I Swapped My Home’s Lightbulbs for LEDs and Saved $1,384 On My Bay Area PGE Bill

Thomas Smith

Photo: Daniele Franchi/Unsplash

When I first bought my house in the San Francisco Bay Area late last year, the place was like a museum of energy inefficiency. Nearly every light fixture in the house used a different kind of power-hogging incandescent or halogen lightbulb. When we got our first monthly electric bill, I nearly fell over — it was $868.

I knew that we needed to make a change. So I researched, bought, and installed modern, highly efficient LED replacements for every fixture in our home’s motley collection of random lights. Through this simple change, we saved $1,384 per year, reduced our potential carbon emissions by almost 4,000 pounds, and dramatically improved the quality of light in our home.

Here’s how we updated each fixture — and how you can save hundreds by swapping out the lights in your own home for modern LEDs.

LED basics

Incandescent bulbs produce light by running electricity through a thin wire filament. They’ve changed little since Thomas Edison popularized them in the 1800s. Incandescent bulbs produce beautiful light, but they’re also wildly inefficient. Much of the power they consume is wasted as heat. The same goes for halogen bulbs, which use a filament in a special gas.

LED bulbs work differently. They run electric power through a diode, converting electrons into photons of light. They’re way more efficient than incandescent bulbs because they waste less power as heat. Modern LEDs can also produce beautiful light rivaling incandescent in quality.

If you last replaced your bulbs with LEDs over five years ago, you probably think of LED bulbs as specialized and super expensive. Until recently, that was true. Many people used Compact Fluorescent Lights (CFLs) instead of LEDs, because they were cheaper and still relatively efficient. CFLs are breakable, though, and contain small amounts of mercury, which can cause issues if a bulb shatters. I once had a CFL fall out of a recessed fixture, shatter on my leg, and cut my skin. I not only had to bandage my leg, but had to vacate the room for an hour while the mercury vapor dissipated.

Today’s LED bulbs come in a wide range of styles, are cheap, superefficient, and potentially safer than CFLs. They’re the obvious choice if you’re replacing bulbs today. An electrician told me that most LEDs either fail immediately (this happens with about 5% of the bulbs) or burn reliably for 30+ years. Once you replace your home’s bulbs with LEDs, you’ll often never have to change a lightbulb again.

Halogen track lights

You wouldn’t look up at a track light like the one in my kitchen and think “that thing is murdering the environment.” But in our case, it kinda was.

Track lights often use a series of small fixtures, each containing a halogen bulb. Halogen bulbs are super bright and very compact. But despite their tiny footprint, a typical halogen track light bulb consumes a ton of electricity — about 50 watts. Our kitchen track light has 12 bulbs, which means it was using 600 watts of power.

That’s a lot of power — about as much as a small microwave, or four desktop computers. Our utility charges $0.32 per kilowatt hour (kWh) for electric power, and we typically use our kitchen track light for about eight hours per day. That means we were using 1,752 kWh and spending $560.64 per year just on that one fixture.

If you have a halogen track light in your home, it’s likely using GU10 bulbs, which have two small prongs instead of a traditional screw-in socket. Several companies make LED replacements for GU10 bulbs. I like Torkase’s bulbs, which are just as bright as a 50-watt halogen bulb but use only 5 watts, are dimmable, and have a rated life of 22 years. They run about $4 apiece. I replaced all the bulbs in my track light with Torkase’s LED bulbs, and we’re now saving about $500 per year as a result.

Recessed cans

Recessed cans are circular lights that are usually installed in ceilings. Some people call them flood lights. They’re sunk into the ceiling by about a foot and usually use a 65-75 watt flood light bulb.

If you have recessed cans in your home, you have two options to replace them with LEDs. The first is to simply buy an LED flood light bulb. General Electric’s Relax line of LED bulbs (more on them later) includes an 8 watt LED flood light bulb which shines as bright as a 65-watt incandescent and has a rated life of 13 years. If your recessed cans are up high, you can use a utility pole and a Stauber bulb changer to swap them out from the floor.

