Per year, the cost to run incandescent light bulbs is $8, compared to $1.75 for CFL bulbs and $0.90 for LED bulbs.
Incandescent lights will be mostly phased out by 2023.
CFL bulbs last 10 times longer than incandescent bulbs.
LEDs have the lowest initial cost, highest lumen per watt, and least amount of hazardous material.
Whether you want to replace old bulbs, add new lighting to your home, or upgrade to a more efficient light bulb, one thing’s for sure: you’ll want to choose an economical and safe option. Sometimes, all you need is the right bulb to spark some ideas on how to make the most out of the lighting in your home. With that in mind, here’s what you need to know to help you choose the best light bulbs.
Common Terms to Know
The inner workings of light bulbs and electricity are confusing concepts to many, but allow us to shed a little light. Here are some common terms to help understand these two technologies.
Amperes or Amps
One way to measure the electrical current passing through a light bulb or lighting fixture is by amperes or amps. Basically, multiplying volts times amps gives you the wattage. The opposite is also true. Divide the watts by the system's volts to find the amperes. For example, a 100-watt bulb in a 12-volt system draws 8.3 amps.
Volts and Voltage
Volts are a unit of electrical force that generates a current. Named after Alessandro Volta, an Italian scientist who invented the electric battery, voltage is the potential for these units of electrical force to move. Think of volts as water droplets and voltage as the water flowing through pipes as it responds to water pressure.
Watts and Wattage
Named after James Watt, the inventor of the steam engine, the watt is the standard international unit of measurement for power. A lighting fixture’s wattage defines its brightness and the amount of electric power it consumes during use.
The most common types of light bulbs for residential use are 25, 40, 60, 75, and 100 watts, with 60-watt bulbs operating as the standard.
Average Rated Life (ARL)
A light bulb’s average rated life (ARL) illustrates how long it takes for half of the bulbs in a test batch to fail—otherwise known as a bulb’s half-life. For example, if half a batch of test bulbs die after 1,000 hours of use, the bulbs have an ARL of 1,000 hours.
Incandescent bulbs boast the lowest ARL, at 75 to 2,000 hours, while LED bulbs last the longest, at 40,000 to 50,000 hours. A lighting fixture that exceeds 2,500 hours is an extended life lamp.
Channel or Zone
This refers to a collection of fixtures or bulbs that operate simultaneously. Thus, bulbs part of one channel or zone all power on or off with the same switch or dimmer.
Diffuse lighting is a scattered or dispersed lighting system that disguises the original lighting source. Installers and decorators use various items to diffuse the light source, such as paper, fabric, shades, or milky glass on the bulb itself.
Direct and Indirect Lighting
If a set of lighting fixtures casts 90% or more of the light produced in a downward direction, it is called a direct lighting scheme. If the fixtures cast 90% or more of the light upward, it is called an indirect lighting scheme.
Recessed, or in-ground, lights use indirect lighting to illuminate outdoor areas, while ceiling lights use direct lighting to light indoor areas.
Full Spectrum Bulbs
These bulbs imitate natural light and, as such, are used for stress relief and to minimize light-induced headaches. Full-spectrum fixtures mimic midday sunlight and come in various wattages, voltages, sizes, finishes, and base types.
Light bulbs and lighting fixtures create heat during use, so heat ratings are built-in limitations that cap the wattage of the bulb to prevent fires and premature burnouts.
This is the complete lighting unit, otherwise known as a lighting fixture. The full set includes the lamp, a reflector, the bulb, the housing, connections, the socket, and baffles.
Lumens measure the actual quantity of light produced by a lamp, bulb, or fixture. Simply put, more lumens translate to a brighter bulb. Modern consumers purchase light bulbs based on lumens—not watts—as this metric more accurately describes the light output.
How many lumens do you need? A standard bedroom or living room requires 10 to 20 lumens per square foot, while a kitchen or bathroom requires 70 to 80 lumens per square foot.
Light color is measured by the Kelvin (K) temperature scale. Lower Kelvin numbers suggest the bulb will emit a yellow light. The color will get more white or blue as the Kelvin number rises.
Here are the most common ranges of kelvin degrees in different types of light bulbs.
Warm and soft whites: 2,700 K–3,000 K
Cool, neutral, and bright whites: 3,500 K–4,100 K
Natural white and daylight: 5,000 K–6,500 K
UL (Underwriters Laboratory)
It’s tough to miss the UL logo on light bulbs and lighting fixtures. This independent organization applies strict tests to electrical products, awarding passing items a “UL listed” designation. Manufacturers aren’t required to undergo these rigorous tests, but passing them is a likely sign of quality.
The 4 Most Common Types of Light Bulbs
Incandescent Light Bulbs
For a trip down memory lane, look no further than the incandescent light bulb. This traditional lighting option has a warm hue that might bring back memories of your grandparents’ home. These bulbs go even further back than that, lighting homes for more than 100 years. As such, incandescent bulbs are the oldest lights on the market.
When comparing incandescent to LED bulbs, incandescent lights have the lowest upfront cost. On average, expect to pay $1 to $2 per bulb. Upfront costs aren’t everything, however. These lights only last for approximately 1,000 hours or about one year. They’re also fragile and more likely to break—a major safety hazard since these bulbs contain mercury.
So, while incandescent light bulbs are more affordable initially, their durability and lifespan are much lower than newer lights’, making them a more expensive option in the long run, as you’ll soon see.
Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs (CFLs)
Speaking of memories, another type of light bulb known for lighting garages, offices, and gyms is the compact fluorescent light bulb. Remember going to gym class and waiting for the lights to “warm up”? Chances are, they were CFLs.
These bulbs flicker and take a moment to light up because they depend on gasses to heat and emit visible light. The process can take as long as a minute to take effect.
In addition, CFLs come in a variety of shapes and sizes. The most common types are:
Twisted fluorescent bulbs
Compact fluorescent bulbs
Tube fluorescent bulbs
Circular fluorescent bulbs
Fluorescent globe bulbs
CFLs were created to replace incandescent light bulbs. As such, they cost more than incandescent lights, with an average cost of around $3.50 each. At the same time, CFLs last 10 times longer (with a 10-year lifespan or 10,000 hours) and use approximately 70% less energy than incandescent lights.
One major downside is that CFL bulbs still contain mercury, making them a safety risk if broken. Like incandescent bulbs, you should not toss CLF lights in the trash. When must be mindful of disposing of CFL lights, recycle them.
Light-Emitting Diodes (LEDs)
As the newest light bulbs on the market, LEDs are the most energy-efficient light bulbs available. These bulbs were most prevalent in Christmas lights and toys for kids, but they’ve recently taken over the lighting industry.
LED light bulbs can burn for 50,000 hours and last approximately 25 years. They cost between $5 to $10 each, but don’t let their higher price tag deter you.
For one, LEDs are filament- and mercury-free, meaning they produce little to no heat. This makes them as much as 85% and 10% more efficient than incandescent bulbs and CFLs, respectively. Though LEDs are the most expensive light bulbs, their longer lifespan and superior energy savings make them the best type of light bulb overall.
Remember that LEDs aren’t always compatible with older sockets and might not work if your home has dimmer switches. In these cases, it might be worth choosing CFLs, unless you want to upgrade your light switches. If that’s the case, speak with an electrician near you to discuss making upgrades to your home.
Love the look of incandescent light bulbs but desire more longevity? Try halogen lights. These upgraded incandescents offer the same warm, pleasing hue but last an average of 2,000 to 2,500 hours, compared to 1,000 hours with traditional incandescent bulbs. Many pros recommend halogen lights in residential and commercial settings.
As for price, halogen lights are certainly more expensive than their incandescent cousins, at $3 to $5 per bulb. Halogen bulbs run hot during use, which is a potential safety hazard, and the components degrade slowly by coming into contact with the oils found on human skin. In other words, exercise caution.
One cool thing about halogen bulbs is that they come in many sizes and types because they’re filled with quartz. Among traditional lighting fixtures, tools, appliances, and projectors have super-small halogen bulbs.
How to Choose the Right Lightbulb
Choosing the right bulb for your home comes down to personal preference, the electrical system’s compatability, and your budget.
Check on your light sockets, electrical systems, and accessories to ensure compatibility before purchasing light bulbs for the home. LED bulbs, for instance, do not integrate with older socket types, and you’ll also run into issues combining LEDs with dimming switches. Some modern LEDs are dimmable, however, so look for that on the packaging. Base sizes also vary wildly, though the standard for the United States is an A19 bulb with an E26 base. Look for that on the packaging unless you have unique lighting needs. Finally, the various fixtures in your home include ratings for the maximum watts they are capable of safely handling.
Create a Budget
LED bulbs offer some fantastic features and benefits compared to other types but are also more expensive. Come up with a lighting budget and stick to it, even if that means relying exclusively on incandescent bulbs. Of course, lighting is about more than upfront costs. For instance, while LED bulbs are the most expensive type, they also last the longest before burning out.
Think About Energy Bills
The lighting budget extends beyond bulbs and fixtures into the realm of the monthly utility bill. Again, LEDs are the champion here, with residential bulbs using 75 percent less energy when compared to incandescent lighting. Beyond LEDs, look for the Energy Star certification to ensure energy efficiency. Halogens, CFLs, and bulbs with integrated smart features all help reduce energy costs to some degree.
Determine Your Lighting Requirements
First, figure out how much light you need per room. Go for lumens here instead of wattage while shopping. Modern light bulbs feature both watts and lumens on the packaging, but there is a translation cheat sheet.
If you used to purchase 100-watt bulbs, look for bulbs with 1600 lumens.
If you used to purchase 75-watt bulbs, look for bulbs with 1100 lumens.
If you used to purchase 60-watt bulbs, look for bulbs with 800 lumens.
If you used to purchase 40-watt bulbs, look for bulbs with 450 lumens.
Additionally, you must consider the bulb color. Rely on the Kelvin-based color temperature here. Lower ratings of 2,700K to 3,400K indicate a natural, warm, soft, and yellow light. Higher ratings of 3,500K to 6,500K indicate bright white lights that provide plenty of illumination, but also some harshness. Some smart bulbs allow users to switch to different Kelvin ratings on the fly.
The Bottom Line
There are many options available for home lighting, and while incandescent lights and CFLs seem cheaper at a quick glance, LEDs are by far the best option for standard lighting in your home.
Keep in mind that there are more light bulb options than the three types of light bulbs discussed above. Other light bulbs—such as halogens and HIDs—are used primarily for vehicle lights and industrial or outdoor lighting and may be worth considering for those settings.