Light Bulb Buyer’s Guide

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LEDs are in. Incandescents are out. Here's everything else you need to know about choosing light bulb types for your home.

The first electric arc light bulbs were made in the 1830s, before the famous inventors Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison were even born. And although light bulbs would change the world, it took a while for them to become commonplace. A century ago, only half of the homes in the United States had electricity. From then until the 1980s, choosing which bulb to buy for your lamp was simple, because there was only one choice — the traditional incandescent bulb. Today that old standard is on the way out, complicating the decision of which light bulb type to buy.

But don’t worry. We’re here to help crack the modern light bulb code.

Light Bulb Evolution

Incandescents still make up about one-third of light bulb sales in the U.S., but they’re being phased out for more efficient options.

“It is rare that clients request incandescent bulbs now because the LED bulbs have become more affordable, higher quality and we have adapted to seeing them in most places,” says Jennifer Johnson, owner of The Light Center in Fort Collins, Colorado.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 90 percent of the energy used by most incandescent bulbs ends up wasted as heat, leaving only 10 percent to deliver actual light. “We were essentially lighting homes with small heaters,” says Enesta Jones of the EPA.

The evolution of LED technology changed that. LEDs are about 90 percent efficient, and over the last decade their price has dropped by nearly 90 percent to around $5. That means each bulb pays for itself in energy savings after a few months.

LED technology is also progressing rapidly. Smart bulbs create moods in a room. Color customization throughout the day supports circadian rhythms. LED fixtures provide creative and discrete designs that integrate into cabinets and furniture. Of course, switching to LEDs is also an easy step for homeowners to reduce energy use.

“The bottom line is that LED technology is the better option for lighting, no matter your choices at the store,” says Jones.

“If every American home replaced their five most frequently used light fixtures or the bulbs in them with ones that have earned the Energy Star, we would save more than $5 billion each year in energy costs and prevent greenhouse gases equivalent to the emissions from more than six million cars.”

While LEDs are today’s darlings, there are other options on the shelves. Here’s how to find light bulbs to fulfill your home lighting needs.

Types Of Light Bulbs FhmFamily Handyman, Getty Images (6)

Light Bulb Types

There are four main types of light bulbs for home lighting:

  • Incandescent. Though still in use, especially in specialty products like Edison-style filament bulbs, these are no longer the go-to for renovations and new construction. People still like them for their color, although LEDs with the right color temperature can match that.
  • Halogen: These are a form of incandescent. Halogen gas in the bulb allows it to burn longer and brighter than traditional incandescents, increasing efficiency by about 30 percent. They produce a slightly whiter color, though they’re pricier and much hotter to the touch.
  • Compact fluorescent: CFL bulbs are about 75 percent more efficient than incandescent bulbs, but they contain mercury and are temperature-sensitive. “Fluorescent in general are not preferred in most residential projects,” says Doreen Le May Madden, owner of Lux Lighting Design in Belmont, Massachusetts and chair of Residential Environments Lighting Committee and a Certified Lighting Architect. “LED offers better light quality and energy savings now.”
  • LED (light emitting diode): Besides their energy efficiency, higher lumen ratings and versatility, all the experts we consulted lauded LED bulbs for their light quality, dimming response and color rendering. “LED is the standard now for general lighting,” says Melissa Thomas, owner of Mr. Electric in Land O’ Lakes, Florida. “For existing homes looking for an upgrade, we typically recommend changing to recessed LED fixtures. This gives a clean appearance over the old surface fixtures. For just bulbs, we go with the new standard LED bulbs.” LED bulbs can replace most incandescents in your existing fixtures.

Within the world of LEDs, there are a couple of specialty products gaining steam:

  • Smart bulbs: Also known as intelligent bulbs, these are programmable LEDs with microchips that can be turned off and on, dimmed and color adjusted remotely from a laptop, tablet or phone.
  • Solar- and battery-powered bulbs: These LEDs are used in step lighting and outdoor flood lighting with motion and light-sensors.

Light Bulb Features

When choosing a bulb, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Brightness: Lumens describes how much light a bulb emits, while wattage is the amount of power it uses to produce that light. Knowing each will help you understand the efficiency of the bulb. If a chandelier can hold up to 100 watts per socket of incandescent lamps, using a 1,600-lumen light bulb that only uses 13 watts will yield the same perception of brightness as the 100 watts. “I always recommend to go brighter [more lumens] and put in a dimmer if it is too bright,” says Thomas. “When changing from old incandescent to new LED, the light will appear brighter initially, but [people] get use to it fairly quick and enjoy the brightness.”
  • Color: LED bulbs come in a wide range of light colors, from warm (like a traditional incandescent light) to cool (more bluish and daylight-like). Light colors are measured in Kelvin (K) temperatures, and newer LED fixtures often have adjustable color ranges. Which one to choose comes down to a personal preference. Johnson says she mostly sells 3,000K, which “is warm enough to not feel stark, but is crisp enough to not muddy whites. Occasionally people will strongly prefer 2,700 K, and because males tend to prefer cooler temperatures in lighting, they may request 3,500 K.” Le May Madden says her common residential ranges are 2,400 K to 2,700 K, “since they give the effect of incandescent bulbs. However, these may not be the best option in a room with all cool colors. Some prefer a whiter light of 3,000 K, since this highlights both warm and cool colors equally.”
  • Aesthetics: Consider the bulb shape and glass/lens color, as well as how it looks when lit. “Not all bulbs are created equal and until you see them on, you may not be able to tell the difference,” says Johnson.

The EPA compiled this interactive guide to choosing bulbs, including how much light is needed and what color you may prefer.

Light Bulb Sizes and Bases

There’s no industry standard set of light bulb sizes and bases, so there are hundreds of variations. Sizes are indicated by a letter-number combination, like A19, T10, B10, MR16, etc. The bulbs that fit most table and floor lamps are called A-lamps, with an Edison (E26) base. Candelabras use E12s.

To determine which one you need, look at your fixture. If you have an old bulb, bring it to the store to match the size and base.

Best Standard Residential Light Bulbs

Everyone’s preferences differ, so there’s no one “best bulb.” However, for most situations our experts recommend a high-quality LED bulb, adjusted to your preferred color temperature and purchased from a reputable company.

“The number one thing to do when shopping for lighting is to first look for the Energy Star label,” says Jones. Energy Star bulbs are independently tested and certified to make sure they perform as promised. “[It] works as a seal of approval for LED bulbs, to indicate they save energy, deliver on brightness, and work the way you expect light bulbs should,” Jones says.

Karuna Eberl
Karuna writes about wildlife, nature, history and travel for magazines, newspapers and websites including National Geographic, National Parks, Discovery Channel, Atlas Obscura and the High Country News. She's also produced a number of independent films and directed the documentary The Guerrero Project, about the search for a sunken slave ship. She and her husband, Steve, wrote an award-winning guidebook to the Florida Keys and are currently completely renovating an abandoned house in a ghost town. She holds a B.A. in journalism and geology from the University of Montana. Member of OWAA, SATW.