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Are LED Fluorescent Tubes Ready for Prime Time?

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LED light technology has progressed to the point where it may be ready to replace traditional fluorescent light tubes in commercial buildings.

By Houston Neal, Posted May 6, 2010

LED-tube Light emitting diode (LED) fluorescent tubes are all the rage in the lighting market. The technology promises to be more energy efficient, less environmentally harmful and more economical than traditional fluorescent tube lighting. Regardless, there is a lot of debate over whether they are ready for widespread commercial use.

We recently came across this very debate being held in a LinkedIn electrical construction group. It was a heated thread with two electrical contractors hashing out the pros and cons of using LED fluorescent tubes. To continue our series of articles on “green” construction, we thought we’d tackle the issue ourselves. So here we present our findings on LED fluorescent tubes.

What is a LED Fluorescent Tube?

“LED fluorescent tube” is a misnomer. LED lights and fluorescent lights are completely different technologies. LEDs are very small bulbs illuminated by movement of electrons in a diode. Fluorescent bulbs use electrodes and a gas combination of argon and mercury to produce light. So the name “LED fluorescent tube” really refers to an LED tube that reminds us of traditional fluorescent tubes (likely above your head as you read this).

LED lights should also not be confused with compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs. CFLs use the same technology as fluorescent tubes to produce light, but on a smaller scale. They are a replacement for the incandescent bulbs commonly found in most home light fixtures. CFLs have garnered a lot of press because of their energy efficiency and environmental benefits (i.e. they use less power).

An LED tube is made up of hundreds of individual LEDs. They come in a variety of sizes (2, 4 or 6 feet), different temperatures (i.e. different colors of light) and varying arrays of LEDs. They can be purchased with new fixtures, or used for retrofitting existing fixtures. But keep in mind, they don’t require ballasts, so those will need to be removed when replacing fluorescent bulbs.

When comparing LEDs to fluorescent tubes, here are four key specifications you should review:

  • Lumens – This is the unit of measurement for strength of light. Look for tubes with 1500 lumens or more.
  • Watts – This is a unit of measurement for power consumption. Four foot LED tubes typically use 15 to 25 watts, while fluorescent tubes use more than 30 watts.
  • Lifespan – This is how long the bulb will last. It’s measured in hours. 50,000 hours is common for LED tubes.
  • Color temperature – The temperature of the light is the color of the light. It is measured in units of absolute temperature, or Kelvin (K). 3000K is considered warm (yellowish), 4100K is considered neutral, and 5800 K is cool (bluish).

Pros and Cons of LED and Fluorescent Tubes

To give recognition where it’s due, fluorescent tubes are a great invention. They have been lighting most of America ever since GE brought them to market back in 1938. They are four to six times more energy efficient than incandescent bulbs and are said to last 10 to 20 times longer. Of course there are disadvantages too.

Fluorescent tubes contain mercury and phosphor which present health and environmental risks. Lights require a ballast which adds to the cost of the lamp and can cause a buzzing noise. Finally, they flicker and the light is often drab.

Meanwhile, LED bulbs last longer than fluorescents, they don’t contain harmful ingredients like mercury and they use much less power than fluorescent lamps. And this is just for starters. LEDs aren’t perfect though. The tubes are generally not as bright and cost more up front. And unfortunately, cost will likely be the number one driver of greater adoption. So let’s compare the costs of each.


Costs of LED Tubes vs Fluorescent Tubes

The debate over LED vs fluorescent tubes always teeters at the cost argument. When comparing the upfront cost of one LED tube to one fluorescent tube, fluorescent wins. However, when you consider volume discounts and the lifespan of LEDs, the scale leans the opposite direction. Let’s compare the costs of each.

This table compares the first-year cost of a single commercial-grade (i.e. UL and CE compliant), four foot T8 LED tube to a four foot T8 fluorescent tube. To measure kilowatts per year, we assumed the lights would be on for 12 hours a day and 255 days a year. We used an average energy rating of 20 watts per hour for LEDs and 32 for fluorescents. To calculate energy cost, we used an average cost per kilowatt of $0.11.


Clearly fluorescents are less expensive in the first year. However, when you account for product longevity, LED tubes are the winner. LED tubes last an average of 50,000 hours (roughly 16 years) while fluorescent T8 tubes last an average of 25,000 (roughly 8 years). To determine this, we looked at every fluorescent T8 tube that Sylvania offers (nearly 150) and calculated average lifespan. To be precise, it was 24,787.67 hours.

In this next table, we compare the 16-year cost (the lifespan of an LED tube) of 40 LED tubes compared to 40 fluorescent tubes. In this example, the number 40 is somewhat arbitrary. We have twenty, 2′ x 4′ fixtures in our office, so we chose 40 bulbs as our comparison. Keep in mind, fluorescent fixtures require ballasts, so we’ll need to tack on an additional $400 to fluorescent tubes (20 ballasts at $20).

Using prices from our previous table, in the first year it will cost $3,069 for the energy and initial purchase of 40 LED tubes. The fluorescent tubes would cost $1,071. Every year thereafter, the energy costs of LED tubes will be $269, and $431 for the fluorescents. In the eighth year, the fluorescent bulbs will need to be replaced at a cost of $240.

You’ll notice the numbers in our table look a little different. That’s because we’ve included an annual energy inflation rate of 5%. We also used a 2.5% inflation rate to calculate the cost of the replacement fluorescent bulbs in the eighth year. Finally, we used a 6% discount rate to determine the net present value (NPV).


