, I use Compact fluorescent bulbs whenever I can, but there are still about 20 halogen bulbs in strategic locations such as the kitchen where I like really good classy light. (I’d prefer to use halogen everywhere, but then my power bill would go through the roof).

These halogen bulbs, while better than plain old Incandescents, still burn a lot of power and generate waste heat. A typical halogen uses 50 watts of power, compared to the 13 watts of a CFL bulb.

Recently, however, a new type of light bulb has become available that offers the best of both worlds: the LED.

Five years ago, the first LED bulbs hit the stores. They promised very low power consumption, which they delivered. But this came at the price of a low light output that came out in a deeply eerie bluish color. I bought two light bulbs of this type in Costco at the time, and was immediately disappointed – they weren’t nice enough to use in the kitchen or even an office. I relegated them to my upstairs staircase landing, a place we rarely hang out, and we call it “the Blue Zone”.

Here’s the oldschool LED bulb in my upper staircase – note the many individual LEDs and the bluish hue. Newer bulbs use just 1-10 kickass LEDs instead of dozens of weaker ones.

More recently, LED bulbs have advanced to be much brighter and with a nicer light color. This is why you see them being used in the headlamps of fancy cars, and they are even creeping into the art galleries and expensive stores. The better LED bulbs also appeared on the shelves of Lowe’s and Home Depot, where I started tracking them two years ago. The price of the best ones started out at a punishing $80 per bulb and has now ticked its way down to $39.99 for the big “PAR38” reflectors, and $20 for the little “GU10” track light bulbs. Looking at demonstrations of these newest bulbs, I noticed they very closely approximate the quality of halogen lights. Finally! In the near future we can all have great light quality AND low power bills, combined with bulbs that are dimmable, and last an entire generation (they have a 25 year life expectancy based on regular service).

Update: four years later, the prices have completed their amazing drop – amazing LED bulbs are now under $10 each and you can just upgrade your whole house and be done with it. For recessed lights, I highly recommend these Hyperikon bulbs at Amazon.  With that update out of the way, you may now resume reading my outdated article on the technology.

With the prices dropping so rapidly, I would normally hold out a couple more years before buying into a new technology. Although these bulbs save money compared to halogens, the annual price drop is still greater than the annual electricity savings, so it is better to keep wasting power with halogens (while continuing to use CFLs wherever possible) until the equation reverses.

But being Adm Karpinsk, I now have the responsibility of reporting energy-saving developments to YOU. On top of that, this blog is now making a few bucks a day, enough to justify purchasing supplies for research projects like this one!

So I bought one of the big $40 PAR38 bulbs and brought it down to the MMLL for evaluation. That is of course the Money Mustache Lighting Laboratory, which is really just a desk in my basement where I set up a light fixture, a power consumption meter, and a light output meter that measures light intensity in Lux (equal to one Lumen per square meter). I took down a fleet of my existing incandescent, fluorescent and halogen lights for comparison with the new LED bulb (shown below), and here are the results.

Update! After publishing this article, I mentioned it on Twitter and it was in turn quoted by a Brooklyn, New York company called LED Waves. I looked these guys up and noticed they had pretty fancy LED bulbs as well, with the added twist of being manufactured right there in Brooklyn. I suggested that they send me a couple of their highest-end bulbs for evaluation and was pleasantly surprised to see that they did. So I’m now running a pair of their “New York” Dimmable LED PAR38 bulbs as part of the MMM family’s living room, and I also added their results to the table below. Here’s what those beauties look like:

I ordered the 8 degree beam angle, which is much narrower than anything offered in the big box stores. This concentrates the light in a smaller area, which is a nice effect in my own living room, because I have high recessed fixtures in a 9-foot-high ceiling. By the time the light from regular bulbs reaches the floor, it is quite diffuse.  From these 8 degree angle bulbs, I get some nice contrasty sunshine patches on my floor, along with a still-good amount of scattered light out to the sides. You can see how that measures out in the “brightness at beam center” result below, which is over 3 times higher than other bulbs.

Power consumption was also a pleasant surprise. I measured these bulbs at only 10 watts, significantly lower than their 14 watt spec. But because of the focused beam, the usable amount of light is almost as much as the 24 watt LED bulb from EcoSmart, at least for my own purposes. The efficiency really shows up in the “lumens per watt” measurement. This bulb is almost doubling the efficiency of the other LED bulb, and of CFLs as well! The 14 watt savings works out to about 15 kWh/year ($1.50-ish) at 3 hour-per-day usage.

They also take their light quality much more seriously than other manufacturers – check out this detailed spec sheet on the New York bulb.

