Last updated in October 2016
Call it the great switch up. In 2007, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) enacted new standards on how much energy lightbulbs could use, essentially phasing out the traditional incandescent bulb by 2014. By 2020, additional DOE standards, likely announced in early 2017, will require even stricter energy rules.
The new standards meant saying sayonara to electricity-hogging soft white 100-watt incandescents, which had remained little changed since Thomas Edison’s filament-powered wonders debuted in 1879. New choices with hard-to-decipher names and sometimes unclear purposes now line lighting shop and home improvement store aisles: compact fluorescents (CFLs), light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and halogen incandescents.
The number of choices is enough to worry many consumers that they’ll screw up the next time they screw in a bulb. But here’s some enlightenment.
The bright side: You’ll conserve energy and, over time, money with these new bulbs. Researchers with the Appliance Standards Awareness Project (ASAP) and the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) calculated that the new standards would save the average American household $100 to $200 a year on electric bills.
LEDs and CFLs are also far longer-lasting than incandescents. For example, a 9W to 12W LED (a good-if-not-perfect substitute for an incandescent 60-watt warm white) has a lifespan of 25,000 hours, compared to the old-school incandescent’s 1,000 hours. Your new bulb might outlive its lamp.
The not-so-bright side: The prices for energy-efficient bulbs are still a lot higher than incandescents. A 9W dimmable LED bulb runs $3 to $4, as opposed to $.65 for a traditional incandescent. But because CFLs and LEDs last far longer than incandescents, you’ll save a significant chunk of change when costs are amortized over several years.
New Labels Can Help Shed Light on the Right Bulbs to Buy
Though the color and warmth of these new energy-savers has improved in recent years, many of the new bulbs (especially CFLs) don’t replicate the rosy white glow of the old, Edison-style bulbs. (No wonder some interior designers were hoarding stockpiles of the old stuff right before the new standards went into effect.)
So which bulb is right for your groovy mid-century table lamp or that “Keeping Up with the Kardashians”-glam contemporary chandelier? Start by deciphering the new Federal Trade Commission’s “Lighting Facts” labels, now emblazoned on packaging for all bulbs sold in the U.S.
Yes, you’ll still find watts, which measure how much energy a bulb utilizes. But, with the more energy-efficient models, the more important thing to notice is a bulb’s lumens. The more lumens, the brighter the bulb. This means a task lamp that once took a 100 watt incandescent now could take a new bulb with 1,600 lumens; a 40 watt bulb substitution would be a 450 lumens bulb. In the simplest terms, if you want brighter light, nab a bulb with higher lumens. Here’s the comparison Energy Star uses:
|Old Incandescent Bulbs (Watts)||Brightness in Lumens|
Also on the new labels: Light Appearance, which rates light colors in Kelvins (a temperature scale that measures light color). Bulbs are rated from soft, yellowish white (2700K) to bright/cool white (3500K-4100K) to daylight or blueish white light (5000K-6500K).
Bulbs with lower Kelvins ratings mimic the warmth of traditional incandescents, while higher, bluer Kelvins indicate a cooler, harsher light, aka the chilly, high-school cafeteria look associated with some fluorescents. In general, a bulb with lower Kelvins casts a pleasant, toasty glow for residential or restaurant designs. Mid-range bright/cool white bulbs create a clean, clear light that’s suited to cooler color schemes or task lighting.
Though it’s not printed on all bulb packaging, another factor to consider is the Color Rendering Index (CRI). It tells how accurately colors appear under a given bulb on a scale of 0 to 100. Incandescent halogens (and old incandescents) generally score 100, with LEDs and CFLs usually ranking in the 80s or low 90s. It’s worth asking a pro in the lighting department or a lighting store for help if you don’t know the CRI of a given model, particularly if the bulbs will go in rooms where you’re hanging art, cooking or serving food or doing anything else where telling your greens from your blues is vital (Twister, anyone? )
Once you’ve figured out the label, there are a few other things to keep in mind when shopping for new GEs, Sylvanias, or whatever. If you’re replacing a bulb from an existing fixture or lamp, take it with you to the lighting showroom or hardware store to compare the base and shape. This is particularly important if you’re looking to reignite a chandelier or can light.
