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Lightbulbs

Lightbulb buying guide

Last updated: June 2015

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Getting started

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 rival the light quality of incandescents; don't contain mercury (as compact fluorescent lightbulbs do); and are claimed to 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. Energy Star-qualified CFLs come with a warranty of at least 2 years from purchase date, and for LEDs it's 3 years or longer. 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 color and whatever you choose buy just a few and try them out.

Bring your old bulb with you

Sounds goofy, but it's a sure way to know that the LED or CFL fits your fixture since some energy-saving bulbs are bigger or heavier than the incandescents they replace. Replace bulbs that are on the most and use the most energy. Typically they're the main lighting in the kitchen, dining area, and family room. Bring our Ratings too. They'll come in handy as you stare at shelves lined with hundreds of bulbs and can't find sales help that's helpful.

Focus on lumens

They tell you how bright the bulb is and they're stated on the Lighting Facts label on the back of the box of the LED or CFL. When replacing general purpose incandescents, the kind you use in lamps and known as A19 for their bulbous shape, you'll want at least 800 lumens when replacing a 60-watt bulb; 1,100 lumens and up for a 75-watt replacement; and 1,600 or higher for a 100-watt replacement. 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. And if you're wondering about watts, they tell you how much energy a bulb uses.

Check light color

If you like light that's a warm yellow, similar to an incandescent, then you want an LED or CFL that has a color temperature around 2700K (the K is for Kelvin). You'll see "Light Appearance" noted on the Lighting Facts label on the back of the box of the LED or CFL. For white light pick a bulb that's 3000K or so. Bright white light is 3500K to 4100K and bluer white light is 5000K to 6500K. But don't worry, you'll see this spelled out on the Lighting Facts label.

Read the box

You'll need a dimmable LED or CFL if you're using it with a dimmer. Beware that the dimmer you have might not work with your CFLs or LEDs. If that's the case, look at the lightbulb manufacturer's website for a list of compatible dimmers. Also note whether the bulb can be used in an enclosed fixture if that's what you're planning to do. It matters because when heat builds up inside the fixture it can change the performance and light color and even shorten the life of the LED or CFL. Our Ratings tell you which bulbs can be used in enclosed fixtures and outdoors, based on manufacturers' advice.

You may see the Color Rendering Index or CRI noted on the box. It tells you how accurately colors appear under the bulb's light, and ranges from 0 to 100 (incandescent bulbs are around 100). 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 (K) temperature. We test the CRI of lightbulbs so you'll see the scores in our Ratings.

Types

Here are the types of energy-saving lightbulbs to consider.

CFLs (compact fluorescent lightbulbs)

Pros:

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.

Cons:

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.

Halogen bulbs


Pros:

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, named for their bulbous shape and used as general purpose bulbs, cast light in all directions and accurately reveal the color of objects and furnishings.

Cons:

Some do not last much longer than standard incandescent bulbs yet cost more. And some halogen bulbs have a color filter that improves the light color but reduces brightness.

LEDs (light-emitting diode bulbs)

Pros:

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.

Cons:

Among A-type bulbs, the type used for lamps and other applications, not all LEDs are good at casting light in all directions. The shapes may be unusual and the bulbs can be heavier. And LEDs can be expensive although prices keep going down. As prices drop payback time shortens.

Features


Buying LEDs and CFLs is more complicated than just grabbing an incandescent off the shelf, but most incandescents have been phased out and are no longer sold. The Lighting Facts label on the back of the LED or CFL box makes it easier for you to choose. Here are the features to consider.

Dimmable


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. Lightbulb manufacturers recommend compatible dimmers on their websites.

Fixture specifics


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 energy-saving bulbs in some vintage fixtures.

Lighting Facts label


A Lighting Facts label must appear on the packages of most lightbulbs. It indicates brightness, energy use, estimated energy costs, expected life, light color , 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 affect performance and 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, based on manufacturers' advice.

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 the website of the motion sensor manufacturer 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 the photocell manufacturer's website and read the bulb box for compatibility information.

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 LEDs and CFLs.

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 affect performance and 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 brighter bulbs 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 2700 to 3000 Kelvin range flatter warm-colored exteriors; bulbs with a Kelvin temperature of 3500 or higher enhance grays and cool colors and can appear brighter.

Do CFLs and LEDs really save money?

Yes, because they use significantly less energy. 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 and national average electricity rates. A CFL that replaces a 60-watt incandescent can save you about $63 over its claimed life of 9 years. A CFL replacing a 100-watt incandescent can save you around $100 over its life. You'll save even more if you live in an area where electricity is expensive, such as California, Hawaii, New York, or New England.

LEDs are more expensive than CFLs so it will take you longer to earn back the money you spent, but LED prices are dropping. An LED that replaces a 60-watt incandescent can save you about $156 over it's claimed life of nearly 23 years. A BR30 LED, the kind you use in recessed lighting, that replaces a 65-watt incandescent can save you about $180 over its claimed life of 23 years.

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.

For more information, see our lightbulb Ratings and recommendations.

   

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