A Lightbulb That Lasts 'Forever'

The appeal of LED bulbs.

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I hate changing light bulbs. First, chances are good that we won’t have the bulb I need, so a trip to a big-box store is unavoidable. Then the bulb that needs changing is often in a fixture that’s a pain to open or in a high ceiling. And finally, I have a penchant for dropping bulbs in the process, which then requires an extraction team to get the shards of glass up and a HAZMAT team if it happens to be a CFL bulb (nothing like mercury in a household fixture).

I was excited to learn this week that some bulbs last "forever." Notice the pesky quotes around the word forever, which no doubt signals a fly in the ointment? In this case, forever means approximately 45.6 years, assuming the bulb burns for three hours each day (comes out to about 50,000 hours if you’ve been following along with your calculator). But since the average person moves 11.6 times in his or her lifetime, 45.6 years for a bulb is an eternity.

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So what is this magical bulb? Remarkably, it’s nothing more than a standard LED replacement bulb. Consumer Reports recently released its 2011 study on CFL and LED bulbs, and the LED scored remarkably well. These energy-efficient light bulbs last anywhere from 20,000 to 50,000 hours, consume a lot less energy than the old familiar incandescent (which is basically a heat source that gives off light as a byproduct), and can save consumers a load of cash over the life of the bulb.

I should hasten to add, however, that LED bulbs don’t come cheap. LED bulbs range from about $20 to $40 or more each. Considering that you can buy an incandescent bulb for less than 50 cents apiece, $40 for an LED looks alarming high. And the fact is it takes on average of about four to 10 years to recoup the cost of an LED through lower energy bills and fewer bulb replacements. In contrast, you break even on a CFL in about a year.

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But if you are a long-term investor, LED bulbs are great way to save money. Consumer Reports estimates that you can save between “$65 and $400 over the 18- to 46-year life of the LED compared with an incandescent bulb.” Just remember to take the LED bulbs with you when you move!

DR is the founder of the popular personal finance blog, the Dough Roller, and author of 99 Painless Ways to Save Money.