Pick the Right Bulb

Corny jokes aside, it used to be easy to change a lightbulb. Choose your wattage—40, 60, 75 or (fancy) 3-way, unscrew the old one, throw it in the trash and twist in the new one. Done. Now I have a whole shelf of light bulbs in my closet. Different sizes for different fixtures (ceiling cans, chandeliers, outdoor motion, lamps, etc.), but also different types because of changing technology and energy awareness. There are some of those awful curly CFL bulbs I felt compelled to buy years ago that give off such ugly, institutional light and flicker when you turn them on. I also have good old incandescent bulbs, the standard for decades that you could buy anywhere but use a lot of energy and don’t last very long. Halogen lights are there too, my choice for ceiling cans especially in the kitchen where I appreciate their bright white light (if not their heat). Lastly, center stage on my shelf is an empty box from one precious LED bulb that I spent something close to $20 on. Why I kept an empty box I can’t say other than maybe I thought any friends who happened to open my junk closet would be impressed by my wealth and commitment to the environment. In any case, it’s too much. I just want clear, soft light for my home that’s both kind to the environment and my budget. And while there’s a surprising amount to unpack when it comes to something you don’t think twice about (and don’t really want to think twice about), it can also be dead simple. Here’s a breakdown.

Lumens and Kelvins

This is important—to choose the right kind of light we need to stop thinking about watts and start thinking about lumens and kelvins. Watts are a measure of energy used, lumens are a measure of brightness. If you like a 60W bulb, that’s 800 lumens. A 75W bulb is 1100 lumens and so forth. Equally important is the color of light, so you also need to think about kelvins. A kelvin measures the color of light. Lower kelvins equate to warmer, softer light and higher kelvins translate to brighter, whiter light. You can find 60W/800 lumen bulbs in 2700k (kelvins not thousands) or 5000k and they give off very different light. You may want lower kelvins (softer yellow light) in the living room and higher kelvins (crisp white/blue light) in the kitchen. Fortunately, both lumen count and a “Light Appearance” diagram that reflects kelvin value appears on every box. Pay attention to them.

picking the right light bulb

Types of Bulbs


Incandescent are what we grew up with. Inexpensive, they gave off a soft warm light in various degrees of brightness (40, 60, 75, etc.), but got hot during use, had a delicate filament and glass that broke easily, and were incredibly energy inefficient. So much so that the U.S. Government legislated for production to be phased out by 2014. They’ve been replaced by similarly inexpensive types built around halogen technology, which is similar to incandescent but lasts twice as long and is somewhat more energy-efficient, i.e., a package of 60W halogen bulbs meant to replace old incandescent types uses only 43 watts of electricity instead of 60. Conclusion: Use selectively. The environment and your electricity bill thank you.


Compact Fluorescent Lights (CFL) were developed for home use in the 1980’s. Much more energy-efficient than incandescents, i.e., a 60W equivalent CFL uses 14 watts instead of 60 and is almost as inexpensive, they’re also much longer lasting (over 9 years in some cases). But they give off a harsh, unflattering light and often flicker when turned on. Worst of all, they’re made with small amounts of mercury which is toxic to humans and animals, so they’re considered a hazardous material and must be disposed of as such. Conclusion: Avoid. Mercury is not something you want in your home or accidentally in a landfill.


Halogen technology is similar to incandescent, but they last twice as long and are somewhat more energy-efficient, i.e., a package of 60W halogen bulbs meant to replace old incandescent bulbs uses only 43 watts of electricity instead of 60. Halogen light is brighter and whiter (think car headlights) than incandescent making them a good choice for illuminating work surfaces like countertops or the mirror in the bathroom you use to put makeup on. But these bulbs also emit heat which may be welcome in the winter, but can effect cooling costs in the summer. Conclusion: Use selectively.


This is what you want, according to Mark Settergren of Settergren’s Hardware in Minneapolis who advises many perplexed customers wandering the lightbulb aisle. While Light Emitting Diode (LED) bulbs were crazy expensive when they first came out, the prices have come way down. They use a fraction of the electricity of other types ( 7 or 9 watts vs. 14, 43 or 60) and last anywhere from 13-22 years. The light they provide is similar to halogen but you can buy them in a range of kelvin values (see above).  Although they’re still a bit more expensive than other types of bulbs, LEDs are more cost-effective in the long run. And since they do last for such a long time, you want to make sure and choose the right one. Think about how bright you want the bulb to be (lumens) and what color of light you want (kelvins)  before you buy. Conclusion: The best choice for home lighting from a variety, cost and environmental impact standpoint.

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