Sometimes, the cheapest bulb of all is the kind you don't have to spend any money to replace!

Are LED holiday lights worth the extra money?

Christmas decor leads to so many questions. For example, there's the conflict-ridden, "When should we put up the tree?" and the equally nerve-wracking, "Is it time to stop doing live wreaths?" Or how about the one that even the three wise men might struggle with: "How many outdoor lights are too many?" 

In recent years, as LED technology has become so popular and pervasive, there's a new question to add to the mix: "Are LED Christmas lights worth the extra money?"

But glad tidings accompany this question: There's a pretty straightforward answer that accommodates both frugality and sustainability.

And unlike those pesky strings of tree lights, you don't have to untangle the answers alone. Instead, follow this jolly checklist from cost- and style-conscious experts to arrive at the right decision:

What's my cost tolerance?

There's no denying that LED lights will cost more, according to advice in Clark from Andy Prescott, a CPA and the author of the ArtOfBeingCheap.com website. He noted that strings of 100 ordinary lights ran about $2 and their LED counterparts cost around $11. Even if you value all the other benefits of LED lights, you may not be able to handle the initial outlay, financially or emotionally.

How old is my current setup? 

The greatest cost-effectiveness for LED lights accrues to people who are buying holiday lights for the first time or are already planning to replace their current light show. That's because the savings in energy costs and not having to replace the bulbs as quickly can take years to play out.

Prescot, for example, tested a string of each type of light by plugging them into his household wattage meter and seeing how many kilowatts each burned through. "I found that the LED bulbs used much less electricity, using about .0022 kWh per hour compared to .0408 kWh per hour for the regular Christmas lights," he commented.

His findings dovetail pretty closely with findings from Terry McGowan, director of engineering for the American Lighting Association, as reported in Consumer Reports. He calculated that a string of 50 mini-LED holiday lights saves just 46 cents in electricity, compared to a string of mini-incandescents, when used seven hours a day for the month of December.

"You'll save energy by using LEDs, but the payback time could take many years—it depends on how much you pay for the lights and electricity," CR noted.

How long will I need these lights this year?

Okay, this will bring you to the dangerous exercise of circling back to deciding when your decorations go up and when they come down again. But presuming you're somewhere between Clark Griswold and Tiny Tim, you probably won't save enough on energy to mandate buying LED lights, according to Prescott.

He estimated that someone who put their lights up two weeks before Christmas and kept them up until New Year's, leaving them on 4 hours each day, would take nine years to save about $4 on Christmas lights by buying LED versus ordinary light strings.

"To save $4 over nine years I really wouldn't worry about it too much," he quipped. "You are probably better off just buying whichever Christmas lights you think are the prettiest."

What about making replacements?

This is where LED lights really surge to the top of the "nice" list. While they do cost around 10 times more in the initial investment, they last much, much longer than incandescent bulbs, which may have to be replaced or completely repurchased about every three years.

If you're not into shopping for Christmas decor every few years, the LEDs could be worth that upfront purchase price.

Just how long will they last? "The rated life of an LED bulb is based upon burning hours, and typically life ratings for LED household bulbs are 10,000 hours or more, with some rating as long as 40,000-50,000 hours starting in 2017," according to the American Lighting Association.

More good news: "LED bulbs are not likely to fail by simply burning out," the ALA said. "It is more likely that they will just gradually get dimmer over time. To claim a rated life of 15,000 hours, for example, Energy Star-qualified bulbs must pass sample tests that require they produce no less than 93.1 percent of their initial light output after they have been burning for 3,000 hours."

Any other pluses for LED I should know about?

There are a few other nice amenities offered by the LED bulbs. According to CR, they aren't just lower wattage, they're actually cooler to the touch, which lowers fire risk. The lower wattage also means you can put more strings together without risking blowing a fuse.

And in addition to simply lasting more hours, the LED lights are more durable and shock resistant, because unlike incandescent lights, they don't have filaments or glass.

Other ways to buy the best holiday lights

No matter whether you're hot for LED or just in the market to reduce your holiday energy spending, CR also recommended taking these steps:

Make yours a mini: "Changing from the traditional C7 bulbs to the mini type reduces operating costs by over 90 percent, but the LED bulbs increase the reduction to 98 percent," McGowan noted.

Not all LED bulbs are created equal, so follow consumer advice before buying new LED strings.
Photo: Contributed by Grand Forks Air Force Base/For the AJC

Shop in the dark: Examine displays of holiday lights that are already illuminated or ask the vendor to light 'em up. This is how you get the right light color you want from either type of strand.

Check out the apps: For more fun at any price point, look for the increased numbers of apps that let you change your house light colors. (Hello, Clark!)

Rev up the rebates: Before you hit the home stores, search online for utility rebates. Also, some stores will let you trade your old incandescent light strands for a discount on LED lights.

Wrap the tree: To save time and energy (the electric-bill kind and yours, too), consider just wrapping the trunk and the first couple feet up of the trees in your yard or along the sidewalk. McGowan also advised using strings that allow six inches or fewer between light bulbs.

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