The only drawback? The price of the dimmable model is $99, and non-dimmable is $74. Would I pay the extra $34 for the better light quality? For the two most frequently used bulbs in my living room, I would probably say yes. For a big array lighting up my infrequently used basement rec room – no.

Bulb TypeRated Output (Lumens)Efficiency (Lumens per Watt)Peak Brightness at beam center (LUX) @ 4ft distanceLight Quality
EcoSmart LED bulb (24 watt PAR38 shape for large in-ceiling recessed fixtures) ($40/bulb)1300541820Sweet. Extremely bright and fairly focused beam.
LEDWaves New York LED Bulb958956000 (!)Even better than the other LED bulb - subjectively, the hue was more sun-like, but that could also just be the more focused beam.
Compact Fluorescent Reflector bulb (24 watts, same shape) ($10/bulb)
360Not bad, but wide beam
PAR38 Halogen spotlight, 50 watts ($7/bulb)850171020Super Sweet. Slightly more yellow than LED bulb. Similar focus
Cheap 65 watt builder-grade PAR30 incandescent reflector ($1/bulb)5808.92230Much more yellow than halogen, wide and unfocused beam. Similar quality to CFL above, but less bright.
Stupid 60-watt standard incandescent bulb5208.67130Dim and tragic light in all directions
13 watt CFL bulb82563130Slightly less yellow and more reddish light than standard bulb. Nicer, but still tragic compared to reflector options.

The things to note about these results are:

  • Halogen lights are already almost twice as efficient as junky incandescent bulbs, even while delivering better light.
  • CFL and LED bulbs are about six times more efficient than the incandescent bulbs, and four times better than  halogens. (The higher-end LEDWaves bulb is even higher, in an efficiency class by itself.
  • The brightness at the center of the beam, which is a key measure of lighting niceness, is much higher in halogens and LEDs than in the other types.
  • If you care about light quality and power consumption, LEDs are the only choice.
  • If you have recessed in-ceiling lights in your house right now and have never thought about your light bulb choices, you are probably using the “Cheap 65 watt builder-grade” bulbs above. These are an awful choice, because recessed lighting is often done with many fixtures. It’s not uncommon to have 600-1200 watts of light burning into a single large room. Switch ’em out for CFLs for maximum savings, Halogens for medium savings and maximum light quality, or LEDs for the best of both worlds but with high upfront costs.

So there’s my full report on this new technology, just in case you had never heard of it, or if you had and were curious about the performance. I feel that LED bulbs will completely replace compact fluorescent bulbs within the next ten years, since they are better in every way. Besides the reflector-style ones reviewed here, they also come in standard round shapes for lamp applications, as well as specialized ones for smaller lights and even car interior dome lights (so you can leave your interior light on accidentally for a month without running down the battery!).

But for now, they are only for the truly hardcore lighting enthusiast, since the prices are still dropping rapidly. My new 24 watt LED bulb will save me about $5.50 per year in electricity over an equivalent-brightness 75 watt halogen bulb. That’s a 14% annual return on investment, which sounds good until you realize the price is dropping more than $5.50 per year. For maximum savings, it’s best to stick with the alternatives listed in the bullet points above for another year or two. But keep your eye on these new beauties, since they will soon become affordable for all.

If you’re already plenty wealthy and are looking for a fun MMM-approved way to spend a few hundred bucks, I give you permission go out and outfit your whole house with LED bulbs. If you select the “Warm White” color, and go for the highest lumen rating you can find of each shape, you’ll be pleased with the results. And you’ll be helping to save power and boost the industry to help bring the prices down for the rest of us. As I said, even at current prices, they’re a roughly 14% annual return on investment*, which is better than a punch in the face.

*assuming a 3-hour per day run time and 10c/kWh electricity. You can then scale your own ROI directly if your numbers are higher or lower. For 6 hours or more per day, the LED is an even more obvious win, and it becomes cost effective to upgrade immediately.

  • BobTX2 April 30, 2013, 1:05 am

    So… these incredibly cheap LED bulbs are pretty hard to beat:

    3.5W, 150 Lumens, 20,000hr life LED bulb for only $9.99

    My wife and I have pretty much used these to illuminate our entire home, having made the big switch about a year ago. For the last decade, we’d used CFLs and a few incandescents. We’re incredibly happy with the results, and we’re never going to look back. In addition to great light, these things are very hard to break, which is a big bonus in certain contexts. Over the ten years we lit our home with CFLs, we only lost a few to burnout, but had far more break – they rarely survived a tipped over lamp or an accidental bump to their ceiling location by something being carried through the room.

