Choosing the Best Energy-Saving Lightbulbs

A room-by-room guide to choosing CFLs and LEDs

Published: August 2013
Lightbulbs being tested in a Consumer Reports lab.

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They’ve had a good long run, 134 years, but come January most screw-in incandescent lightbulbs will have been phased out because they use too much energy. There’s no need to hoard bulbs. Our tests found that new LEDs and CFLs are light-years ahead of earlier versions.

Standard 60- and 40-watt bulbs are the last to be phased out, though remaining stock can be sold; 75-watt bulbs faded away in 2012 and 100-watt bulbs this year. Their replacement equivalents, compact fluorescent lightbulbs and light-emitting diode bulbs, are bright, use 75 to 80 percent less energy, and can save you $60 to $125 dollars per bulb in energy costs over their life, compared with a traditional 60-watt incandescent. Because homes have about 50 lightbulbs, the savings can be significant.

But so is the investment. LEDs are expensive, up to $60 a bulb for some floodlights in our lightbulb Ratings. Even at that price, an LED can save you about $170 over its lifetime compared with a similar incandescent. Increased competition is helping to lower prices. Manufacturers told us that more $10 LEDs are coming next year, and there are already several bulbs in our Ratings for $20 or less.

Starting at $1.25 per bulb, CFLs are a budget-friendly choice. They’re almost as energy efficient as LEDs but take at least 30 seconds to reach full brightness, don’t last as long, and most aren’t dimmable. Halogen bulbs, a type of incandescent, remain an option but will cost you more than twice as much to power as LEDs and CFLs and don’t last anywhere near as long.

LED technology is evolving rapidly. The Philips L Prize Winner A19 LED, $44, would have been our top 60-watt equivalent but was discontinued shortly after we completed our 3,000 hours of testing, though you may find it in stores and online. The new Cree 60-watt equivalent, $13, instantly provided a bright, warm light in our initial tests. We’ll add it to the Ratings when testing is done.

Such changes have made buying a bulb more challenging. Use our expert advice, plus tips we’ve received from other lighting pros, to find the right bulb for every room, and save money and energy.


Task lighting is tricky in the bathroom. Cool light is often recommended, but it can distort colors when applying makeup. So you may have to choose one characteristic over the other or consider halogen bulbs here. Decorative incandescents, such as some globe lights, aren’t part of the phase-out. Remember that lights over the sink can cast unpleasant shadows on your face; lights on either side of the mirror or medicine cabinet are better. Recessed lights designed for wet areas are fine over the shower.

Shopping tip. Excessive heat can shorten the life of LEDs and CFLs, so check our lightbulb Ratings for bulbs that can be used in fully enclosed fixtures. On/off cycling, common in bathrooms, will shorten a CFL’s life.

Bulbs to consider. The Ikea Ledare, $14, and EcoSmart 6-inch downlight, $25, have the best color accuracy of all the LEDs we’ve tested, though the Ikea is best for ceiling fixtures or fixtures where the bulb is facing downward because it casts most of its light from the top of the bulb. The EcoSmart can be used in wet areas.


Relaxation and romance are key. Dimmers and warm lighting can help, so look for bulbs in the 2700 to 2900 Kelvin (K) range. You’ll see this noted in our Ratings and on the bulb package. Consider cooler lighting, which has a higher Kelvin number, for reading lamps or fixtures. Position those higher than the bed to minimize shadows. Skip CFLs in lamps in children’s rooms, where rough-housing is more likely to lead to broken bulbs. CFLs release small amounts of mercury when they break.

Shopping tip. Reduce noticeable differences in the light color in a room by choosing CFLs or LEDs within a 200-degree Kelvin range of other bulbs in the room. Incandescents usually are 2700 to 2900K. When you’re replacing a few bulbs at a time in fixtures that are side-by-side, such as a row of floodlights, the new bulbs should have the same K number as the bulbs that are already installed.

Bulbs to consider. For lamps and enclosed fixtures the Feit Electric CFL, $2.50, casts a warm light and replaces a 60-watt bulb. The Samsung LED, $30, does too and can be used in a lamp or open shade.

Family or living room

Getting the lighting right in these rooms can be complicated because there are so many activities going on. Standard ceiling fixtures and recessed or track lights provide general lighting. Table and floor lamps deliver task and accent light. If your recessed lights or track heads are adjustable, they also can be used to accent art or concentrate light in a specific area. Aim accent and task lights away from shiny surfaces, such as TV screens and glass-framed artwork, to prevent reflected glare. Remember, most CFLs aren’t dimmable, though halogen bulbs and many LEDs are.

Shopping tip. For the biggest savings, replace the most frequently used bulbs first. Buy just one or two bulbs to try them out. If you like the light, buy more. If you turn that fixture on and off a lot, use an LED. On/off cycling will shorten the life of a CFL.

