Our field technicians hear it all the time from our clients: Buying light bulbs is more difficult and frustrating now than it has ever been before, and we agree. If you’ve ever stood in the light bulb aisle at your local hardware store with a deer-in-headlights stare, you are not alone. Between the constantly-changing technology, industry lingo, and government regulations, you might be tempted to switch back to candles and lanterns, but we are here to try and make sense of the most confusing aisle in the store so the next time you need to replace your bulbs, you can find what you need quickly and confidently.
There are 4 major types of light bulbs you will find in a variety of shapes and sizes. The first step in choosing your bulb is to figure out which type you want, and each type has its own advantages and disadvantages.
Incandescent bulbs are the oldest form of electric lighting. When you imagine somebody having a “lightbulb moment,” the bulb you picture above their head is probably an incandescent bulb. A glass bulb, either clear or frosted, contains a tiny, highly resistive wire called a filament, and when electricity runs through that wire, it creates so much heat that it glows brightly, giving off the light you see.
Incandescent bulbs are known for producing true-to-life color, they are affordable, and they create an ambiance that is warm and inviting when the brightness is toned down by a dimmer switch. However, these bulbs are prone to burning out quickly, they use a lot of electricity, and they produce a lot of heat. They are so inefficient that governments around the world are outlawing incandescent bulbs to reduce our carbon footprint by reducing our energy consumption.
Incandescent bulbs have a number of issues that halogen bulbs address. For one, they are more efficient (not much more), which is why when you want to buy a regular light bulb, let’s say you need a 60-watt bulb, the closest thing you will find will be a 43-watt halogen. The light output will be the same (measured in “lumens”), but the electricity needed to power the bulb is reduced.
Halogen bulbs also use a filament, so they produce a clean and true color of light, and they dim beautifully. Halogen light bulbs can also be made in a smaller format, some bulbs as tiny as the tip of your pinky, so they are commonly used in specialty fixtures where space is a concern. They also tend to last significantly longer than traditional incandescent bulbs.
Halogen bulbs are extremely hot when they are turned on – so hot, in fact, that you can’t even touch the small, fingertip-size bulbs because the oils from your skin can create hot-spots where the glass will actually melt and can explode. They are also not the most efficient bulbs available, only about 25-30% less energy than incandescent.
Fluorescent / CFL
A lot of our clients call these light bulbs the “Curly-Q” style – We call them Compact Fluorescent or CFL. Fluorescent bulbs also come in other shapes like straight tubes and U-shaped tubes. These bulbs contain a type of phosphorous gas that glows when electricity is applied to it. There is no filament that can burn out, so these bulbs last longer and use much less energy than incandescent and halogen bulbs. The price of these bulbs makes them a common choice for people looking to reduce their electric bills, and organizations like Focus On Energy offered rebates on these bulbs for many years, making them even more affordable.
All fluorescent bulbs contain mercury, so disposing of them in a landfill is both harmful and illegal, making it difficult for homeowners to throw them out properly when they need to be replaced, especially in states where there are no easy and accessible recycling programs available (Wisconsin included). The light produced by fluorescent bulbs is very poor quality, rendering objects and people much differently than they look in natural light. Most fluorescent bulbs cannot be dimmed, and the ones that can don’t have a wide range and can be very expensive. Producing a small format fluorescent is virtually impossible because less glass means less light. And finally, cold weather makes fluorescent bulbs perform very poorly, with sluggish startup and dim light, making them a poor choice for anything outdoors in Wisconsin.
LED (Light Emitting Diode)
For years, the only LEDs we saw were little blinky lights on computers and circuit boards. In the past decade, this technology has been refined and adapted for higher brightness and better light quality. While they have their own limitations, LEDs are quickly becoming the bulb of choice for most homeowners, businesses, and manufacturers.
LEDs use roughly 80% less energy than incandescent bulbs, making them the most efficient available today, and only getting better as research continues. The quality of light from an LED can be excellent, some bulbs scoring above a 95 on the color rendering index, meaning objects and people under these lights will look true to life. LEDs can be manufactured in virtually any shape and size, most of them are dimmable with standard dimmers, and many manufacturers are making claims of up to 22-year lifespans. There is no toxic gas inside, so they can be thrown into the regular trash.
There are myriad companies producing LED bulbs right now, and there is a big difference between the good ones and the not-so-good, so there are a few things to keep in mind when shopping for LEDs:
- Look for name brands. You will usually have a better experience with big-name manufacturers like Philips, Cree, and Sylvania
- Look for color temperature. Traditional incandescent bulbs produce a warm white tone, which registers on the Kelvin scale at 2700-3000K. Daylight, which looks bluish to many people,
- Lands at 5000K. The lower the number, the more yellow/amber the color of light will be.
- Look for lumens. Gone are the days where watts translate to light output. If you want something that will be as bright as a 60-watt incandescent, you want an LED that puts out 800 lumens.
- Look for the word “dimmable” if you are using a dimmer switch. Keep in mind that some bulbs may not work well with older dimmers and you may need to upgrade to an LED-compatible dimmer.
- Look for light quality. Unless you are using the bulbs in a garage or utility room, you’ll want good quality light. Light quality is measured by Color Rendering Index or CRI. A score above 90 is very good.
- Look for the warranty. While a manufacturer may claim a 22-year lifespan, those claims mean nothing if they don’t back it up with a warranty. Don’t buy a bulb with less than a 5-year warranty, and save your receipt.
That was a lot of information, we know. If we had to sum it all up in 1 sentence, it would be this: Buy LEDs, and do so thoughtfully and informed. Good luck!