Versus: 4-Way Lighting

Jan. 24, 2014
We break down the fundamental differences between the four most common lighting options currently on the market: incandescents, halogens, CFLs, and LEDs.

With lighting technology growing more specialized and complex every year, it can be hard to know where to start when it comes to specifying the proper fixtures and bulbs on a project. If you’re working on a large space or have special lighting needs, you’ll likely want to enlist the help of a certified lighting consultant, but for projects with smaller footprints and budgets, odds are you’ll be making those decisions on your own.

Whether you’re working alone or with help, it’s important to understand the fundamental differences between these four most common lighting options currently on the market: incandescents, halogens, CFLs, and LEDs. Keep in mind that these are general guidelines, and may not apply to specialty fixtures or newer technologies. When in doubt, ask!

Compact Fluorescent (CFL)
LED Luminous Efficacy1 10–17 lumens per watt (lm/W) 16-25 lm/W 50–70 lm/W 18–22 lm/W Fire Risk Moderate High Moderate Low Contains Hazardous Elements2 Contains lead. No Contains up to 5 milligrams of mercury per bulb. May also contain lead, arsenic, and other hazardous waste metals. May contain lead and arsenic. Global Bans + Restrictions The United States has imposed restrictions on the use of traditional, low-efficiency incandescent bulbs, and is currently in the process of phasing out their use, with the exception of antique reproduction and specialty bulbs, which are not intended for general lighting use. Canada, Israel, Australia, China, Switzerland, New Zealand, Brazil, and Venezuela are undertaking similar measures. Areas where the bulbs are already banned include the United Kingdom, the European Union, Cuba, Argentina, Norway, the Philippines, and Malaysia. None None None Light Quality Incandescent bulbs generate light with a wide spectral distribution, providing a warm, continuous color. Halogen lighting produces a spectral distribution similar to that of incandescent bulbs but with hotter operating temperatures, and emits light with a characteristic bluish quality. CFLs use a variety of individually-colored phosphors contained within a single bulb to generate white light. This method typically results in a light of narrower spectrum and a less seamless quality as compared to that of incandescent and halogen bulbs. However, comparisons to older-style lighting are difficult to make because the spectral distribution of these bulbs is highly variable. The quality of light produced is dependant on a number of factors, such as the age of the bulb and the original phosphor content used during manufacturing. LED bulbs generate white light by recombining colored light from monochromatic red, blue, and green LEDs contained within the bulb. Similar in this regard to CFL bulbs, the spectral distribution of light generated by LED bulbs is colder and narrower than incandescent and halogen bulbs. Warm-Up Time None None CFLs generally turn on within one second, but some varieties can take between one and three minutes to reach optimum brightness and color. However, products marketed as "instant-on" CFL bulbs do exist, as do newer hybrid CFL/halogen bulbs that do not require a warm-up period. None On-Off Cycling Does not affect lifespan. Does not affect lifespan. While CFLs typically have a much longer lifespan than incandescent bulbs, frequent on-off cycling can reduce this greatly—sometimes to levels comprable to incandescent bulbs. It is recommended that CFLs be left on if leaving rooms for short periods of time. LEDs have an even greater lifespan than CFLs, and are not susceptible to lifespan reductions from frequent on-off cycles. Lifespan 750-1,000 hours 2,000-2,500 hours 6,000-15,000 hours 25,000-100,000 hours Cost The inefficiency of incandescent bulbs translates directly to increased costs. Although inexpensive to purchase, these bulbs consume energy at a rate of up to five times that of CFL bulbs. Combined with a much shorter lifespan, incandescent bulbs are the most expensive lighting option in the long term. Despite having twice the lifespan and consuming half the power of incandescent bulbs, halogen bulbs are still relatively inefficient. Compared to CFL and LED, these bulbs consume energy at a much higher rate and need to be replaced more frequently. The bulbs themselves are usually less expensive than CFLs and LEDs. Despite carrying a heftier price tag per unit, CFLs can outlast incandescent bulbs by a factor of fifteen, and only use about a quarter of the power, lowering costs significantly in the long run. Although LEDs currently compare unfavorably to CFLs in energy costs, their efficiency is increasing at a rapid pace. Projections show that within the next year, LEDs are on-track to reach a cost of only $2 per kilolumen, as compared to $18 in 2010. The long lifespan of LED lighting can greatly reduce costs associated with bulb replacement.

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