LED lights are the now and future of household lighting. These lights are just as versatile as other types of household lighting, but last much longer, making them a sound economical choice. Unlike incandescent bulbs, they remain cool to the touch. Additionally, unlike Compact Fluorescent Lights (CFLs), LED lights do not contain mercury that can spill if dropped, making them a safer choice for household use.

LEDs, which stand for Light Emitting Diodes, burn light 90 percent more efficiently than incandescent bulbs. LEDs work by passing an electrical current through a microchip, which causes tiny light emitting diodes to illuminate. The resulting light is what we get when we flip the switch.

Lighting ball hanging from the ceiling
credit: VICHAILAO/iStock/GettyImages
What Are LED Lights Used For

History

LEDs are older than you might think. They've actually been around for over 50 years. Scientist Nick Holonyak was trying to create a laser in 1962. He created that laser, and colored it red using gallium arsenide phosphide. The red color helped him see the light from the diode. Holonyak was not trying to replace incandescent lightbulbs when he made the laser. He did, however, realize that LED had potential as a light source.

He was right. But the LED light industry grew slowly. At first, IBM used LEDs in circuit boards. In the 1970s, LEDs were in digital watches and calculators. By the late 1980s, LEDs were used in traffic lights and brake lights.

Slow Acceptance

LEDs didn't become synonymous with household lighting until the early 2000s. Today, if you go into Home Depot or Lowe's, LEDs take up a good part of the light bulb section. However, LEDs actually have more uses than traditional lighting technologies. They can be used in more shapes and sizes, from a candle-shaped decorative chandelier bulbs to large outdoor bulbs.

They were once expensive, but that's changing. LEDs are much cheaper when you factor in the electrical cost to burn either a CFL or incandescent bulb. LEDs last three times longer than CFLs and 20 times longer than incandescent bulbs. LEDs emit light in a specific direction, so it took some engineering to get lights that shine in all directions, the way traditional household lights do.

Colors

Common LED colors are amber, red, green and blue. In order to produce white light, different colors are combined and phosphor is added to the lights to provide that familiar white light. The colored LED lights are now widely used in holiday lights as well as computers, TVs and other electronic products.

Lumens or Watts?

To give you an idea of how much electricity you save when you use LEDs, an Energy Star certified LED bulb that gives off 800 lumens of brightness will cost $1.26 per year to burn. That same brightness from a halogen (a form of incandescent) bulb will cost about $6.02 per year to burn. Look for lumens, rather than watts when buying bulbs. Lumens indicate light output, while watts indicates energy consumed. Energy Star has a chart which compares watts used to lumens. A 40-watt bulb, for example, compares to a 450 lumen LED light. Most LED light bulb packaging provides this comparison.

Heat or No?

LED lights make a heat sink, which is why the bulbs don't feel hot to the touch. Most lights have a metal collar to absorb that heat. This means you're not feeling heat from your lights in summer.

LEDs in Your House

An LED light can last for years before it needs to be changed. According to Home Depot, a typical LED light that burns an average of three hours a day will last 22 years. That makes them ideal for those hard-to-reach areas, like fixtures on high ceilings or outdoor lights. There's an LED light for nearly every lamp you own, including accent lighting, track lighting, lamps and outdoor spotlights. You can buy them in bright white (which has a bluish-tinged light), soft light (which is yellow-tinted and warm looking) or daylight, which is ideal for security lights.

Beware of environmental conditions, as one thing that will shorten an LED bulb's lifespan is excessive heat in the area where the bulb is being used. LED lights don't burn out the way other light bulbs do. Instead, they usually fade toward the end of their lifespan.

Disposal

LED lights are easy to dispose of, unlike CFLs. Used LED lights can be recycled or tossed in the trash. Recycling is a good idea, because LEDs have many parts that can be reused and given a second life. Many prefer LEDs because CFLs have about four milligrams of mercury in each bulb. If a CFL bulb breaks, you must clean the area immediately and dispose of the debris in a sealed plastic bag. Do not vacuum it. If the CFL bulb is not broken, you should take it to an approved recycling location. Home Depot and Lowe's accept old CFLs, as do many local hazardous waste recycling centers. Incandescent lights can be tossed in the trash.