What if the lightbulb you put in your baby's nursery didn't have to be replaced until Junior is off to college? That's the promise of LED lightbulbs. They're claimed to rival the light quality of incandescents; contain no mercury (as compact fluorescent lightbulbs do); and last up to five times longer than CFLs and 50 times as long as incandescents.
Energy Star-qualified bulbs meet high standards for brightness, color, and energy use, and the mercury content is capped in CFLs. Before you shop look online for rebates from your utility and manufacturers. Check store displays of lit bulbs to get a sense of their light quality. Whatever you choose buy just a few and try them out. And watch the prices of LEDs drop.
Consider the fixture
When replacing a bulb choose a new one that's the same size or smaller to be sure it fits the fixture. Dimmers require dimmable bulbs and lights used outdoors must be designed for exterior use. Our Ratings indicate manufacturer-recommended uses; also check the bulb package for details.
Look at lumens
Select bulbs that provide the desired brightness at the lowest wattage (watts indicate energy use). Brightness is measured in lumens. When buying CFLs and LEDs known as A-type for their bulbous shape--the kind used in lamps and other fixtures--look for at least 450 lumens if you're replacing a 40-watt bulb; 800 lumens or more for a 60-watt bulb; at least 1,100 lumens for a 75-watt bulb; and 1,600 lumens or higher when replacing a 100-watt bulb. For R30 floodlights, look for at least 10 times the watts of the bulb you're replacing, 650 lumens to replace a 65-watt bulb, for example.
Choose a color
Warm lighting is flattering and used in most home applications, so the Kelvin temperature is in the lower end of the range. Standard incandescent bulbs produced a warm yellowish light and had a color temperature of about 2,700 Kelvin (K). If you like that warm color look for CFLs and LEDs with about 2,700K. At 3,000K, the light is whiter and comparable to a halogen's. For a cool, bright white light look for bulbs in the 3,500K to 4,100K. And 5,000K to 6,500K bulbs mimic natural light or daylight.
The Color Rendering Index, or CRI, tells you how accurately colors appear under the bulb's light. The CRI ranges from 0 to 100 with daytime sunlight at 100 and incandescent bulbs right around that. A CRI of at least 80 is generally recommended for interior lights and differences of fewer than five points are insignificant. To compare bulbs look at the CRI of bulbs with the same Kelvin temperature.
Here are the types of energy-saving lightbulbs to consider.
CFLs (compact fluorescent lightbulbs)
They use about 75 percent less energy and last 7 to 10 times longer than the incandescent bulbs they replace. Typically it takes less than a year to recoup the cost of most CFLs. The spirals and covered spirals give off light in all directions, making them a good choice for lamps, and the flood/reflector bulbs are more directional. Several brands offer bulbs with a plastic coating that contains the mercury and any shards if the bulb breaks.
They take time to fully brighten, typically from 19 seconds for spiral bulbs to several minutes or more for flood/reflector bulbs, especially when used outdoors in frigid temperatures. Most aren't dimmable and since frequently turning them on and off affects the life of the bulb they shouldn't be used in certain sockets. CFLs contain mercury and while the amount is small and has decreased substantially, they should be recycled. This prevents mercury from being released into the environment when the bulbs break in the trash or a landfill. If a CFL breaks at home follow the clean-up tips from the Environmental Protection Agency.
Halogens are incandescent bulbs that use about 25 to 30 percent less energy than standard incandescents. Halogen instantly produces light, is fully dimmable, and can be used almost anywhere and with dimmers and other devices. The A-type bulbs cast light in all directions and accurately reveal the color of furnishings.
Some do not last much longer than standard incandescent bulbs yet cost more.
LEDs (light-emitting diode bulbs)
They use slightly less energy than CFLs and manufacturers claim LEDs last 20,000 to 50,000 hours. That's about 18 to 46 years when used three hours a day. LEDs instantly brighten, even in frigid temperatures, and lifespan is not affected by frequently turning them on and off. Some we tested dim as low as incandescent bulbs.
Among A-type bulbs, the type used for lamps and other applications, not all LEDs are good at emitting light in all directions. The shapes may be unusual and the bulbs can be heavier. And LEDs can be expensive although prices have been going down. As prices drop payback time shortens.
Buying LEDs and CFLs is a little more complicated than just grabbing a familiar incandescent off the rack. But labeling requirements should make it easier for you to find more energy-efficient choices. Here are the features to consider.
Dimmers require dimmable bulbs. Most CFLs we tested are not. Some LEDs are and can dim as low as incandescent bulbs. Our Ratings indicate which bulbs are dimmable; you can also find that information on the bulb package. Also note that some bulbs work better with special dimmers designed for CFLs and LEDs.
