Almost Time to Change the Bulb


energy-saving-bulbsBy Bob Tedeschi

You may have heard that the federal government wants to limit your choice of light bulbs, starting in January.

If only.

Thanks to regulations taking effect that month under the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, shopping for light bulbs is fast becoming akin to choosing a spouse: the options are almost endless and your spouse might last longer in the house than you.

All kidding aside, the misconception about limited choice is, specifically, that the new rules outlaw incandescent lights. But they don’t. They just place efficiency standards on incandescents. Starting in January, any bulb that can generate the amount of light produced by a conventional 100-watt bulb, but do so with roughly 30 percent less energy, will be eligible for the market. The new law is gradual – in 2013, the rule will be extended to 75-watt bulbs, followed, in 2014, by 60- and 40-watt bulbs – but the point is that nothing is outlawed if it meets the new mandated efficiencies.

What’s more, the looming rules have triggered rapid advances in a number of lighting technologies. Halogens, a type of incandescent that delivers light the way Edison intended, with a tungsten filament, are now available in the standard bulb shape. Compact fluorescent lights, or C.F.L.’s, have gotten better at delivering good light quickly, and without the buzzing and flickering for which they were known. And some bulbs with light-emitting diodes, or L.E.D.’s, now cast their light in all directions, not just one.

To help consumers, retailers like the Home Depot and Lowe’s are working to simplify shopping, with better merchandising and displays with samples of the forthcoming bulbs. Also, some manufacturers, like Sylvania, Philips and General Electric, are already putting “lighting facts” labels on at least a few bulbs, even though new labeling requirements do not take effect until January.

But the changes are still complicated. For instance, instead of categorizing bulbs in terms of watts, a measure of power, shoppers will speak of lumens, a measure of the light that bulbs cast. To ease this change, bulbs will be described in yet a third way, “watt equivalents.” A 60-watt equivalent bulb, for example, will emit as much light as the old 60-watt incandescent. And although the new law does not apply to fluorescent tube lights, three-way bulbs and other specialty lights, manufacturers are extending law-inspired changes to these exempt products, too.

Bottom line: If you go shopping without a good idea of what you want, you’ll leave the store with a headache and a fervent desire to never think about bulbs again.

I barely escaped that fate recently, during a massive bulb tryout for the roughly 40 sockets in my house. I gathered bulbs from three leading manufacturers – Philips, General Electric and Sylvania – as well as from niche lighting companies like Cree, TCP and others, to assess the latest technologies.

I sought shopping advice from three experts: Konstantinos Papamichael, a director of the California Lighting Technology Center at the University of California, Davis; Russell Leslie, a founder of the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, N.Y.; and Craig A. Bernecker, the director of the Lighting Education Institute, in Philadelphia.

Their advice: In the short term, you can continue to light your home with incandescents. But in the long run, they say, if you study the various lighting technologies, you can save money and time – and, perhaps, see every part of your home in its best light.

For most people, who are accustomed to a simpler light-bulb market, that’s asking a lot.

“Consumers generally bring habit, rather than intelligence, to their light-bulb purchases,” Mr. Leslie said. “It’s really problematic.”

Now, bulb buyers think primarily about the amount of light they need from a bulb, he explained, with the quality of the light and its suitability for the colors in a room as secondary considerations, if that. Still fewer people consider the different ways that bulbs distribute light. If you choose to wade into the waters of energy-efficient bulbs, however, these factors quickly come into play.

Don’t be daunted, Mr. Papamichael said. “Experiment with different light versions, and do it slowly.”

I followed his advice carefully. Except for the “slowly” part. Which I now regret. I gave myself 10 days, and a two-part mission. First, test the roughly 30 bulbs I had assembled in a few sockets in my house, and study their effects. Second, proceed to various rooms and see what looks good where – because what works in the kitchen might not work in the living room.

First up, halogens.

