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Can’t I Just Get a Light Bulb?

By Tom Tate

Been out to buy a light bulb lately? If you have, you know the range of choices is mind boggling. Gone are the days of simply grabbing the wattage you needed. Now you have lumens, equivalence ratings and a range of technology; compact florescent lamps (CFL), halogen, light emitting diode bulbs (LED) and of course, incandescent. And don’t forget the size of the base/lamp type; A, C, G, PAR, R, just to name a few. Interested in the color of the lamp? Add at least three more choices to the mix; cool, warm and daylight. Who knew we would eventually need a personal shopper just to get a light bulb?

Let’s start from the beginning to understand why it has become so complicated. The US Energy Information Agency estimates that between residential and commercial applications, 17% of all electricity used in the US is for lighting. Back during the early days of the CFL, that figure was closer to 20%. Right away you can see the reason for focusing on more efficient light sources.

The CFL, or pigtail as I like to call it, led the way and made a dent in overall consumption. However, it has some drawbacks, namely; it loses a lot of its output in cold temperatures, it should not be used in closed fixtures, frequent on/off operation reduces its life span and, because it contains mercury, it needs to be disposed of properly. In other words, don’t toss it in the trash.

The LED was the next entrant of significance for homeowners. This option thrives in the cold (but is less effective in higher heat), has a significantly longer life span than the CFL, doesn’t mind being turned on and off frequently and does not have a special disposal requirement – at least not as of this writing. And, it is more efficient than the CFL. Seems like a perfect lamp aside from price.

So what do you use for a particular application? While the lighting aisle has become rather mind boggling, a few tips can help. Most LEDs will offer a lumen rating. Higher is brighter. Most will also offer a wattage equivalence rating. For your reference, the following table is offered.


For your everyday light fixture, a CFL in your preferred color spectrum (I go with daylight) is perfectly fine. That said, when I can buy an LED for a reasonable sum, I am going that direction these days. For anything that requires a ladder to replace, go with the appropriate LED alternative as these should last several years. You know the locations, your outdoor spots (PAR), that chandelier in the two-story entry (A-base). For recessed can lights, a CFL is okay as these lights do not constitute a closed fixture. Even so, it may be worth investing in LEDs to really reduce energy consumption.

The last bit of information to consider is that most CFLs and LEDs do come in a dimmable version. You just need to check the packaging – those that are dimmable say so in bold print on the package.

There, that wasn’t so bad after all, was it? The beauty of the new lighting options is that they really do save you money if you use them the same way you did their incandescent predecessors. Just be sure not to leave them on longer because they use less. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard that and it defeats the whole purpose of the energy efficiency approach. Conserve, reduce and reap the savings!