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How Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) Work

LED Light Bulbs vs. CFLs and Incandescents

LEDs
LEDs illuminate this tunnel. Os Tartarouchos/Getty Images

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For decades, 100-watt incandescent light bulbs have lit up hallways and bedrooms; 60-watt incandescents have shone softer light from reading lamps and closets. But incandescent lights are inefficient, waste lots of energy as heat, and have shorter lifespans than fluorescent lamps. Recently, more-efficient compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs have become popular alternatives. Where incandescent lights last an average of around 1,200 hours, CFLs can last 10,000 hours [source: EarthEasy]. Unfortunately, CFLs contain toxic mercury that makes them potentially hazardous and a pain to dispose of.

Enter the LED light bulb. LEDs offer the advantages of CFLs – lower power consumption and longer lifetimes – without the downside of toxic mercury [source: Scheer and Moss]. For example, a 60-watt incandescent light bulb draws more than $150 worth of electricity per year and provides about 800 lumens of light; an equivalent compact fluorescent uses less than 15 watts and costs only about $35 of electricity per year. LED bulbs are even better, drawing about 8.5 watts of power, costing about $21 per year, and lasting 25,000 hours or longer [source: EarthEasy]. There are only 8,760 hours in a whole year – imagine how long an LED bulb would last in the average home!

That makes LEDs sound pretty great – and they are – but there are reasons incandescent and compact fluorescent bulbs are still around. The biggest reason is price; LED bulbs cost more than the other options, even though prices for LED bulbs have come down in recent years. However, their longer life spans and dramatically lower power usage help make up for the higher barrier of entry.

In addition to the high cost barrier, LEDs are vulnerable to high temperatures. If LED circuitry gets too hot, more current will pass through the junction mentioned earlier in this article. When the junction gets too hot, it causes the bulb to burn out [source: LEDs Magazine]. And even though LEDs are free of mercury (unlike CFL bulbs), they may contain other dangerous elements such as lead or arsenic [source: Scheer and Moss]. Further, one study found light pollution increased with the use of LED bulbs [source: Brady].

Some people also prefer the look of incandescent light, feeling they're warmer than the yellowish-looking CFL bulbs and the bluish brightness of LEDs. The difference in lighting types can take some adjustment, but LEDs are also available in a variety of hues. LEDs are dimmable (unlike CFLs) and are perfect for encouraging plant growth, since they efficiently put off tons of light without producing heat that could potentially be damaging to plant life.

While CFLs and incandescent bulbs are limited to the color of their enclosure, some LED bulbs can be changed to emit millions of colors. These bulbs are typically more expensive than their white LED bulb counterparts, but they can be programmed to change color with the time of day, giving people more control over their environment.

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