Not every CFL or LED should be used in every type of light fixture so check the information on the package before buying one for a specific application. For example, not all CFLs and LEDs are intended for use in ceiling fans in which the bulb hangs down. You can, however, use newer bulbs in some vintage fixtures. For example, you can replace a 60-watt incandescent with a 13-to-15 watt CFL.
Lighting Facts label
A Lighting Facts label must appear on the packages of most lightbulbs. It shows brightness, energy use, estimated energy costs, expected life, light color in kelvins, and, for CFLs, a reminder that the bulb contains mercury.
Works in fully enclosed fixture
Some CFLs and LEDs we tested can be used in fully enclosed fixtures, according to the manufacturers. Look for this information on the lightbulb package. It's important to note as heat build-up can be a problem in enclosed fixtures and can shorten the life of CFLs and LEDs. The Ratings state which bulbs can be used in these fixtures, based on manufacturers' recommendations.
Works outdoors (if not exposed to moisture)
Many of the tested CFLs and LEDs work outdoors but cannot get wet, so they need to be protected from direct contact with rain or snow. The Ratings indicate which bulbs can be used in this way.
Works with motion sensor
Known also as vacancy sensors, motion sensors automatically shut off lights after a person leaves a room or, when used outdoors, turn on lights when movement occurs nearby. The bulb and motion sensor must be compatible to work properly. Check with the manufacturer of the motion sensor and read the bulb packaging to be sure.
Works with photocell
Using a bulb that works with a photocell is another way to save energy. The photocell turns off lights when daylight appears and turns them back on when darkness falls. But the photocell may be incompatible with your bulb, and might shorten the bulb's life. Check with the photocell manufacturer and read the bulb packaging for compatibility.
FAQ: New lightbulbs, new choices
The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 required most screw-in lightbulbs to use at least 27 percent less energy by 2014. CFLs, LEDs, and some halogen bulbs, a type of incandescent, meet that requirement. Standard incandescents did not and were phased out starting in 2012.
Why were incandescent bulbs phased out?
They waste energy. Less than 10 percent of the energy used by the bulb produces light; the rest escapes as heat. So it takes a lot of energy to create the incandescent's warm glow. CFLs, LEDs and some halogen bulbs meet the new standard but traditional incandescents do not. To find the right energy-saving bulbs for your sockets, see our Ratings of CFLs, LEDs and halogen bulbs.
Can CFLs and LEDs be used in traditional fixtures?
Not every energy-saving lightbulb should be used in every fixture. In fact, incorrect use of an energy-saving bulb can shorten its life. Before buying a CFL or LED, check the package for proper use. Here are some tips on how to choose the right bulb for the fixtures in your home.
Lamps and ceiling fixtures. Make sure the bulb can be used in a fully enclosed fixture, if that's what you have. Consider covered CFLs if you don't like the spiral look, but those bulbs take longer to fully brighten.
Recessed or track lights. The interior color of the recessed can or track head affects brightness. Shiny metal and white interiors reflect light. Black absorbs some light, so you might want more lumens to compensate.
Outdoor lights.The colder the temperature the longer it will take for CFLs to brighten. LEDs aren't affected by the cold. Bulbs in the 2,700- to 3,000 Kelvin range flatter warm-colored exteriors; bulbs with a kelvin temperature of 3,500 or higher enhance grays and cool colors and can appear brighter.
Do CFLs and LEDs really save money?
Yes. CFLs save money faster. It usually takes less than a year to recoup the cost of most CFLs, according to our calculations, which are based on the bulbs being turned on for three hours a day. Each 60-watt equivalent CFL can save you about $60 over its lifetime. Each 100-watt equivalent can save you $100 or more over its lifetime in electrical costs.
LEDs are more expensive so take longer to start saving money, but because of a longer claimed life, an LED can save you $100 to $400 per bulb over its lifetime.
Can CFLs and LEDs be used in vintage fixtures?
Yes. Light fixtures are designed to handle a bulb that uses a certain wattage. Because a CFL or LED uses far fewer watts than a standard incandescent bulb while providing the same amount of light, you can replace a 60-watt incandescent with a 13- to 15-watt CFL, for example, without worrying about overheating the fixture. LEDs and CFLs last much longer, so you won't need to replace them as often. That's handy if you have to remove a fragile or hard-to-replace cover from your vintage fixture to replace the bulb.
Are there any places where I shouldn't use a CFL?
Because CFLs don't fully brighten instantly, don't use them in staircases or other areas where you need instant brightness. Consider halogen or LED bulbs instead.
How does Consumer Reports test lightbulbs?
Manufacturers of CFLs and LEDs make a lot of promises, from a bulb's brightness and light color, to its lifespan and energy savings. Our lighting lab puts those and other claims to the test, and after thousands of hours of testing, we continually update the results on our website.