led vs. cfl: a comparison of lighting technologies

The dawn of the 2st century saw an explosive growth in the market for compact fluorescent lighting (CFL), as consumers and businesses alike rushed to switch from inefficient incandescent or fluorescent lighting to new CFLs that were perceived to be greener and more eco-friendly. Less than twenty years later, CFLs are rapidly falling out of favor as LEDs are taking over the modern lighting market. One major manufacturer of CFLs has even announced that it ended its CFL production in 2016. This rapid shift is readily explained by comparing CFL and LED lighting technologies.


The market shift away from traditional incandescent and fluorescent lighting has always been driven by improving efficiency and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. CFLs represented a significant improvement over the then-existing technology, but even that improvement was eclipsed by LEDs. A 13-watt CFL bulb generates the same amount of light as a 50-watt incandescent bulb, but a 6-watt LED bulb overshadows them both. Efficiency improvements in LEDs make them the lighting source of choice for eco-friendly lighting.

LEDs are also a more eco-friendly choice with respect to the materials used to make them. LED components include no hazardous materials that might require special disposal permits when the LED bulb reaches the end of its useful life. In contrast, CFL lighting tubes are filled with argon gas and a small amount of mercury vapor. Mercury is a hazardous substance that requires special handling and disposal. Special care must be taken to clean up a broken CFL bulb to avoid mercury contamination of surrounding areas.  

Benefits of LED Lighting Technology

The first generations of CFLs and LEDs were more expensive than traditional bulbs, and even now, the newest LED technology is more expensive than a CFL. Those higher upfront costs, however, are readily recovered through better efficiency (which reduces energy consumption and costs) and longevity. In some applications, the extra cost of energy-efficient lighting will be recovered in under two years from lower energy bills alone. For longevity and durability, LEDs are a superior option. Many LED bulbs will continue to generate at least 80% of their original light output after 50,000 hours of continuous use, compared to only 5,000 hours of continuous use for CFL’s.

Finally, the newest generations of LEDs have superior versatility over CFLs. These newer LEDs can be dimmed, are compatible with existing light fixtures, come in different color and lighting temperature options, and come to full illumination immediately without any warmup time. In contrast, CFLs cannot be used with dimmer switches, are performance-sensitive to colder ambient physical temperatures, and typically generate a uniform, bright white light. Both LEDs and CFLs are available in a variety of different shapes and configurations, but here again, LED technology is advancing regularly to include more aesthetically-pleasing bulbs that have better beam patterns and that spread light more uniformly rather than uni-directionally.

Many consumers who switched to CFL lights remain satisfied with their decision, but those bulbs are likely approaching the end of their lifespans. Replacing CFLs with LEDs will provide an additional step forward in lighting technology that further improves the efficiency of their illumination systems with products that are more eco-friendly and flexible.

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