What is the difference between LED and incandescent lights, really?

October 12, 2016


If you’ve been opening our newsletters over the last couple of weeks, you tracked down your lights and recorded them in your inventory spreadsheet and you’ve plugged your lights in to see what works  and what doesn’t.

Now, it’s time to make a decision:

LED or Incandescent?

For some, the decision involves weeks of hand wringing and others just go with what they like the look of and that’s that.

For the undecided, here are a few features to help you make that important decision:

Incandescent Christmas Lights

  • More economical
  • Warm rich color
  • Wide variety of bulb spacing, lengths and wire color
  • Bulbs can be replaced
  • Can be dimmed and used in automation
  • Less susceptible to damage from electrical surges
  • Throws a lot of light – you can almost read by a few traditional C9 bulbs
  • Painted or retro option in C7/C9 bulbs
  • Higher electricity usage can be offset by using timers for peak viewing time
  • Visible from a longer distance away
  • More options in installation hardware
  • Perfect choice for weddings and parties when lights will see just a few hours of total use


These features are offset by:

  • Typically made of glass – they break, buy an extra string or 25 extra bulbs
  • You can run a limited number of bulbs or light strings in series
  • Can fade in bright sunshine
  • Can overload a household breaker
  • Less variety in bulb shape
  • Heats up under operation


LED Christmas Lights

  • Brilliant fade-resistant color
  • Only dimmable if listed in specifications
  • Pure and warm whites can be perceived to be brighter than incandescent lights in some applications – new technology LED bulbs are brighter every year
  • Ease of installation – run as many as 80 in series (does not apply to LED bulbs installed in traditional 18 AWG socket cord – max 250 feet in a single run)
  • Fewer extension cords
  • Up to 90% less electricity usage
  • Non-breakable polycarbonate/plastic lenses (light covers – ranging in shape from small cylinder to larger cone shapes like C7 or C9)
  • Huge variety of lens shapes – small cylinder, round, cone-shaped, mini-icicle, etc.
  • Warm or pure white options to choose from
  • Uses the latest in LED technology
  • Cool operation – only increases a virtually imperceptible amount when in use (LED lights are still electrical devices, operate under supervision)


These features are offset by:

  • Higher initial cost that may not be offset due to environmental degradation
  • Most visible in full darkness – may not a good choice in areas with tons of ambient lighting – test a string first
  • Wiring harness vulnerable to UV exposure, critters and weather damage
  • Color changes a little after burn in – most noticeable in white where lens is not dyed the same color as the LED
  • Less variety in spacing – usually 4 or 8 inches apart
  • Most sets are on green wire
  • Susceptible to surges on the electrical line – mitigated by always using a surge protector
  • Most C7/C9 bulbs are not dimmable and cannot be used in automation (mitigated by choosing dimmable C7/C9 bulbs when required)

I hope this list is useful to you as you make your Christmas light display decision this season.

Ultimately, even with all the pros and cons, facts and figures, what Christmas light approach you take is going to be determined by your taste and goals for the look of your Christmas light display.

If you are in doubt, pick up a string or two lights of both or either style and test them out in full darkness.

Go with your gut and enjoy.

See our full selection of light strings, bulbs and installation hardware as you make your plans at Christmas LightSource.

Shellie Gardner
Aside from throwing dinner parties that feature at least two kinds of cheese dip, Shellie's passions include travel, Mid-Century Modern furnishings and finding the perfect street taco. Has been known to snort laugh champagne.

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