Wednesday , December 13 2017
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Shop Task Lighting: Comparing LED vs CFL vs Incandescent

I’ve been curious about LED lighting for several years, but until recently the price of LED bulbs compared to compact fluorescent (CFL) or incandescent bulbs has been a deterrent.

What was the final deciding factor to switch to LED? I needed a good bulb for the task light on my mill and grinder. I’d been using 75W unfrosted (clear) incandescent bulbs because they gave off ample light. But after a few minutes they got too hot to work around, and I was afraid that splashing coolant on a hot bulb would lead to problems. I tried switching to CFL bulbs and found that a 20w CFL put out plenty of light … once it got warmed up. Unfortunately I didn’t like waiting 5 minutes for the bulb to get to proper operating temperature. And in the winter when shop temperatures were cooler (40-50 degrees F) I had trouble with extended warm-up times and even the occasional bulb flicker when using CFLs.

So I switched to a 13.5 watt LED flood bulb. According to the packaging, the bulb was equivalent to a 75W incandescent bulb. But I found the LED to be both brighter and whiter than my 75W incandescent or my 20W CFL. And the light was instantly bright (no need to wait for the bulb to warm up) and stayed cool to the touch.

After being pleased with my initial 13.5W purchase I have since purchased a 9.5W LED, as well as a 2.5W LED bulb to see how they compair to their incandescent counterparts. Since I now have several bulbs to compaire between I thought it might be nice to write a quick review of my findings.

Now, it should be said that I don’t have a light meter or any professional light-measuring equipment to properly measure lumens or color temperature. But after taking some side-by-side photos I didn’t feel like it was necessary. It was clear that CFL and incandescent bulbs put out a dim yellow light when compared to a comparable LED.

Here are some images – you all can decide for yourself.

The Contenders: 150W Incandescent vs 20W CFL vs 9.5W LED vs 13.5W LED (Flood)

I’m also going to provide links to the bulbs on Amazon so you can check pricing. Also check your local Costco (if you have one). Costco has been comparable or cheaper than Amazon, but all other stores I have checked (Walmart, Home Depot, Lowes, etc) have been more expensive than Amazon. So if you live by a Costco check prices there first, otherwise buy online from Amazon. Also, keep in mind that LED bulbs are more expensive than incandescent or CFL bulbs. Often a lot more. But they are more energy efficient and have a longer lifespan (20+ years). So in the long run LEDs are a better buy, even factoring in the higher initial purchase price.

9.5W LED (Click image to see Amazon Pricing)

13.5W LED Flood Light (Click image to see Amazon Pricing)


Now for the comparison:

Here’s the light output of a 150W incandescent bulb. Since both LED bulbs are brighter than the 75W incandescent they were designed to replace I thought I’d step up the comparison to a 150W bulb. Notice how the light has a yellow hue. Disclaimer: some of the yellow color is likely due to the lack of white-balance capabilities of my camera. The light looked a bit whiter in real-life. But not nearly as white as the LED bulb, as you’ll see in a moment.

150W Incandescent

Here’s the 20W CFL (after warming for at least 5 minutes). You can see that it’s not quite as bright as the 150W incandescent (which is to be expected since the CFL is designed as a 60W incandescent replacement). You can also see how yellow the light is. Some people like “warm” yellow light. But for task lighting I prefer white light.

20W CFL (after warming 5+ minutes)

Here’s the 9.5W LED. Notice how bright and white the light is compared to the incandescent or CFL bulbs.

9.5W LED (designed to replace a 60W incandescent bulb)

Here’s the 13.5W Flood Light. Notice that all the light is exiting the top of the bulb (which is exactly what you’d expect from a flood light – hence the dim lamp shade and bright, focussed circle of light on the ceiling). I think for task lighting (where you want the light pointed at a specific surface or object) this bulb is the ideal choice. But if you’re trying to light up a room the 9.5W LED is a better choice because it provides a wider-angle light similar to a traditional incandescent bulb.

13.5W LED (designed to replace a 75W incandescent flood light)


Here’s a side-by-side comparison of both LED bulbs. The 13.5W LED (flood) bulb is brighter and casts a more narrowly focussed beam than the 9.5W LED bulb.

13.5W LED (flood) vs 9.5W LED


Here’s a look at the comparison between the 20W CFL (cold) and the 9.5W LED. There’s a big difference in the light output (both lumens and color) between the two until the CFL has had time to warm up. But after a 5 minute warmup the CFL puts out a yellow light similar in brightness to the LED bulb.

20W CFL (cold) vs 9.5W LED. After 5+ minutes the light output between the two is similar in brightness, but the CFL casts a yellow light.