A better option, though, is to replace the whole can with an LED retrofit. Retrofits screw into the bulb socket inside your existing can for power, and then act like a lid covering the can’s opening. Built into the lid is an LED light fixture. Retrofits are nice because they bring the light flush with the ceiling, giving a more modern look. And because they physically seal off the old can, they stop air from leaking through the can and into your ceiling, improving your home’s efficiency.

I had an electrician install Halo retrofits in four recessed cans in my home, although the installation is easy enough that you could do it yourself. Each one consumes 7.9 watts and produces as much light as a 65-watt bulb. Halo’s retrofits have a rated life of 32 years. My four recessed cans, outfitted with 65-watt incandescent bulbs and used for eight hours per day, would burn through 759 kWh of power per year, costing me $242 per year. My new retrofits use only 92 kWh, a savings of 667 kWh or $212 per year.

Sconces, chandeliers, and random fixtures

Want to determine if someone is a homeowner? Ask them what a “sconce” is. If they know the right answer, it’s a good bet that they own a home. One side effect of homeownership, I’ve discovered, is that you develop a deep knowledge of the large set of random light fixture types found in a typical house.

In addition to sconces, there are chandeliers, floor and table lamps, ceiling fan fixtures, pendant lights, globes lights, and many more. In most cases, these fixtures use standard incandescent bulbs. That means it’s often easy to replace them with LEDs just by removing the old incandescent and swapping in an LED equivalent.

For fixtures that take a traditional bulb, I like the Relax and Refresh lines of bulbs from General Electric. Relax bulbs have a low color temperature of around 2,700K, which means they produce an inviting, warm light that is perfect for bedrooms, living spaces, and the like. Refresh bulbs have a higher color temperature of around 4,000K, which means they produce a starker, whiter light appropriate for offices, laundry rooms, and other functional spaces.

Both lines have a dizzying array of different bulb sizes and wattages, ranging from tiny 2.5-watt candelabra bulbs for decorative sconces, all the way up to powerful 19-watt bulbs which replace a traditional 150-watt bulb in big, hefty floor lamps. Most of GE’s bulbs have a rated life of 15,000+ hours, and most use about 20% of the power of their incandescent equivalents. If you want higher-quality light (defined by a higher Coloring Rendering Index and thus a better ability to accurately render colors), you can splurge for bulbs from GE’s Reveal line. You’ll have fewer bulb types to choose from than with Relax or Refresh, but Reveal bulbs produce better light with purer white colors.

My home has a ton of decorative sconces. These were some of the only fixtures where the previous occupants had opted for LED bulbs already, so I didn’t have to swap them all out. But I did end up replacing incandescent bulbs in at least three scones, as well as a ceiling fan, and a big chandelier in my dining room.

The chandelier alone used six 40-watt incandescent bulbs, which means it was consuming about 700 kWh per year of power. I swapped these out for 75-watt equivalent GE Relax bulbs, nearly doubling the light output of the fixture while still reducing its energy consumption by about two-thirds to 227 kWh per year.

If your house is older, it’s a good bet that it has at least one truly bizarre light fixture — one that leaves you scratching your head and thinking “I wonder who thought that was a good idea?” In my home, that questionable light was located in the primary bathroom. Flanking a giant wall mirror were two fixtures that used a series of 12 globe lights, making it look like an opera singer’s dressing room from a bad 1950s melodrama. The lights would have been dated even in 1984 when the home was originally built. And worse, they used about 480 watts of power, which means that running them for three hours per day was costing us 525 kWh, or $168 per year.

LED bulbs have been around for long enough now that someone produces an LED replacement for nearly any strange type of lightbulb. In my case, I was able to find LED globe light replacements from a company called LOHAS. These cut the fixture’s power consumption by a quarter — a great start. But the fixture itself still looked atrocious, so I ultimately called in an electrician to swap it out for two beautiful Kamden fixtures from Tech Lighting.