As our table reveals, the 16-year cost for 40 LED tubes is $6,431 while the cost for fluorescent tubes is $6,846. This is 6% in savings over the life of the tubes. Keep in mind, this is only 40 tubes. Building owners with more light fixtures will realize more savings as the volume discount will be greater and energy costs will be lower. So, over the lifespan of the product, LED tubes are more cost effective than fluorescent tubes.

A Bright Future for LED Tubes

The cost of manufacturing LEDs is dropping. Researchers at Purdue University have developed a way to create LEDs using inexpensive, metal-coated silicon wafers instead of expensive sapphire-based bulbs. This has the potential to bring the cost down to levels competitive with fluorescent tubes. You can stay up to date on news of this development over at the Eartheasy blog.

In the meantime, there’s no reason electrical contractors shouldn’t promote LED tubes. LED tubes can help building owners become eligible for government and utility company incentives. They help companies reach the desirable – and highly marketable – green cachet. They provide greater energy cost savings than fluorescents. And finally, they are simply better for the Earth. They are the future of commercial lighting.

This article was originally published on Electrical Software Advice, by Houston Neal. Read the original article here.

Posted in Science and Transportation Tags , , ,
  • That's fantastic news. I've been waiting for an LED option that syncs with current hardware. Here it is!

  • Greg Seaman

    Good point Chris. The first commercial LEDs came out long ago in the form of traffic lights. The initial cost was high but when you factored in the cost or replacing a traffic light, the LED option was by far the least expensive.
    Many warehouses with high ceilings have to pay a worker to get on a ladder and climb up to these fixtures. Again, replacing these bulbs with LEDs has lowered the overall cost of lighting.
    There are many commercial applications where LEDs are viable because they save costs associated with replacing bulbs.

  • Alan T

    In theory the cost savings over 16yrs is a plus but you failed to include the cost of change over. First you have to remove the fixture for a new one or you have to remove the balast connections in the fixture. Either way it adds an additional cost that would obviously be in excess of the $460 savings over 16 (cough cough) years. I also doubt the disposal cost of mecury filled florescent bulbs would negate the cost to switch to LED bulbs. The only real savings could come by the future cost of the LED tubes, and that would have to be atleast a 30% cost reduction. *30% is a rough guess

    • Greg Seaman

      Good points.
      We see businesses installing the new LED tubes once the old flourescents need replacing. There is no added cost since the replacement had to be made anyway. Additional cost savings of the LED come with the extended life, meaning no future replacement for years. Replacement costs are high for tube lights, since a ladder is usually needed, and a maintenance person's time.
      I agree that a 30% price drop would add to the cost viability of these tubes. LED prices are going down as technology advances and demand grows – it's realistic to expect a 30% drop in the not too distant future.

  • Joe

    You're forgetting that in the 16th year both sets of tubes will have to be replaced, The LED's for the first time and the fluorescents for the second. Factor in the cost of buying 40 LED tubes and 40 fluorescent tubes again in the 16th year and see how the cost analysis tips back in favor of the fluorescents.

    Not taking price inflation into account, adding an additional $3069 to the LED column gives a total of $9501 while adding an additional $1070 to the fluorescent side gives a total of $7916 so you actually SAVE $1585 over 16 years with the fluorescents.

    • Greg Seaman

      Joe, your point is a good one. But one considerable factor which underscores the relative cost benefit of the LED tubes is cost of replacement. not just for the tubes but for the labor cost in replacing the fluorescents after the 8 year period.

      The main reason our customers give us for buying the LEDs is the savings on labor cost of replacing the tubes. Fluorescent or LED tube fixtures are usually installed overhead, at heights of 8' – 12', requiring a ladder and maintenance person for the replacement. The article also assumes the comparative cost of the two bulb types will remain the same over 16 years. In the past ten years, the cost of fluorescents has remained stable, while the costs of LEDs have gone down considerably. It is reasonable to assume the cost of LED tubes will be much lower in 16 years than the cost today, since so much research is being put into getting the cost down on LEDs.

      • Joe

        But even if you assume you have a maintenance guy paid $25/hr to replace the tubes, it shouldn't take more than 2 hours to replace 40 tubes so $50 the first time and $50 the second time adds only $100 to the total for the fluorescent side and $50 for the one time the LED's need replacing resulting a cost of $9551 for LED and $8016 for the fluorescents. You don't save enough on labor to make up the difference in the replacement cost.

        • Greg Seaman

          Your estimate serves to illustrate why most LED tubes are sold in case lots only. They effect costs savings in large installations, where replacement costs are factored in. Smaller businesses with fewer tubes, in more accessible installations, will see reduced savings.

          Our warehouse uses a cherry picker to change fluorescents. The cost is high. Spaces which have ladder accessible fixtures will have one person on the ladder with one or two below to steady it. $50 to replace 40 tubes is a pretty low estimate.

          The cost of LEDs is on a downward trend. A 60 watt incandescant equivalent, for example, costs about 1/2 of the price listed three years ago. In 16 years, the cost of LEDs will be significantly lower again. Using today's LED costs for a comparison in 2027 is unrealistic. There is fierce competition among manufacturers today which is driving the LED price steadily downwards.

  • bystander

    I don’t see the energy savings listed. LED light require muchless electricity!

Blog > Science and Transportation > Are LED Fluorescent Tubes Ready for Prime Time?