It’s the age-old battle of LED and incandescent lights. And given the direction LED has been going in the past decade, it’s eventual domination of all things lighting seems highly likely. Still, there’s something to be said for the good, old-fashioned incandescent bulb and it’s candle-like glow.
Today, we’ll be delving into some of the best reasons for both LED and incandescent bulbs when it comes to choosing string lights. I’ll cover the overall costs of the lights and some points of functionality then boil it down to one answer. Only LED or incandescent will survive!
It’s LED vs incandescent string lights–let’s see how this all goes down. . .
The Initial Cost
The initial cost of lights can be a big factor in deciding what type to buy, especially if you don’t have long-term plans in mind. It’s pretty well-established that incandescent lights are a lot cheaper than LEDs, but the exact price depends on the quality of the lights and where you buy them.
I wanted to know exactly how much more expensive LEDs were than incandescents, but since I couldn’t find any exact numbers online, I decided to get the information myself.
I picked ten different LED and incandescent strings lights from three different websites and found their average price per mini-bulb. The websites are Amazon, The Christmas Light Emporium, and Walmart.
(Note that I didn’t factor in things like special feature costs, sales, and bulk discounts, so the numbers will be somewhat rough. But they’ll be good enough for our purposes.)
Here’s the data:
-LED – 13 cents
-Incandescent – 10 cents
(1.4 times more)
The Christmas Light Emporium
-LED – 29 cents
-Incandescent – 12 cents
(2.4 times more)
-LED – 27 cents
-Incandescent – 20 cents
(1.3 times more)
-LED – 23 cents
-Incandescent – 14 cents
(1.7 times more)
Some of those numbers are a bit surprising. I’m not sure how Walmart almost beat out The Christmas Light Emporium, since CLE specializes in all things lighting. Maybe Walmart just likes to be expensive, who knows. And Amazon obviously has the lowest prices as most of their stuff is dirt cheap.
But whatever the case, it seems clear that LEDs are always at least a little bit more expensive than incandescents. So chalk one up for incandescent lights.
The Cost of Electricity
Initially, incandescents are cheaper than LEDs. They’re great if you’re going to put them up at Christmas and throw them away after New Year’s. But if you’re going to put lights up in your room as a permanent feature, incandescents may end up costing you a pretty penny in electric bills.
At least, that’s what they all say.
Incandescent bulbs use ten times more electricity than LED bulbs, according to stats on Wikipedia. However, numbers can often be deceiving. For example, if your friend tells you that he just quadrupled all the money in his bank account, you’d probably be impressed. . .until you find out that he only had 10 bucks.
So how much more should you expect to pay for incandescent lights? And how long will it take for your electricity bill to catch up with your initial savings? Is it even worth worrying about?
Let’s figure that out. Here are the important stats:
- In the US, the average electricity cost is 13.19 cents for every 1,000 watt hours, according to electricchoice.com.
- LED mini-bulbs use 0.048 watts and incandescent mini-bulbs use 0.2 watts, according to wired.com.
- LEDs cost 23 cents per bulb and incandescents cost 14 cents per bulb, according to our calculations above.
If we bought an incandescent bulb and an LED bulb and connected them to a power source, it would take 4,478 hours or 187 days of the lights running continuously for the LEDs to be worth the money.
Those numbers are pretty high, but even if incandescents used 3 times their normal energy, it would still take about 50 days for LEDs to catch up. And if LEDs cost 15 cents instead of 23 cents, it would take 7 days.
So, it doesn’t really seem like LEDs are as cost-efficient as everyone says. Even given extremely optimized circumstances, it takes 7 days straight for LEDs to make up a single cent. But that doesn’t mean LEDs are out of the game yet. We have yet to discuss light bulb lifetimes–and that’s where the tables turn.
Light Bulb Longevity
The numbers in the previous section weren’t looking too good for LEDs. Even if you used the lights all the time, it would probably take a year for the costs to even out. But there is one thing I didn’t mention: the incandescent bulbs would likely burn out mid-June.
If incandescent bulbs lasted as long as LEDs, I would choose them in a heartbeat. But incandescent bulbs are pretty much designed to break. Incandescence is the light resulting from things getting hot, and heat has a way of deconstructing things. Light bulbs are no exception.
Looking at the numbers on WIkipedia, incandescent bulbs last for about 1,000 hours while LEDs can last upwards to 30,000 hours. There’s no competition here–LEDs win in a landslide.
