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LED vs CFL (Fluorescent): Choosing Grow Lights for Indoor Plants

Katy's garden of herbs, peppers and greens is constantly expanding as she learns new techniques and tries new plants!

Grow Light Comparison: LED vs CFL Bulbs

There are many options for grow lights for your indoor garden. You'll be confronted with many choices, it can get overwhelming!

Choosing whether to buy LEDs or CFL is one of those choices. While neither choice is bad, it's worth doing research before you buy.

Each type of light lends itself to different growing operations. Learn about the advantages and disadvantages of each and where I use both types in my indoor garden.

CFL (Fluorescent) Bulbs

CFL grow lights have been an excellent choice for growing indoor plants for decades.

Even if you're not an avid indoor gardener you will recognize the spiral CFLs you see in stores. The T5 tubes are another type of fluorescent that is popular for plants.

Advantages

  • Cheap
  • Widely Available

Disadvantages

  • Less Efficient
  • Diffuses Light
Fluorescent tubes

Fluorescent tubes

LEDs (Light Emitting Diodes)

LED grow lights are relatively new, appearing on the market in the last 10-15 years. The LED has been around for longer but they weren't made to emit the specific wavelengths for plant growth until the 2000s.

Since then, they've become more affordable and more efficient. Even so, CFLs are better in some situations. Let's look at advantages and disadvantages to using an LED for your indoor garden:

Advantages

  • More Efficient
  • Directs Light at the Plant
  • Cooler

Disadvantages

  • Expensive

Best Budget-Friendly LED Light

I use this 600W LED light for my vegetables and tomatoes. It's strong enough to get light down to the lower leaves but it only puts a moderate load on my utility bill.

Choosing a Grow Light for Indoor Plants

Both CFL bulbs and LEDs work great for different applications. So to choose the best one for your setup you need to consider these factors:

Plant Type and Quantity

Figure out the general size of your plants (ie herbs or bigger vegetables). Also think about how many plants you'll want to be growing at once.

Money

Think about the price range you want for your grow light. LEDs are a bigger upfront cost than CFLs. So going the LED route will mean either growing fewer plants or shelling out more money.

Also consider how much you want to pay in power. LEDs are more efficient so will have less of an impact on your utility bill for the same number of plants.

Space and Setup

How much space do you have inside for your garden? The spae might be the limiting factor for the number of plants you grow. But if you have enough space then you'll find the number of plants you can support with each light becomes important.

Will you have a grow tent to keep the light in? A fan to keep the light cool? Or are you hoping to set this up on a spare table? Most grow lights need to be suspended by a rack. But there are stand-alone LED lamps that work really well for just a few small plants each.

Will Your Plants Move to A Garden Outside?

Consider the whole lifespan of your plants before choosing a grow light. It's a great idea to start seeds indoors and that doesn't take much room or energy.

But those seedlings will grow up and need more room. Are you planning on keeping them inside under lights or will they move into the ground or pots outside?

Purpose

Put simply, what do you want out of your indoor garden? You don't need a mission statement, but keep in mind why you're growing plants indoors.

If you're aiming for shear output of vegetables then the efficiency of your lights will be most important. If you want your setup to be flexible and let you try different types of plants then you will end up with different equipment.

Now that you've defined your indoor garden, let's see if CFLs or LEDs are better for you.

Best CFL Grow Light Setup

Here are some tips for using CFL lights:

  • CFLs do generate some heat compared to LEDs but don't need to be actively cooled
  • Use a grow tent or white/reflective material around your plants to steer light back to your plant
  • As a very general rule of thumb, plan for one CFL bulb per medium plant. This will vary based on wattage and the plant's needs
Indoor plants growing under LEDs in a grow tent.

Indoor plants growing under LEDs in a grow tent.

LED Grow Light Setup

Here are some tips for setting up an indoor garden with LEDs:

  • Make the light height adjustable. this will allow you to take advantage of the cool LEDs and get them as close to the plant as possible
  • Check your room temperature and plant requirements, you might need a heater to keep them warm over the winter

When CFL is Better than LED

Let's get to the bottom line:

When would a gardener want a CFL light instead of an LED?

Chose CFL bulbs for a cheap way to grow leafy vegetables or herbs. They can also work really well for starting seeds. CFLs are best when you don't have a lot of money to spend or you want a system you can gradually build. And leafy vegetables like spinach or lettuce don't need the high output that LEDs produce.

I use standard CFLs as a natural light supplement for my indoor herbs and lavender. The plants sit in sunny windows and the lights come as needed to get them 8 hours of sun. I prefer them over LEDs because they aren't as harsh and basically act like a household incandescent bulb. Also, they're cheap enough that I don't mind growing more!

When LED is Better than CFL

Many growers will tell you that LEDs are always better than fluorescents if you can afford them.

That's true as far as pure efficiency is concerned. But please be aware that not all LED grow lights are good enough quality to justify the higher price. Check the efficiency and the reviews before investing money.

If you're willing to spend the money then LEDs can be much better for growing multiple plants. Since they run cooler you can stack them or have them side by side without over heating issues.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Katy Medium

Comments

Katy Medium (author) from Denver, CO on July 12, 2019:

Hi Kiefergelenk, thanks for reading!

You have quite a variety of tents on your website so it's hard to recommend just one, especially without knowing what you're trying to grow.

A good starter light that is easy to hang and keep cool is any LED lamp from Golspark. You might want to check those out.

BrooklynPlantGal on April 26, 2019:

Hi Katy, which would you recommend for an indoor modified meyer lemon tree (young 1-2 years old, 45" high)?