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Choosing Energy Efficient Light Bulbs

Posted by on Feb 28, 2014 in For Your Home | 1 comment

Choosing Energy Efficient Light Bulbs

Shopping for light bulbs used to be simple, you just needed to know how many watts. Today, there’s a whole new lexicon to be learned for energy efficient light bulbs. The first time I faced this new lingo I ended up making an uninformed – and bad – choice. I bought a CFL daylight bulb for my bathroom. It looked awful and I later learned that a CFL is not a good choice for humid areas. Ugh.

At the time, I didn’t have a solid understanding of the difference between halogen incandescent, CFL and LED bulbs or what lumens and kelvins meant. So I did my homework.

If you too need help deciphering the new language of light bulbs, this post should help.

Why the change?

Traditional incandescent light bulbs were very energy inefficient. They lost 90% of their energy to heat and accounted for about 20% of most homes’ energy consumption. The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 set new standards for light bulbs with the goal of increasing energy efficiency 25-30% .

Consumers started seeing the impact of the bill in 2012 when all 100-watt bulbs being produced had to meet the new standards. In 2013, the 75-watt phase-out began. Then, in 2014, 40- and 60-watt bulbs had to meet new requirements. If you didn’t feel the impact of the changes until this year, you’re not alone. 40- and 60-watt bulbs are the most popular types.

3 Types of Bulbs

Currently, there are 3 types of bulbs on store shelves that are more energy efficient than traditional incandescent bulbs. From least energy efficient to most efficient and from shortest life span to longest, they are: halogen incandescent, CFL and LED.

Halogen Incandescent Bulbs

Traditional incandescent bulbs did not meet the new energy efficiency standards but they’ve evolved into halogen incandescents which are 28% more efficient than traditional bulbs. These bulbs emit the same type of light and have about the same lifespan as as traditional incandescent bulbs. While they are more energy efficient than traditional bulbs, they are not as efficient as CFLs and LEDs.


CFLs are the middle ground in terms of energy efficiency and they have a lot of quirks.

CFLs often have two telltale signs: a spiral bulb and a a short lag between the time you flip the switch and when the light comes on since the bulbs take time to warm up to full brightness. Recently, manufacturers have begun covering those spirals to make the bulbs look more like traditional bulbs which many of us find more aesthetically pleasing. The downside to covering a CFL for aesthetics is that it can take even longer to achieve its full brightness.

Matching an energy efficient bulb to the socket and the environment is essential for getting the longest lifespan out of the bulb.

CFLs are best for indoor lights that you tend to keep on for 15 minutes or more since turning them on and off constantly can shorten their lifespan. Only some CFLs are appropriate for outdoor use and only some timers and motion sensors work with CFLs. Bulbs specifically designed for 3-way lamps and lights on dimmer switches should be used when appropriate.

It’s best not to use CFLs in a bathroom unless the humidity can be controlled. Energy Star recommends running a ventilating fan during and for 15 minutes after taking a shower or a bath. Although running a fan for an extra 15 minutes seems counterproductive if the goal is to save energy.

It’s important to dispose of CFLs properly because they have a small amount of mercury in them. (There’s information on recycling programs below.)


LED light bulbs are the most energy efficient, have the longest lifespan, and are the priciest. Like CFLs, these bulbs have some quirks but they are generally more versatile.

LEDs can be used indoors and outdoors, but they tend to run hot so if you want to use an LED for recessed lighting you’d need to get a specialty LED with a cooling component. Most LED bulbs are dimmable. Standard ones emit light in one direction, making them a natural fit for spotlights or overhead lights, but specialty omni-directional bulbs, which will emit light in all directions, are a better choice for lamps.

LEDs are also a good fit for hard-to-reach light sockets because of their extra-long lifespan and for lights that are flipped on and off frequently because, unlike CFLs, that does not negatively impact their lifespan.

For more help choosing the right light bulb, check out Energy Star’s Choose A Light Guide.

Watts to Lumens

Navigating this new world of energy efficient bulbs means thinking about light in terms of lumens instead of watts which, actually, makes a lot of sense. Watts measures the amount of energy required to light a bulb, which worked well when all bulbs were incandescent. Lumens measure the amount of light a bulb produces.

So if you’re looking at two bulbs that have the same lumen rating but different wattage figures, the one with the lower wattage is more energy efficient.

As you’re changing your incandescent bulbs to energy efficient ones, these conversions may help:
40 watts = 450 lumens
60 watts = 800 lumens
75 watts = 1100 lumens
100 watts = 1600 lumens

Kelvin = Color

New light bulbs also come in a variety of colors and kelvins (K for short) are used to measure the light color. A warmer color, often described as soft white on light bulb labels, is closest to the incandescent bulbs we’re used to and will be found in lights in the 2700 to 3000K range. A more neutral white light, is found in the 3500 to 4,100K range. Bulbs with a cooler, more blue, color that mimics daylight are in the 5,000 to 6,500K range.

What to do about Dimmer Switches

As mentioned earlier, you now need to consider the socket and the environment when choosing the right bulb. If you have dimmer switches it gets even more complicated.

Start by looking for dimmable CFLs and LEDs which are made to work with dimmer switches. Then, if your dimmer switches were made to work with incandescent bulbs, go one step farther and look for bulbs that can be used with most conventional incandescent wall switch dimmers.

If your new CFL or LED bulb works well with your dimmer switch, you’re done! If it doesn’t, you may need to update your dimmer switches to ones that are compatible with energy efficient bulbs.

The reason older dimmer switches and newer bulbs may not work well together is that older dimmer switches work by controlling the amount of electricity to the bulb. With new bulbs, the amount of electricity flowing to the bulb and the bulb’s brightness are not necessarily correlated.

Buying Bulbs

power company catalogI was shocked when I saw a light bulb selling for $14.49 in a store. One light bulb cost nearly $15?! Even though the packaging promised a long lifespan and savings on my energy bill, at that price I’d be raiding the light sockets and packing light bulbs alongside the rest of my valued possessions the next time I move.

Luckily, there are ways to get energy efficient light bulbs at a discount. The best thing to do is check with your electricity provider. Many power companies allow you to buy energy efficient bulbs, dimmer switches, lighting fixtures and other energy saving products through a catalog. Some also partner with retailers to sell the bulbs at discounted rates in the stores. You’ll likely find information on these programs on your power company’s website.

Disposing of Energy Efficient Bulbs

Some states, including my home state of New Hampshire, require residents to recycle CFLs because they have a small amount of mercury in them. Find out if your state requires you to recycle CFLs on the EPA’s website.

Whether you’re required to recycle CFLs or not, it’s a good idea and is likely pretty convenient since many towns and retailers offer recycling programs, including major retailers like Home Depot and Lowe’s. An easy way to find out where to recycle bulbs, and other products, is to use Earth911’s recycling search or the iRecycle app which, despite being powered by Earth911, was not as reliable as the website but it may be better in some areas than others.

New light bulbs may be more energy efficient, but buying the right one requires a lot more thought. Hopefully this guide will help. Happy shopping!

Kim is an eco enthusiast who tries to make small changes that will add up and make a difference.

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One Comment

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  1. Debbie

    Thank you, Kim! Also, Cree brand LED bulbs sold at Home Depot are assembled in the USA!

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