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How to buy the best light bulbs

LED, CFL and halogen lights: what's the difference and which is best?

multiple light bulbs

Light bulbs aren't as simple as they once were. We'll help you understand how to pick the right one for your needs.

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Types of light bulb

Each type of light bulb (or lamp, to be technically accurate) has its pros and cons.

Wattage and brightness

Generally, for two light bulbs of the same type, the one that uses more watts will be the brighter. LED light bulbs use less power compared to CFLs, halogens and incandescent lights.

When CFLs first appeared, they usually had an "incandescent equivalent" guide on their packaging, to help consumers choose the right model (e.g. "equivalent to 60W"). But incandescent equivalence is an imprecise measure of light output, and in any case incandescent light bulbs have been largely out of the market for many years, so it won't mean much to many people these days. 

Most lamps now state their light output in lumens (lm), which is more accurate and useful, as long as you know what the numbers mean.

Features and specifications

All about the technical specs and features of light bulbs, and how light fittings can shorten their lifespan.

Price and lifespan

LED light bulbs may look pretty expensive, especially if you're old enough to remember buying incandescent globes for less than a dollar each. Are LED light bulbs worth the price? The short answer is yes. 

Here's a quick comparison of four light bulbs – LED, CFL, halogen and incandescent – and their costs for one year of use. We assume five hours' use per day and electricity price of 30c/kWh. These bulbs would be roughly equivalent in light output.

  • 10W LED: Price $5. Yearly energy use 18.25kWh. Running cost $5.48.
  • 12W CFL: Price $6.50. Yearly energy use 21.9kWh. Running cost $6.57.
  • 46W Halogen: Price $4. Yearly energy use 83.95kWh. Running cost $25.19.
  • 60W Incandescent: Price $1. Yearly energy use 109.5kWh. Running cost $32.85. (Note that these aren't actually currently available in Australia.)

Even with a slightly higher initial price, LED and CFL light bulbs pay for themselves quickly through their much lower running costs.

And remember that halogens and incandescents usually only last a year or two. Claimed life expectancy for CFLs typically ranges from 6000 to 15,000 hours (about three to eight years, assuming five hours' use per day). LED lamps claim 15,000 to 35,000+ hours (about eight to 19 years). Both types do fade over time, CFLs much more so than LEDs.

When we tested light bulbs in the past, the results showed that while a few LED light bulbs didn't last the distance, most did, especially those from major brands. We had several on test for 14,000 hours or more – up to 30,000 hours (equivalent to 16 years' use) in some cases. Read about what we found.

To get the best lifespan from your LED light bulbs, avoid putting them in small enclosed light fittings where the trapped heat will cause them to deteriorate faster.

How to dispose of old light bulbs

Light bulbs should not go into your household recycling bin. The glass is likely to break, and CFLs contain small amounts of mercury which is a health hazard. 

  • CFLs can be safely recycled (to reclaim the mercury in them, for instance, and prevent it going to landfill) at local council recycling centres. If a CFL breaks in your home, you need to be careful how you clean up the broken pieces (due to the possible exposure to mercury); here's a guide on how to clean up a broken CFL.
  • LED light bulbs contain some electronic parts and should be treated as e-waste. They can also be recycled at council recycling centres.
  • Incandescent and halogen bulbs can also be disposed of at recycling centres, but if need be these can be safely disposed of in regular household rubbish; just wrap them in paper to prevent broken glass getting among the other rubbish.

There are some commercial recycling schemes for light bulbs, and some large stores such as IKEA have recycling points in store where customers can dispose of light bulbs and other items such as old batteries. Some businesses (including CHOICE) have specialised waste disposal bins on their premises for their employees to dispose of these items.

Check with your local council for your recycling options, or have a look at Recycling Near You.

Cost

CFL and halogen light bulbs typically range in price from about $2 to $8. LED light bulbs range in price from about $3 to $20+.