    They also do not generate the heat of halogen/incandescent/etc. Making placement options and fixtures more versatile (fire risk), and reducing cooling bills in our TX location (negligibly, but hey, we’ll take it). One other bonus is that they are engineered such that they do not take up as much space with non-bulb electronic parts as most LED bulbs I’ve looked at. They also do not have any need for a in-line power converter box like some other LED bulb/fixture combos I’ve seen.

    Note that the ikea LED’s are an E17 fixture bulb. Not the most standard size in most American houses, but that is not a problem for track-lighting like MMM likes – they also have a GU10 bulb available.

    • Adm Karpinsk April 30, 2013, 6:25 am

      Those look like pretty nice little bulbs. Note that the LED bulb I reviewed in this article is about 9 times brighter than the IKEA ones (1300 lumens vs. 150). So the IKEAs would be more suitable for smaller areas (or people who like a nice dim environment).

  • Brendan September 10, 2013, 9:41 am

    I had been waiting for the price of dimmable LEDs for recessed flood lights to drop for some time. Pulled the trigger on these while they were on sale and have been very impressed. Cost was under $20 a bulb delivered (sale Aug 2013).

    Philips 13-Watt (65-Watt)
    BR30 Soft White (2700K)
    Indoor Dimmable LED Flood Light Bulb (4-Pack) (E)*


  • Survive The Valley September 20, 2013, 8:33 pm

    MMM any opinion on the Cree 9.5w (60w incandescent equivalent) LED? I just got one the other day at Home Depot and it’s cheaper than the Philips one at Home Depot that Brendan mentions. I’m really loving it… awesome color temp (2700k), only 9.5w (less than most of the other brands), and lasts 25,000 hrs! Seems like a no-brainer to me!

    I wrote my own little review of the bulb over at http://survivethevalley.com/2013/09/20/leds-look-good-save-money-better-environment/.

    Let me know your thoughts!

    • LadyMaier September 21, 2013, 9:09 am

      I LOVE the warm white Cree bulbs!!! I’ve been slowly replacing bulbs in my house with them, mostly because the color temperature is so close to an incandescent, and they seem to do have a decent method of diffusing light more like an incandescent as well (there’s almost like a plastic coating on the bulb!)

      I just put up a form post on this very topic:


    • Kellie November 30, 2013, 3:13 pm

      I changed out all of my cfl’s for the Cree bulbs and LOVE LOVE them. The only bulbs I wasn’t able to change out were the overheads in the kitchen (tube lighting) and didn’t bother with the lights in the closets as they’re rarely on for long periods. I noticed a difference in how warm my bathroom specifically got (switched out 6 bulbs to the lower powered bulbs there!) and a noticeable difference in the electric bill too.

  • Jeff September 30, 2014, 8:07 am

    Time continues to pass and LED prices continue to plummet as quality goes up.
    My favorite standby at this point is the Feit PerformanceLED 40W equivalent (7.5W). It’s dimmable, can be used in enclosed fixtures unlike most LEDs, and of the dozens I have bought and installed in the last two years, only one has failed (and in the first week of use, with an easy warranty exchange). I am getting them for FIVE DOLLARS now on Amazon, which puts the payback at one or two hot Alabama summers, depending on usage.
    As noted elsewhere, more efficient lights aren’t really saving you money when you’re heating your house, but they’re really earning their keep while the AC is running, so I tend to take a seasonal approach… in late winter and early spring, I review all my fixtures (especially if a new residence or rental property is involved) and try to employ the latest and greatest across the board, as well as doing some awareness efforts & giving away whatever spares I have to ensure maximum employment of this wonderful technology. This time of year I think about putting a few incandescents back in strategic spots for warmth, but mostly I just stop worrying about lighting.
    The great thing about lighting in this day and age is that if you don’t see what you’re looking for at a price you like, you can usually check back in a couple of months and find totally new, better, cheaper products everywhere. I would encourage everyone in the northern hemisphere to start watching in February and put LEDs in every socket you have by April.

  • Jon October 18, 2014, 8:34 pm

    Hey MMM,

    Can you please make a new updated blog post on light bulbs? I’m thinking replacing my regular for CFL or LED. But leaning toward LED to avoid mercury issues.

    • Adm Karpinsk October 19, 2014, 5:15 pm

      Go for it! I do have an LED bulb test shootout planned for whenever I get around with it. Since writing this post, LEDs have come down quite a bit, and as a result my new house is 100% LED-equipped. It is a beautiful thing, and the efficiency is reflected in the power bill.

