The other day I found myself at a loss in the light bulb aisle of my hardware store. I might as well have been shopping for a carburetor. There were too many options with too many symbols and verbiage that I couldn’t decipher (LED, CFL, halogen, lumens, Kelvin, CRI), not to mention all of the various brands (GE, Philips, Cree, EcoSmart — each with its own packaging lingo). Since when do you need an electrical engineering degree to buy a light bulb?
I haven’t been living under a rock. I am fully aware that the light bulb has been undergoing a serious makeover. If the appearance of the alien corkscrew compact fluorescent (CFL) wasn’t a big enough clue, then certainly the stories of people stockpiling incandescent bulbs was. In fact, January 2014 marks the final stage of the federal government’s mandated phaseout of certain general-purpose incandescent bulbs, with the 40-watt and 60-watt bulbs being the last to go. (Hundred- and 75-watt bulbs, although still available on the market, are no longer in production.) Thomas Edison had a really good run; for 134 years we lived under the golden glow of his incandescent bulb. The problem is that his bulbs are not energy-efficient, hence the birth of new technologies with new nomenclature.
Which leads me back to my quandary: Which of these new bulbs do I buy?
John Strainic, GE’s consumer lighting general manager, shed some light on my quest, as did David Brooks, proprietor of Just Bulbs in New York. (For “Harry Potter” fans, it’s the Ollivander’s of lighting.) So that you don’t find yourself totally in the dark, here is their bulb-buying advice:
This is the first thing you need to know before you shop. If you have dimmers, then you have to buy bulbs that are compatible. (It will say on the packaging.) Many of the newer bulbs are not; I learned this the hard way. In an attempt to be more energy-efficient, I went out and bought a bunch of CFLs, only to find that they didn’t work. I quickly reverted back to incandescents under the assumption that the new bulbs weren’t compatible with my fixtures. Little did I know that I needed dimmer-friendly bulbs.
Making it even more confusing, if you have dimmers that were installed more than a year or so ago, Brooks says, you’ll probably need to replace them. He explains: “So little energy is being used by the new bulbs that old-model dimmers can’t even sense that there is a bulb there to dim.”
“Forget about buying bulbs by wattage, which only measures how much energy a light bulb uses,” Strainic says. “Instead, shop by lumens, which measures the amount of light that a bulb emits.” Almost all light bulbs now use a minimum wattage — usually well below 40 watts — so the measurement is no longer helpful in determining the brightness of a bulb. So when looking at lumens, know this: The higher the lumens, the brighter the light. For example, a 100-watt incandescent has about 1,600 lumens, whereas a 40-watt incandescent has about 450 lumens.
Strainic and others in the lighting industry know this change is going to take time to get used to (it’s like switching from Fahrenheit to Celsius), which is why most manufacturers have conversion charts on their packaging and Web sites. You can also check out the handy charts at www.energystar.gov.
This is where personal preference and style really come into play. Light bulbs come in a variety of shades, and each of these colors has a temperature rating that is measured in degrees Kelvin. The lower the Kelvin number (between 2,700 and 3,000) the more yellow the light, and the higher the Kelvin (between 5,500 and 6,500), the bluer the light. White light is usually around 3,500 to 4,100. Brooks suggests buying several bulbs, each with a different Kelvin number, to figure out which best suits your decor and your space. “Every shade of white is good for a different reason,” he says. Modern spaces look better in whiter light, and traditional mahogany-clad rooms look better in a more yellow light. Strainic notes that “daylight,” or a whiter, higher Kelvin light, is more popular in the Southern regions of the United States, whereas a more yellow, lower-Kelvin light is preferred in the North.
Ideally we would all use LEDs throughout the house: They last the longest (15 years or more, according to manufacturers) and give the best results. But they are expensive. Even though they will save you money in the long run, it will be hard for most of us to get past the sticker shock. As an example, Brooks’s favorite LED is from a new company called Switch, and it costs a whopping $65 per bulb. (He says their bulbs have the truest color and the truest brightness.) He said generally LEDs range from $25 to $60 at Just Bulbs. This is not an expense many of us can afford. Instead, use LED bulbs in hard-to-reach fixtures such as those in stairwells and double-story great rooms. Use a combination of CFLs (lasting seven to 10 years and costing $3.50 to $16) and halogen incandescents (about two years, costing $2.50 to $10) in other rooms based on your needs. CFLs are great in kitchens, hallways and bathrooms. (As an aside, Brooks sees CFLs as a “bridge technology” that we will use until the price of LEDs comes down.)
If you want the same glow that you are used to from traditional incandescent bulbs, Strainic suggests using halogen incandescents. They are inexpensive and use much less energy than standard bulbs, but they won’t last as long as CFLs.
One last piece of advice: Brooks recommends not buying too many of any one bulb because, as he says, “the technology is just changing so quickly.” Just think: in six months someone could have another less expensive, more energy-efficient bright idea.
Mayhew, a “Today” show style expert and former magazine editor, is the author of “Flip! for Decorating.”