Assuming you used incandescent and LED lights for a total of 30,000 hours, the cost would have to include incandescent replacement lights, which would add up quickly.
If we calculated the cost of a string of 100 LED lights and 100 incandescent lights using the figures in the previous section, assuming they’ll be going for 30,000 hours and the incandescents being replaced every 1000 hours, we end up with the following:
= (initial cost + 30,000 hours) x 100 bulbs
= (23 cents + 30,000 x 0.00063 cents) x 100
= (30 x initial cost + 30,000 hours) x 100 bulbs
= (30 x 14 cents + 30,000 x 0.00264 cents) x 100
Of course, these numbers are assuming you use the lights for 30,000 hours, which is about 3.5 years straight. So realistically, it would take you about ten to twenty years to rack up that bill.
However, those numbers are still for a single hundred-bulb string. Chances are, you’ll want more than that for your living space, and that will make those numbers a little more intimidating.
So what can we conclude about the cost of incandescents vs LEDs? Well, I think incandescent lights are better for a one-hit wonder and LEDs are better for a permanent setup, but only because incandescent bulbs break a lot.
However, as far as the initial price of incandescent bulbs go, you could easily find a bunch of them at a garage sale or something and they would basically be free. And LEDs aren’t exactly free bin material.
So, LEDs don’t really save much in terms of your electric bill, but they can save you money on replacements. But what about if money isn’t an object? Which one wins in terms of what they can do?
(PS: if you want the full rundown of the LED / incandescent cost battle, be sure to check out this post where I go into a lot more detail)
Setting the price tag aside, let’s talk about how incandescents and LEDs differ in terms of how they work. The reason this matters is that incandescents may do things that LEDs don’t, and vice versa–and if you don’t realize the difference, you may be disappointed in your choice.
Max # of Strings in a Chain
With typical Christmas lights, the maximum number of strings you can connect together without fail is the number before the chain starts drawing over three amps of current. This is because Christmas lights have fuses that will disintegrate when exposed to more than three amps of current.
To throw some numbers out there, if you had a string of 100 incandescent bulbs that drew 0.33 amps, you could connect 9 of them together at best. In contrast, an LED string would likely only draw 0.04 amps, which means you could connect a whopping 75 of them together without blowing a fuse.
So, it’s clear that LEDs take the cake in this department. No sane person is ever going to plug 7,500 mini bulbs into one outlet. For all practical purposes, you don’t have to think twice about how many LEDs you hang up or where you plug them in.
(If you want to learn exactly how to figure how many strings can be plugged in together and what would happen if you plugged a hundred incandescent strings into one outlet, be sure to read this article.)
When LEDs Just Don’t Dim
The way incandescent bulbs work is very simple. The metal thing in the bulb gets hot and then it glows. If you want less light, you simply turn down the heat.
But LEDs are not so simple. In fact, they’re so complicated, each individual bulb requires a mini circuit board that limits the voltage to the diode so it doesn’t blow. The way it produces light is through a very complex system that requires very specific conditions to function.
As you might now be guessing, dimming an LED takes more than just “turning the heat down” so to speak. Honestly, I can’t say exactly why LEDs don’t always dim or what makes certain LEDs dimmable, but all you really need to know is that you can’t count on them.
So, if you buy a really cheap string of LEDs, you’ll probably find that your dimmer doesn’t work on them. They’ll usually end up flashing and then shutting off as you lower the voltage.
If your life depends on your string lights being dimmable, just get incandescents.
(For more info on the dimming of LEDs, check out this post)
That Annoying Flickering
You’ve probably seen one of those fluorescent lights in a basement that gives off an unsettling blue flicker. LEDs aren’t as bad as those (at least, not nowadays), but they can still create an annoying strobe effect.
Basically, the diodes (the things that produce light) in LEDs only allow electricity to flow in one direction, so when you plug it directly into an outlet (which runs on AC, or alternating current), it will blink 60 times a second (or 60 hertz). This is because the direction of the current switches directions rapidly and the LED will only work with one of the directions.
To detect the flickering, you can just wave your hand or some other object in front of the light. If the movement is chopped up into sections instead of being one continuous blur, you know it’s flickering.
You’ll also find this same flickering when LEDs are dimmed via pulse width modulation (or PMW for short). It basically reduces the amount of time an LED is on by making it flash rapidly, which makes it appear dimmer.
So, if you have sensitive vision, maybe don’t read a book with a cheap LED bulb.