Tech Lighting’s designer fixtures use permanent LEDs with a rated life of 50,000+ hours, and a 90+ Color Rendering Index. They’re not cheap — my Kamden fixtures cost $501.81 total. But they add a designer touch to the room, and they’re superefficient. Together, they use only 50 watts of power — just 10% of the consumption of my original ugly globe lights.

In some cases, it makes sense to swap out bulbs for LED replacements. But in other cases — like with my terrible globe lights — it’s better to do what I did in our bathroom and change out the whole fixture.

Outdoor lights

Once you’ve swapped out all the lights in your home for LEDs, you’re still not quite done. Most homes have at least a few outdoor lights. My home had five outdoor motion-sensing flood lights which used halogen bulbs. All were in different states of disrepair — a few had only a single working bulb, some had broken motion sensors, and one light didn’t work at all.

I called in an electrician to replace all five fixtures with new Smart Bullet LED flood lights from RAB. The lights include a built-in motion sensor and light sensor, use 24 watts of power, and produce as much light as a 150 watt halogen flood light. You can opt to have them switch on automatically when it gets dark, or to switch on only when they detect motion. The lights have a rated life of 100,000 hours, which means you could use them from dawn to dusk every night for 22 years without issue.

I also had the electrician install several strings of decorate globe lights from Hampton Bay. These lights produce a relatively small amount of light, but they add a lot of ambiance to your yard. Especially as people are spending more time at home during Covid-19, globe lights have become all the rage. I opted for commercial-quality globe lights, like those you’d find on the outdoor patio of a restaurant.

I use my flood lights with their motion-sensor setting, so they’re not on all night. That means the energy savings from my outdoor lighting changes are modest — I calculated that I use them for about one hour per night, so switching to LEDs took me from using 273 kWh per year to 43.

But the benefits in terms of increased security and reduced maintenance (try getting up on a ladder every few months to switch out halogen bulbs) still made LEDs the best choice for my outdoor lighting. And a patio adorned with globe lights — hanging above a fire pit and chicken coop and anchored to a fence beside a redwood tree — makes me feel like I’m living the California dream.

My results

All told, switching to LEDs allowed me to save 4,326 kWh of power per year.

At $0.32 per kWh, that’s a savings of $1,384.32 per year in electrical costs — not bad for switching out some bulbs and a few fixtures. I estimate that I spent around $1,200 on my move to LED lights, including the cost of my fancy designer bathroom lights and outdoor lighting. That means I’ll break even on my project in about 11 months. If you opted to just replace bulbs instead of swapping out whole fixtures, you could probably realize similar energy savings with a tiny fraction of my initial investment.

There’s another benefit to switching to LEDs, too. The power from my utility PGE already comes from 100% renewable sources, but most power doesn’t. On average, 1 kWh of power generated in the United States results in the release of .92 lbs of CO2. That means that in an average city, my project’s savings of 4,325 kWh per year would prevent the release of 3,979 lbs of CO2. That’s almost two tons of carbon kept out of the atmosphere — a huge deal.

Moving to LEDs will save me almost $14,000 over a decade, and it’s already made my home brighter, more modern, and more livable. Switching out your own lights can also save a literal ton of CO2 from contaminating the air and contributing to global warming. That’s quite the improvement for such a simple change, and one that most people could implement in a weekend. If you have incandescent lights in your home, find alternatives and join me in making the switch to LEDs today.

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Award-winning entrepreneur, and the co-founder and CEO of Gado Images. Thomas writes, speaks and consults about artificial intelligence, privacy, food, photography, tech, and the San Francisco Bay Area. As a professional photographer, Thomas' photographic work regularly appears in publications worldwide. Pitches/news tips: tom@gadoimages.com

Lafayette, CA

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