Then, consider the room in which you’re using the bulb, and seek out a light appearance rating that suits it. Most residential spaces look best with a lower rating, around 2700 Kelvins, but a task light or under-counter kitchen light could take a higher rating.
Finally, don’t use bulbs with different lumens or different light appearance ratings in the same fixture, say a chandelier. You’ll get an odd, dappled light.
With the new bulb regulations, your choices likely will narrow to just LEDs or CFLs in the coming years. For the time being (and until existing stock is sold off), you can buy three kinds of bulbs.
The Good: LEDs (Light-Emitting Diodes)
Light-emitting diodes are little semiconductors. As electrons pass through them, they turn to light. (Yeah, they’re a pretty fab, high-tech way to power up that floor lamp in your man cave.) Unlike CFLs, LEDs brighten instantly—no annoying, horror-movie flickering—and some of them are dimmable. Their light color can range from warm yellow to cool blue, with a rainbow of hues in between.
Most LEDs last 25 times longer than a traditional incandescent bulb—from 20,000 to 50,000 hours each. That’s a lot of time for you to read a long Russian novel or, hey, a lightbulb buying guide!
But the initial outlay for an LED is significantly more than that for a standard incandescent. (A standard 60 watt incandescent, in the old days, cost about $.50; its closest LED clone, a 10W bulb, would run about $13). But when you factor in energy savings, the costs over 10 years (and yeah, your LED could last twice that long) would be half that of the incandescent. And if you can get them, utility rebates might save you even more. To check for current rebates, go to www.energystar.gov/rebate-finder.
For most uses, you’ll want A-type LEDs, which have a bulbous shape that suits lamps and home light fixtures. But they sometimes don’t cast light evenly in all directions, so look for omnidirectional bulbs if you’ll be using them in a table or floor lamp or shaded light fixture. Can or recessed lights would take reflector bulbs, which are more cone-shaped and only cast downlights.
Plus, LEDs might be called the cool nerd bulbs: some can be controlled via smartphone, others change color with the click of a button (or a pre-programmed plan) or can be synchronized to music.
The Ugly: CFLs (Compact Fluorescents)
CFLs are the curly, smaller cousins of the long tube fluorescent lights you might see in kitchens, garages, or industrial settings. They’re powered by a fluorescent tube and ballast. CFL’s are three to four times more efficient and can last six to 10 times longer than traditional incandescent bulbs.
Though CFLs used to cast mainly cool blue light (imagine a harshly lit NCIS police interrogation room), technical advances mean they can now emit warm yellows and other hues. But CFLs still take time to brighten up, and they don’t work with most dimmers. If you’re using them in an outside fixture, be sure to find a bulb rated for below-freezing temperatures—some CFLs won’t light up in cold weather.
The Pretty, But Not Long For This World: Halogen Incandescents
Think of the halogen incandescent as a bad—or at least energy-wasting—bulb that went to reform school and improved its ways a little while retaining its moody charm. Like its traditional incandescent cousin, the halogen produces illumination via a tungsten filament that is heated enough to emit light. But unlike the earlier bulbs, which used a less-efficient, lower temperature, halogens contain a fused quartz capsule that allows for higher filament temperatures and a regenerative effect. The effect is a somewhat longer bulb life and slightly higher efficiency—about 25 percent. Still, when the DOE’s new rulings come into effect, halogens may go to the bulb graveyard with their Edison incandescent relatives. They’re simply not efficient enough.
While halogens use about 25 to 30 percent less energy than their standard incandescent forefathers, they’re still not perfect—they cost about twice as much and they last only slightly longer. Still, like old-style incandescents, they instantly produce light, love dimmers, and cast rays evenly in all directions. Light color tends to be cooler (white or blue) than the traditional bulbs, though color filters may reduce that stark, bright look.
Want more info? Energy Star's lightbulb pages are worth checking out. The National Resources Defense Council also has a great infographic.