Quality of Light
If you’re using a light to get across a dark room, you probably won’t notice or care about the specific colors of your surroundings. However, if you’re painting a picture under a bad lamp, you may end up with a discolored canvas. This is where CRI comes into play.
CRI stands for “color rendering index” and is a measure of how well a bulb can light up the entire spectrum of colors. For example, a red LED will do a horrible job lighting up a blue shirt because it doesn’t produce any blue light. (Of course, CRI only applies to white lights because colored lights are never used when color rendition is important.)
Basically, a light with a perfect CRI will make a picture look the same as when you hold it out in the sun (or other blackbody light sources, like incandescent bulbs). So, incandescent bulbs will always achieve a perfect CRI score, but LEDs have to work really hard to get a good score.
(BTW, if this relatively inconsequential information is of particular concern to you, you’ll find more of it in this post.)
When you buy a string of colored incandescent bulbs, the different colors are achieved by a coating on the outside of the bulb, which makes it appear red or blue or whatever. This is fine for most decorating and gets the color across, but the color isn’t true.
In comparison, LEDs are capable of producing colors that don’t just turn red or blue, but are actually, honestly that color. Because LEDs are unnatural, it’s possible to fine-tune the chemicals that make up the diode in the light to get it to change color. This makes the colors more vibrant and intense compared to incandescent bulbs.
If you want your display to really pop with color, then LEDs are your friend.
This is a very minor point as it only applies to a very small percentage of incandescent lights, but it’s interesting nonetheless. You’ve probably seen or heard of twinkle lights before, but this twinkle function is actually exclusive to incandescent bulbs given how they work.
To keep it simple, there’s a device in the bulbs that causes the light to turn off when it heats up and then turns back on when it cools. Of course, this happens rapidly and erratically, which gives the bulbs a natural twinkle effect.
And since LED bulbs don’t heat up very much, the best they can do is turn off and on at regular intervals (which can look fine if built properly, but still not as good as incandescent lights).
If you had your heart set on that twinkle effect, then incandescents have you covered.
Potential Fire Hazard
Finally, incandescents heat up waaaay more than LEDs and could potentially start a fire. But that’s not really a danger unless you shove them in a box and leave them on for an hour. (That’s how I got a very “special” copy of Breath of the Wild for my birthday–don’t worry though, it fit perfectly in my Nintendo Switch after few minutes of moderate sanding and ironing.)
The Final Verdict
It’s been an intense battle and both incandescents and LEDs have put up a shockingly good fight. It may be hard to discern which one comes out on top, but before we see who won, let’s tally up the scores to see how they did.
(Note that these numbers are all estimates, so don’t take them too seriously)
Quality of Light
14 cents / bulb
23.1 cents / year / bulb
23 cents / bulb
5.5 cents / year / bulb
Pretty not bad, usually
It’s looks like a very close race here–almost a tie! But I’m not playing the “everyone’s a winner” card today. This thing is nothing less than a death match and only one light bulb will survive.
So, both of our contestants are bruised from battle and badly injured, but one of them summons enough strength to deal the final blow and knock out the other opponent.
Who will emerge the winner? Which one is the superior light bulb?
INCANDESCENT STRING LIGHTS!
Surprisingly, LEDs didn’t survive this one (even I’m surprised).
The reason is simple: incandescent string lights are super intuitive and predictable. The only reason this was a close call was because LEDs can last basically forever, which means no replacements.
But, given that really nice and functional LEDs can cost upwards to fifty bucks for a few strings, it’s really hard not to just go down to your local Fred Meyers on Black Friday and buy three boxes of incandescent lights for ten bucks.
(And if I’m to be completely frank, I sometimes use LEDs because it’s just so nice to not have to replace them. But they really get on my nerves sometimes.)
The bottom line, though, is that it’s really up to your needs. If you needs a quick solution, incandescent bulbs are a no-brainer. If you’re setting up an elaborate display and want it to last years, LEDs will be the better bet. (Dang it, did I just cop out?)
Before you run down to the store, be sure to check out this buying guide!
Yikes! That was a long article. If you made it this far, I applaud your determination. The fight was intense, but we got some interesting results. LEDs may not be as great as they’re hyped up to be and incandescents aren’t the energy hogs we all thought they were, so I’d say it about all evened out. But incandescents are still better.
Hopefully you found this article helpful. If you have any questions or concerns (or just want to write something), then be sure to leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.