    • Jeff February 18, 2015, 12:30 pm

      If you can afford an extra dollar or two per fixture, filament-based LEDs are popping out everywhere and they are generally gorgeous. Being a huge lighting nerd, I’ll probably give away some LEDs just to make room for more of those before the summer AC run starts. I haven’t seen them in my local hardware stores yet but Amazon has all kinds of options as low as $6-7 per bulb, with 40,000-hour ratings (or better).

  • Michael December 25, 2015, 9:59 am

    The biggest problem with cfl and led is the cheap electronics used to regulate the voltages each technology requires. The bulb itself may last the claimed period but the failures come from the electronics in the base. When I remodeled our house most of the fixtures I used were standard FL tube designs (straight or circles).

  • STBJ February 7, 2016, 10:18 am

    LEDs are super cheap now. You could probably relamp your whole house for $300 now.

  • Dave March 8, 2016, 8:19 am

    Writing this comment in 2016, only just stumbled on this blog and realized I would appreciate cutting years off my time to retirement. My house has incandescent bulbs right now, from a cost perspective, do you feel LED has matured enough that it would represent a better investment than CFL? We have no plans to move in the near future.

    • Adm Karpinsk March 8, 2016, 11:42 am

      Yes! Everything I had hoped for when I wrote this article has since come true: the bulbs are even better and generally under 10 dollars each (and even less for the round type that fit in regular lamps and such). If light quality matters, LEDs are the only choice for recessed and track lights in my opinion.

    • Paul March 9, 2016, 2:42 am

      Hi Dave,

      When choosing LED lights, do pay attention to light temperature. Somewhere around 2700 Kelvin is perfect if you prefer the “warm white” of traditional light bulbs or Halogen spots. Since LED lights do spread their light a little differently than Halogen pod lights, I do advise to try it with a small batch first. I found that I needed less than the “watt-equivalent” stated on LED lights when replacing mine.

  • Stefan June 5, 2016, 11:19 am

    Good starter. That was easy. After reading this, i went through the house and counted lights. I came out at 40 bulbs of 30-50W. A brief look at cost of electricity, cost of halogens, cost of LEDs, their expected lifetimes (2.000 vs 50.000 hours LOL!) aaaaand this house is going to save a lot of money.

    In an unexpected stroke of luck, there’s a sale of several LEDs on german Amazon right now, too.

  • Jeff Schroeder August 18, 2016, 8:49 pm

    There is one additional downside to halogen bulbs… Holy hell can they get hot. I had 3 fancy halogen bulbs hanging down to spotlight a nice bar in the middle of the kitchen of my (relatively) newly purchased home. When standing up it isn’ t to hard for a tall person to hit the light or to touch it. My friend noticed he was sweating by just sitting under those lights and reached up to touch it. It had caused the fancy pants brushed metal casing around it to get hot enough to give him a mild 2nd degree burn (blistering). Nasty nasty things.

    I went to Menards (because you’ll save more money there in the proper Mustachian way) and picked up replacement LED equivalent bulbs. Now I’ve got the same dramatic spotlights over the bar with no nasty heat. A week later I spent a small fortune and replaced every recessed light in my home (a few hundred bulbs all over) with LEDs.

  • Brenda in NS August 22, 2016, 1:58 am

    We had the provincial efficiency team come through our house in 2011. Among other things, they replaced our incandescents with CFLs (I understand that in 2015, they moved to LEDs). As they were replacing the bulbs, I mentioned that one thing that bugged me about CFLs was the time to warm up to full light power.

    Apparently, the CFLs require “curing”. Run the bulb for 4 hours when first installed, and after that they will come on at full brightness. We use green painters tape to cover the light switch to prevent coming back through the room 10 minutes later and reflexively turning off the light. Usually there is a note on the tape with a marker “Curing. Turn off after X pm”

    Much better performance!

  • s June 12, 2017, 8:31 pm

    Do you have a suggestion for candelabra style lights used in ceiling fans? They have to be soft white as my wife is a light nazi.

    • Adm Karpinsk June 13, 2017, 8:22 am

      They’re easy to find on Amazon these days, for just a few bucks. Just search for “2700k candleabra LED”

  • Tinian Crawford October 26, 2017, 8:39 am

    I had an energy audit done by my utility company a while ago, and their only recommendation was to give me a bulb like the one in your first pic. Trouble was we did the audit in June or something, so they couldn’t tell if we had any heat leaks or anything. I have since moved from that house, and my new house is fully stocked with beautiful new LED bulbs. I have also gone with mainly low Kelvin (light temperature) bulbs to provide a nice warm light.


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