Bulbs to consider. The Samsung A19 LED, $30, and Great Value 14W CFL, $1.25, sold at Walmart, replace 60-watt bulbs in lamps and ceiling fixtures with open shades. The CFL can also be used in an enclosed fixture. If you prefer brighter light, use the Philips A21 17W LED, $31, in lamps and open shades instead of a 75-watt bulb. The Utilitech CFL, $2.50, sold at Lowe's replaces a 100-watt bulb for lamps and enclosed fixtures. The GE LED, $37, is a narrow-beamed floodlight for recessed or track lights. The Feit Electric LED, $18, has a wider beam.

Hallways and staircases

Instant light is essential, so LEDs are the better choice for general lighting. LEDs are also great for hard-to-reach fixtures, often found in hallways and staircases, because they last for years and years. If you have fully enclosed fixtures, look in the ratings for LEDs that can be used in them; many LEDs can’t because high temperatures can shorten their life. CFLs are fine for accent lighting, say, in sconces. Dark shades absorb light, so consider brighter bulbs.

Shopping tip. Buy just one or two bulbs to try them out. If you like the light, then buy more. Energy Star qualified bulbs meet stringent standards that are independently verified and are often required to get utility rebates.

Bulbs to consider. Among 60-watt equivalents, the Utilitech LED, $20, sold at Lowe's, is claimed to last about 23 years, enough time to put away your ladder for a while. It’s suited for ceiling fixtures with open shades and lamps.

Kitchen and dining room

A centrally placed ceiling fixture or recessed lights usually provide general lighting here, supplemented by under cabinet lighting for tasks. A fixture or two over the island and the table boost general lighting, and dimming lets you switch moods and move from homework to dining. If you have recessed lighting, the color of the can’s interior, which surrounds the bulb, affects light output and light color. A shiny metal reflector casts the most light but increases glare. A black interior reduces glare but absorbs light, so you might need a brighter bulb.

Shopping tip. Some CFLs and LEDs are bigger or heavier than incandescents. Bring your old bulb with you when you shop to prevent getting a bulb that's too large.

Bulbs to consider. In addition to the living room choices, consider the EcoSmart LED, $25, for 6-inch recessed lights.


Safety, security, and ambience are important, but you’ll also need to consider climate. CFLs take longer to brighten the colder it gets and may not work in frigid temperatures. Check the packaging. On the other hand, cold temperatures don’t affect LEDs. Use floodlights or spotlights on the eaves or on the ground to illuminate dark areas for added security. Bulbs in the 2700 to 3000 Kelvin range emit a warm light that’s flattering to warm-colored exteriors, and cooler light 3500K or higher complements grays and can appear brighter.

Shopping tip. Save energy with a motion sensor or a photocell that turns lights on at dusk and off at dawn. The lightbulb Ratings show which bulbs work with those features.

Bulbs to consider. The Samsung PAR38 LED spotlight, $55, replaces a 75-watt bulb. The Utilitech Soft White Par38 CFL floodlight, $7.50, is as bright but is very slow to fully brighten.

Lightbulb buying guide

CFLs and LEDs that make Consumer Reports' list of recommended lightbulbs offer impressive performance after 3,000 hours of testing—that’s almost 3 years of the bulbs being on for 3 hours a day. Compared with incandescent bulbs, CFLs use about 75 less energy; LEDs, 80 percent less. Both last much longer than incandescents. Most of our top picks are Energy Star qualified, but check the Energy Star website for updates. (The Energy Star designation matters if you’re looking for utility rebates.) Use the information here when you're buying bulbs.

CFL bulb


  • Use about 75 percent less energy than a standard incandescent.
  • Claimed life ranges from 7 to 14 years at 3 hours per day.
  • Brighten slowly, especially outdoors in cold temperatures.
  • Most are okay but not great at accurately showing the colors of objects.
  • Frequent on/off cycles shorten a CFL's life.
  • Most don’t work with dimmers, photocells, timers, and motion sensors.
  • Mercury is released when a bulb breaks.
  • Recycle to keep mercury out of the environment.
Halogen bulb


  • Use about 25 percent less energy than a standard incandescent.
  • Can be used in any location or fixture.
  • Instant brightness.
  • Dimmable.
  • Accurately show the colors of objects.
  • Usually white light.
  • Short life of a year or two.
LED bulb


  • Use slightly less energy than a CFL.
  • Claimed life ranges from 18 to 46 years at 3 hours per day.
  • Brighten instantly.
  • Many are dimmable.
  • Many work with photocells and timers; some work with motion sensors.
  • Most are OK but not great at accurately showing the colors of objects.
  • Some can’t cast light in all directions.
  • May be bigger or heavier than other types of bulbs.

Higher Kelvin (K) number = cooler light

  • 2700K = warm yellow
  • 3000K = white
  • 3500 to 4100K = bright white
  • 5000 to 6500K = bluer white

Lumens = brightness

  • 450+ = brightness of 40-watt bulb
  • 800+ = 60-watt
  • 1,100+ = 75-watt
  • 1,600+ = 100-watt

Higher Color Rendering Index (CRI) number = truer colors

Ranges from 0 to 100. Choose a CRI of at least 80 for bulbs used inside your home.


Editor's Note:

This article appeared in the October 2013 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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