Because these bulbs are a type of incandescent, they share traditional incandescents’ qualities. They throw light in all directions (“omnidirectional” in the new light-bulb vocabulary), which makes them good for filling a lampshade or a chandelier. Also, their filament’s firelike glow produces light waves on the warmer end of the color spectrum – orange, red, yellow. Such light is a good match for similarly warm-colored rooms, but a weak one for rooms done in blues or grays.

I tried out three 100-watt equivalent halogens: the Philips EcoVantage, Sylvania SuperSaver and G.E. Halogen. Although halogens share traditional incandescents’ warm-light quality, when I tested these bulbs in a dining room fixture along with a conventional incandescent, their light appeared slightly whiter than the light from the latter.

The G.E. halogen was clear glass; the other two were frosted for a softer effect. It made a difference. In contrast to a traditional incandescent, the lighting element inside the G.E. halogen had a thick strip of glass that cast distracting shadowy stripes on the fixture. But the frosted glass on the other two halogens diffused the light in a way not noticeably different from the standard incandescent.

Compact fluorescents are also omnidirectional, and while in the past their light often threw a sickly pall on people, manufacturers are redesigning the bulbs with warmer tones. They can occasionally take a while to fully illuminate, though, and few of them work smoothly with dimmers.

I tested a bunch of compact fluorescents, both big brands and smaller ones. I noticed no substantial differences in color quality, and all the ones labeled “soft white” had the warmer tones of the new C.F.L.’s.

But there were many nuances. The EcoSmart Soft White R20 Flood – EcoSmart is the Home Depot brand – was dimmable, unlike most other C.F.L.’s I tried. And the G.E. Energy Smart 60-watt equivalent bulb needed a minute to reach full brightness, in contrast to most of my other test C.F.L.’s. But G.E. has recently introduced a Bright From the Start Energy Smart bulb, a hybrid that uses a halogen element to emit light instantly while the fluorescent portion warms up. When I installed that bulb above the kitchen sink, it lighted up right away.

The third major bulb type is the L.E.D. If the C.F.L. is the girl you never considered dating in school, but who now looks pretty darned good, the L.E.D. is the trophy wife: really expensive, nice to look at, not much of a track record.

At least not yet.

The basic L.E.D. contains silicon chips that throw light in one direction (“unidirectional,” in the new lingo). Because they are computerized, they can be programmed to produce any kind of light, at least in very expensive custom installations. And because they require fins or notches to keep the chips cool, they can look like lava lamps and other shapes that Thomas Edison never imagined. (Some are also as heavy as rocks.)

But even basic nonprogrammable L.E.D.’s are costly – $20 to $50 for the most common types. L.E.D.’s with dimmers cost even more.


However, manufacturers quickly point out that L.E.D. bulbs have a very long life – 25,000 hours compared with, say, 6,600 hours for an equivalent C.F.L. You won’t have to change L.E.D.’s for 20 years.

The quality of L.E.D. light, even the “soft white” types, is noticeably cooler than that of halogens or C.F.L.’s. And because most L.E.D.’s are unidirectional, they work well for recessed lights or lamps that spotlight artwork. But this single-focus nature is a problem for standard shaded lamps. The packaging of Sylvania’s Ultra A-Line L.E.D. suggests that it’s suitable for a shaded lamp, but when I tried it in a lamp in my living room, the top half was lit, while the bottom saw little light.

However, Sylvania will release an omnidirectional L.E.D. this winter, and two manufacturers are now making them. When I tried them – G.E.’s Energy Smart L.E.D. and the Philips AmbientLED – they lighted up both the top and bottom of my lamp. The Philips bulb was softer than G.E.’s – so much so that I now have two of them gracing my living room.

Not before they earned my wife’s blessing, naturally.

Next came my second mission, roaming our home and selecting the best bulbs for specific rooms.

As I did this, I silently repeated to myself: “That’s not brown.”

My wife, Karen, recently asked me what I thought of one of her outfits, and I told her it was nice, because it was a brown top and a brown skirt.

