Deciphering the New Light Bulbs

  • LEAVE A COMMENT
Deciphering the New Light Bulbs

By Celeste Smucker –

Oh for the good old days when we could walk into a store to buy bulbs and all we needed to know was the wattage and whether it was a regular bulb, a spotlight, or something decorative for a chandelier. Occasionally we may have needed something more specialized like a 3-way bulb or one that repels insects, but overall the choices were easy. 

Then, in an effort to save energy (and the planet), the Federal Government decided to help us economize by mandating bulbs that burn significantly less energy than the incandescents we’ve   been using since Thomas Edison’s time.

Edison’s genius invention had a fatal flaw.  While it gave us the miracle of  light at the flick of a  switch, it also put out a lot of heat…heat we paid for but didn’t need or use.  So there was lots of waste. 

Under the new regulations, incandescents are not outlawed but rather manufacturers must make bulbs that use at least 30 percent less energy.  In the future they are required to be even more efficient.  The result is huge energy savings, but confusing walks down the light bulb aisle at Lowe’s.

Fortunately, a little education can make it easier.

Varieties of Light
Before you can decide on a bulb, you need to know what you want the light to do.

Each bulb creates its own ambiance.  Old style bulbs were pretty much just one color:  yellow.  The only difference bulb to bulb was the wattage, which rules brightness. Today’s bulbs give you a range of colors from yellow to bright white.

If you desire a warm feel in a room in order to create a nice intimate atmosphere, (such as, for example, in a dining room) stay at the yellow end of the spectrum.  Similarly, keep it yellow in a bedroom where bright white in your eyes just before bed can actually impact your sleep.

On the other hand, there are definitely times for really bright light, or light that renders colors accurately.  In that case choose bulbs at the other end of the spectrum where light is more blue.  If you need to judge how makeup or clothing will look outdoors or in the office, definitely put bright white in your bathroom.  Most cooks also welcome brighter light in the kitchen.

Also, white light is best for desk lamps or in the floor lamp over the chair where you curl up with a good book or do hand crafts and need to see detail. 

Recognizing the Right Bulb

  • Bulbs have a range of color temperatures expressed as degrees Kelvin.  Temperatures range from 2,700 at the low end to 6,000+ at the high end.  The lower the number the yellower the bulb.  Five-thousand and up is best for reading and close work.
  • Use a yellower bulb in the lamp next to your bed. Studies show bluer light can impact levels of the hormone melatonin needed for a good night’s sleep. And by the way, electronic devices also emit blue light, which means it is better to read a printed book at night before dozing off.
  • Energy saving bulbs like LEDs and CFLs (compact fluorescents) have very low wattage for the same amount of light compared to old-style incandescents (hence the energy savings).  Labels will educate you about how these numbers equate to what you may be used to.  For example, a 23 watt CFL is about equivalent to a 60 or 70 watt conventional bulb, while the wattage of an equivalent LED may be even lower, like 10 watts.
  • Cost for the new-style bulbs will seem like a lot, but they typically last much longer than the old incandescents as well.  The number of years will be prominently displayed on the label and can be more than 20 for some LEDs. 

Keep in mind, though, that the brightness and color will fade over time.  Bright, white CFLs  or LEDs  will become increasingly yellow over time, or may turn odd colors like pink. Typically the more expensive the bulb the more likely it is to retain its original color and brightness (referred to as lumen maintenance) for a longer period of time. 

This could be important if you have multiple lamps or fixtures in one room and want to keep the light looking the same throughout.  On the other hand, you probably won’t notice when the single bulb in your porch light fades over time.

  • Mercury.  While LEDs don’t contain mercury, there is mercury in CFLs, which means they should be recycled.  Drop them off at Batteries Plus Bulbs on Emmet Street along with any spent batteries.  Lowe’s also recycles CFLs as well as rechargeable batteries and cell phones.
  • BR and PAR designations.  These are measures of bulb diameter, the corresponding numbers being expressed in eighths of an inch.  So the diameter of a BR 30 bulb is 3.75 inches.  PAR is used to express the diameter of a spotlight. 

Sometimes you just need to read the label.  Not all bulbs are dimmable, for example, so read the label carefully if you are buying bulbs for your dining room and are aiming for that special lower light ambiance for a romantic dinner.  Dimming a bulb not intended for that purpose will greatly decrease its life and could leave you eating in the dark.  Similarly, heat buildup will shorten a bulb’s life if you put it in a closed fixture unless it is designed for that use.

Keep these points in mind and your trips down light bulb aisles will be a lot less frustrating.


Celeste Smucker is a writer and blogger who lives near Charlottesville.

Leave a Comment

Comment Policy