And just for fun, here’s a comparison of a 2.5W LED vanity bulb, compared to four 40W incandescent bulbs. I will be switching out the bathroom lighting next. With five bulbs @ 2.5 watts apiece, that’s 12.5 total watts, compared to 200 watts (five bulbs at 40 watts each). And the quality of the light is better (whiter).

2.5W LED vs 40W incandescent Vanity Bulbs

In conclusion: would I switch out every light in the house to LEDs? No, not yet. Not until they come down in price.

But I will be replacing any burned out bulbs with LEDs over the next several years. However, if I were to build a home I would seriously consider investing in LEDs from the start. If not every light bulb, I’d at least buy LED lights for those hard-to-change fixtures like you find in a high vaulted ceiling. I’d rather break out the ladder once every 20 years than once every 2 or 3 years. But that’s just me. Maybe some of you like messing with a ladder in your living room …

I know it sounds like I’m a huge advocate for LED, so why am I not switching out every light in my house? Somehow swapping out 20 or 30 functioning incandescent bulbs seems wasteful to me. And it would probably take me all afternoon to do it. So I think I’ll wait until they burn out and replace them one-by-one with LED bulbs. By the way, I’ve been writing the date on my bulbs as I install them (with a sharpie). That way I will know how long they truly last. Sorry for the tangent, let’s get back to the point of this article.

For task lighting in the shop I think LED lights make an excellent choice!

The fact that LEDs have instant-on brighness (no warm-up needed), and are cool to the touch make them a clear winner over incandescents. Why haven’t I compared the LEDs to Halogen? Because I don’t own a halogen bulb. I never have. I’ve never felt like their brightness justified their over-the-top energy consumption. They are too hot and too inefficient for me to justify using around the shop. I realize that there are applications where halogens make sense (like photography lighting) but I don’t have the need for them because I can get by with non-halogen light sources for all of my hobby needs.

You might have noticed that I haven’t provided a price comparison between the bulbs. That’s because to me looking at the purchase price of an LED bulb ($8 to $20+ per bulb) vs a CFL ($1 to $3+ per bulb) vs an incandescent ($1 or less per bulb) is a very short-sighted way to look at such an investment. You really need to look at the operating price of the bulb over the bulbs lifetime. An incandescent bulb costs less than a dollar and might last anywhere from 1-3 years depending on how many hours a day you use the bulb. A comperable LED bulb would cost $20+, but would last 20+ years (25,000 hours or more). So you’d need to buy 7 or more incandescent bulbs (assuming optimistically that they last 3 years each) to equal an LED bulb’s lifespan. So that $1 bulb will actually cost you $7 or more, and that’s just considering the purchase price alone, not the difference in efficiency.

The real cost of the incandescent comes from the wasted energy over the life of the bulb. I’ve found that a 9.5W LED = 75W incandescent = 20W CFL (looking strictly at light output or “lumens”). It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that a 9.5 watt LED bulb is far more efficient (and thus less expensive to operate) than a 75W incandescent, and is twice as efficient as a 20W CFL.

I don’t think anyone would argue that a CFL is more efficient than an incandescent, and an LED is more efficient than both a CFL and an incandescent. So if you’re worried about the electric bill (or the environment) and conserving energy is a primary concern for you than an LED light might seem like the best choice (it seems like the best choice to me). But as soon as you start comparing different types of bulbs other factors besides energy efficiency start to creep in. I’m not an expert on lighting, so I’m sure that there are other considerations I haven’t thought of. There are probably people out there that would argue that an LED bulb is somehow worse for the environment than an incandescent just like some people argue that CFLs, while more energy efficient, are worse than incandescent bulbs because of the negative impact they have on the environment when disposed of (mercury), or the risk they pose when accidentally broken, etc. I’ll leave those discussions to other websites. I don’t want to get into that here. All I wanted to do was show a simple comparison of the quality of light you get from LED bulbs.

Even though LED bulbs are 10 to 20 times more expensive than incandescent bulbs, in my opinion they are well worth the investment simply because of the quality of the light they produce. Let alone because of how efficient they are or because of how long they last (which depending on the manufacturer is said to be 20 to 25+ years).

I’d be interested in hearing what you guys think. What have your experiences been with LEDs? Click on the link below to leave your comments on the forum.



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About Tyler

Tyler is a hobby machinist and 3D printing aficionado. He teaches computer programming and web development at Highline College near Seattle. Tyler founded Projects In Metal in 2008 because he was frustrated by the lack of free plans available for hobby machinists.