“You’re not serious,” she said.

I was. She stepped closer and informed me that her skirt was black.

I suspect that my wife can see colors far better than I, so I accede to her chromatic judgment. Even if I don’t love her choices, I can get used to just about any color. I grew up in a dining room that looked as if it were painted with Pepto-Bismol.

Like other light-bulb matters, color will soon become more complex. But with any luck, the new rules may help even someone like me see color more clearly.

For today’s shoppers, the light emitted by conventional bulbs is limited to two hues: soft white and whatever color that light is that radiates from a clear incandescent bulb.

But manufacturers and regulators want you to understand the fine distinctions of light quality, so they have adopted something called the “correlated color temperature” index. Oddly, this measure goes in the opposite direction of how you might think. The warmer, or more yellow, the light, the lower the color temperature, and the cooler, or more bluish, the light, the higher the temperature.

Color temperature is measured in kelvins – at 5,000 kelvins the light has more blue, and at 3,000 kelvins it has more yellow – but don’t worry about them. That’s because the soon-to-be-required label will feature a color spectrum pinpointing a particular bulb’s light quality.

Some manufacturers may also choose to include another color-related measure, the “color rendering index.” This index shows how accurately the bulb displays the color of the objects it illuminates. Anything higher than 80 is adequate, but be sure to check that number. Also, to further enhance the rendering of color, be sure to match a bulb’s color temperature to the tones of your room. A traditional incandescent has a color-rendering score of 100, Mr. Leslie said, but because it has a low color temperature it renders warmer colors better than colder ones.

With these concepts in mind, and repeating my mantra about the color brown, I headed to my living room, which has yellow paint, hardwood floors and a brown couch (yes, I’m sure it is brown). I tried G.E.’s Energy Smart L.E.D. and the Philips AmbientLED. The funny thing was that although the color temperature of the G.E. bulb was 3,000 kelvins, it was far cooler than the Philips L.E.D., which was rated at an only slightly warmer 2,700 kelvins. The lesson: labels are helpful but not a foolproof substitute for testing the bulb on site. Seeing is believing.

Given the warmer tone of the living room, I thought the warmer tone of the Philips bulb worked well. The yellowish light didn’t war with the furnishings.

My wife agreed.

I tried L.E.D. lights in the dining room chandelier, but without a lampshade to warm the light they were much too cold. Meanwhile, not all of the compact fluorescents worked with the fixture’s dimmer, so I settled on 100-watt equivalent bulbs from Sylvania and Philips.

My wife agreed.

We also agreed to replace an ugly “twister” compact fluorescent in our entryway with a G.E. Energy Smart compact fluorescent that resembles a traditional bulb. It was slow to illuminate, but looked better than the one that was there before.

On to Karen’s desk. I thought Home Depot’s three-way EcoSmart Soft White C.F.L. worked nicely in her desktop lamp.

She did not agree.

The EcoSmart omnidirectional L.E.D. better matched her steel-and-glass desk, she thought, and also offered sharper light for reading.

We didn’t need to agree on the big bulbs that are used in recessed lights, since we are among the few households without such fixtures. So I took a few to a friend’s home, including a dimmable Philips AmbientLED and a dimmable Philips EnergySaver compact fluorescent.

My friend and I both liked the color of the C.F.L, until we tried an EcoSmart L.E.D., which gave off a warm, well-dispersed light. The prospect of not having to climb a ladder to replace that long-life bulb was the clincher.

It’s like finding a trophy wife you can grow old with.

The Choices, Room by Room

DIFFERENT rooms present different lighting challenges. Here are room-by-room guidelines, and the Pragmatist’s own recommendations.

BATHROOM Diffuse lighting works best, and that is a strength of globe-shaped compact fluorescents and of halogens (if you want to bear the higher running cost of the latter). Either way, choose the intensity of light that matches your workplace setting, since that is how others will see you.

For the vanity, I chose the EcoSmart G25, a 40-watt equivalent, globe-type C.F.L. in soft white ($10 for two). It’s a good match for bathrooms with warmer color schemes, and the twister shape is mostly hidden by the cover.

KITCHEN Food preparation requires direct light on specific areas, so consider L.E.D.’s for those recessed kitchen fixtures. L.E.D.’s are costly, but focus light better than C.F.L.’s and halogens. L.E.D.’s also produce cool light, which nicely enhances blues and grays. If the kitchen has warm tones, consider a C.F.L. or a halogen.

For over the sink, we picked a G.E. Bright From the Start Energy Smart C.F.L., a 75-watt equivalent in soft white ($10). It costs less than an L.E.D. and features a halogen component that lights up immediately while the fluorescent component kicks in. We don’t have recessed ceiling fixtures, but after tests at our neighbor’s, my choice is the EcoSmart 75-watt equivalent dimmable L.E.D., which gave a soft, diffuse light ($30) and, given the long life of L.E.D.’s, will require fewer trips up the ladder to change bulbs.

BEDROOM On night tables, try compact fluorescents of different brightness levels to see what works for you. Some research suggests you may sleep better without the blue light waves of C.F.L.’s or L.E.D.’s. If that’s a concern, try halogens, which cast warmer light but cost more to operate.

The Sylvania Living Spaces 60-watt equivalent C.F.L. ($12.50 for two) emits soft light good enough for reading. If our sleep is affected, we will experiment with halogens.

DINING ROOM For the dimmable lights in many dining rooms, halogens work best. Some compact fluorescents work with dimmers, but for now they are a hit-or-miss proposition, and filling a multibulb chandelier with L.E.D.’s is costly.

Two 100-watt equivalent, soft-white halogens – the Sylvania SuperSaver ($7 for four) and the Philips EcoVantage ($3 for two) – were equally good, with warm, well-dispersed light. Both are dimmable.

LIVING ROOM C.F.L.’s, with their diffuse light, work well and economically in table lamps and torchiers. For overhead lights, or for illuminating artwork, consider the more focused beam of L.E.D.’s.

In one living room, the new Philips AmbientLED 75-watt equivalent ($40) and 60-watt equivalent ($20) furnished great reading light that was softened by warm-toned lampshades. In a lamp in our other living room, which has a warmer color scheme, a three-way EcoSmart soft-white C.F.L. (50/100/150-watt equivalent) ($10) worked nicely.

Easing Into The Light

TIPS for buying bulbs in the complex world to be ushered in by the new lighting law.

TAKE IT SLOW Don’t shop all at once for every socket in the house. Lighting technology, particularly for L.E.D.’s, is improving rapidly, and prices are dropping steadily, so it makes more sense to replace bulbs as needed.

STUDY UP There are more types of bulbs, and more yardsticks by which to compare them. (Halogens emit light in all directions, for instance, while most L.E.D.’s are unidirectional.) Before you shop, consult sources like, and, which offers a video tutorial on the new law.

BRANDS COUNT There is wide disparity in bulb quality. “For a lot of offshore manufacturers, the performance is uncertain,” said Craig A. Bernecker, director of Philadelphia’s Lighting Education Institute. He suggests sticking with well-known brands and bulbs that carry the Energy Star designation, which means they meet standards for energy efficiency and overall quality.

READ THE LABEL The Federal Trade Commission mandates that most household bulbs carry a label specifying basic characteristics, like the “correlated color temperature,” a measure that can spell the difference between a room looking vibrant or washed out. Be sure to consult it.

EXPERIMENT Even with a smart shopping strategy, some trial and error is required to find the best bulb for a given room or fixture. Be flexible.

CONSULT OTHERS Learn the needs and preferences of other family members. It’s a matter of biology as much as diplomacy. “Fifty-year-olds need twice as much light to read something as well as a 20-year-old,” Mr. Bernecker said. “It’s a sad story.”

{NY Times/ Newscenter}


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